BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 28, 2008
Ruth Franklin’s recent tirade accusing Irène Némirovsky of being a “self-hating Jew” leaves those familiar with her works and life breathless with outrage. Ms. Franklin’s “analysis” is based largely on Jonathan Weiss’ flawed biography--a book no one published when he first wrote it in the late 1990s and which has only seen the light of day following the success of Suite Française--rather than on the actual works. It is obvious to any serious student of literature that neither Franklin nor Weiss have fully grasped the nuances of Némirovsky’s works, nor her courage in criticising, from within, the negative aspects of her culture. More to the point, Némirovsky was keenly interested in the question of how immigrants are treated : the mistrust, stereotyping and shunning of foreigners--especially Jews--and the lengths to which such poor souls had to go to be accepted in the French society of the time. Let us examine some facts.
“They say I’m anti-Semitic ? It’s absurd ! I’m a Jew myself and I’ll say it to anyone who will listen!” This was Irène Némirovsky’s reply to Nina Gourfinkel, her Jewish interviewer from La Nouvelle Revue juive, in 1930. How much clearer could Némirovsky be? Even Gourfinkel had to admit : “Irène Némirovsky is not anti-Semitic, of course.”
You can’t understand anything about Némirovsky if you don’t keep in mind that she was Jewish, at least according to Sartre’s definition: “Someone whom others consider a Jew.” True, she had received no Jewish education, she didn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew and she wasn’t observant. In this respect, her baptism in 1939 cannot be regarded as a repudiation of her faith. Nevertheless, because she loved her husband and his parents--who were religious--she was married in synagogue.
Némirovsky was, however, obsessed with both immigration and xenophobia, which are the subjects of some her later novels: Les Échelles du Levant (1939), Les Chiens et les Loups (1940). This is why you find Jewish characters or foreigners in those works whose faces reflect the stigma of racism. Rabinovitch, in Nemirovsky’s Fraternité , is also “someone whom others consider a Jew.” His “Jewish features” simply mirror the image reflected by French society of the time. But very few French novels from this period show this so strongly: She had the courage to portray things as they were, and they were ugly, indeed. And risky--because she portrays them as they were seen by others. But how naïve to think that the narrator and the writer are one and the same person! She was a novelist, and only a novelist!
What about her (few) caricatures of Jews with crooked noses? You find the very same ones in Bashevis Singer, Sholem Aleikhem, Shalom Asch, and even André Schwarz-Bart’s Le Dernier des Justes, a story of the eternal persecution of the Jews, that received the Goncourt Prize in 1959. This is not political commentary: it is a literary cliché, sometimes awkward, sometimes ignoble, sometimes useful. Némirovsky loved using free indirect speech, “a technique that helped me many times” (1942). This was a technique that required subtlety. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a genuine anti-Semitic writer, preferred to use “I.” Némirovsky never did, for obvious reasons.
At one point, Weiss points out the figure of the “young Jew, rich, elegant, with a long pointed nose in a narrow, pale face,” and this description can’t be denied; but everyone can see that this depiction is far more naïve than cruel. Besides, one must keep in mind that Némirovsky was only 21 when she wrote this line, and was still treated by her mother as a young girl. The cold view that Irène Némirovsky takes towards her Jewish characters is based on her mother’s views--denying her roots, haunted by the ghetto, more French than Russian, more urbane than Jewish. This is the source of the omnipresent revelatory mirrors in her daughter’s work, and the “hot bloodedness” which always betrays the inner nature of Némirovsky’s characters. What might look like denial, at first glance, is just the visible part of the conflict in her soul--a conflict between the love she bore her father and the hate she felt for her mother. It took no less than five novels to exorcise this stifling complex, firstly under a pseudonym (The Enemy, 1928; The Ball, 1929) then under her own name (David Golder, 1930 ; The Wine of Solitude, 1934 ; Jezebel, 1936). And throughout her whole life and in all her works, there is not a trace of ideological engagement of any nature whatsoever.
She was 23 when she wrote the first manuscript of David Golder (something Weiss didn’t address). It is obvious, when you read it, that she wanted to depict the very world in which she was born, a world of bankers, money-makers and nouveaux riches. Oh, yes, they were Jewish: Némirovsky corrected this in her “French novels” (written in the mid 1930’s): Le Pion sur l’échiquier and La Proie, which deal with the same themes of ambition and corruption, without any tenderness, and only in French Catholic circles. In those novels, only the social satire remains; Némirovsky avoided any possibility of misunderstanding. As for David Golder, the plot is quite similar to Stefan Zweig’s Destruction d’un cœur (1928), concluding with the same moral: the hatred of money and a return to the spiritual roots of Judaism. Never forget that the 20’s and 30’s were years of intense speculation, and that David Golder was published in the same year as Black Tuesday!
There are more facts: Némirovsky mixed in right-wing political circles? Wrong. Only in literary circles. Moreover, one of her novels, a short story and at least one review of a Pushkin’s biography (1936) were published in Marianne, a left-wing weekly magazine. And in 1931, David Golder was even serialized in Le Peuple, the magazine of the communist syndicate CGT! Why? Not because of her opinions, but because she gradually began to need money. Her father had died in 1932 and left her no inheritance. When she began to publish in Gringoire, in 1933, it was undoubtedly a right-wing magazine, but she was not the editor! It was only after 1936 that Gringoire became regularly anti-Semitic; but Némirovsky’s stories never were.
Némirovsky knew Jacques Chardonne? Wrong. She admired the novelist (just like the Socialist President Mitterrand) and his book L’Amour du prochain (1932), which is by no means a “political tract!” It is true that Chardonne “proclaimed his admiration for Nazi Germany”: but it was in 1940, and by then Némirovsky had no more to do with him.
There are no Jewish characters in Suite Française? Wrong. Langelet has a “scornful smile” for those Jews who fled from France to Portugal or South America: a few minutes later, Némirovsky throws him under a car!
The biography by Weiss is “prodigiously researched?” Wrong again. He couldn’t find any of her earliest published texts, texts that show her early gifts as a satirist; he asserted that her grand-father was living as a wealthy banker in Kiev, but the man had died long before, and her father was an orphan at ten. He couldn’t find proof that she got married in synagogue; and how could he explain her baptism, not having unearthed her letters to the Archibishop who baptised her in 1939, in which she says: “I’m not a good recruit for the Church.” He never consulted the prodigious archives of Grasset and Albin Michel publishing houses in Paris, where he could have found Némirovsky’s sketches for Captivity, the third part of Suite Française. In it, she states perfectly clearly her hatred of the “community spirit”--political or religious--instead preferring individualism.
The political regime Némirovsky preferred was the liberal English model. Here we find the deeper meaning of the romance between Lucile and Bruno: Némirovsky’s hatred of ideology based on race. France was the only community or society she ever attempted to enter, but though she attempted naturalization from 1935 to 1940, she never succeeded. Michel Epstein’s letter to German soldiers only shows that he was a prudent man! He also preferred to deal with German soldiers (the Wehrmacht, who were not necessarily Nazis: what a grotesque inaccuracy!) instead of dealing with the French administration. That’s why, in March 1942, Némirovsky wrote of the French in her journal: “Hatred + despise.” The destiny of both Némirovsky and her husband proves they were both correct in their assessment. It is moreover absurd to think that she could have published in “clandestine newspapers!” Her husband had been fired from his bank in 1940, and she needed to earn money. And how could she have established a link with those newspapers in the first place?
Némirovsky refused to be forced to sympathize with anyone. Some Jews are villains in her novels, but some French politicians are too; so are some Russians who supported the pogroms, as in her very first book, L’Enfant génial, and in her last one before the war, Les Chiens et les Loups. Némirovsky wanted to remain free from any constraints. No doubt this was dangerous--and she is still paying for it.
Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt are the authors of the new biography of Irène Némirovsky published in France in September 2007 by Grasset and Denoël, and forthcoming in the US from Knopf.
By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt