David Golder, The Ball Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair
By Irène Némirovsky
Translated by Sandra Smith
(Everyman’s Library, 340 pp., $25)
Fire in the Blood
By Irène Némirovsky
Translated by Sandra Smith
(Alfred A. Knopf, 138 pp., $22)
Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works
By Jonathan Weiss
(Stanford University Press, 195 pp., $24.95)
The writer: a Jew who had fled to the French countryside seeking refuge from occupied Paris, eventually deported to Auschwitz, where she would die in a typhus epidemic soon after her arrival. The book: scribbled in minuscule letters, so as to conserve paper and ink, in a leather-bound journal that would be carried into hiding by the writer’s eldest daughter. She would survive the war and keep it as a memento of her mother, once a well-known novelist, daring to read its contents only sixty years later. As we all now know, she discovered it to be a novel, or rather the first two linked novellas of an unfinished project, portraying life in occupied France almost in real time. With a history like this, how could Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise not have been the sleeper hit of the decade?
Suite Francaise, it must be said, is a fine novel. It is charmingly written, its moments of gentle humor are balanced by sharp ironies, its characters are expertly sketched. But had it not been certified by its tumultuous origins, by the harrowing circumstances of its composition, it is hard to imagine that it would have been published in this country at all. (How large is the American market for minor literary classics in translation?) As it happened, there was little chance of readers coming to Suite Francaise without having already heard about the novel’s dramatic recovery. They might have seen the news report in The New York Times upon the publication of Suite Francaise in France in 2004, headlined “Holocaust Victim’s Novel Finds a Readership at Last,” or any of the book’s laudatory reviews in the English and American press, some of which went so far as to link Némirovsky, a French-Russian Jew who had published a number of popular society novels during the 1920s and 1930s, with writers of the Holocaust such as Elie Wiesel and Jerzy Kosinski.
If any reader still managed to pick up Suite Francaise without knowing that the book’s author died at Auschwitz, he or she would have learned it in the second sentence of the jacket copy. And the novel’s handsome editorial apparatus includes Némirovsky’s notes “on the situation in France” and a selection of correspondence, including her husband’s desperate letters to friends on her behalf after her arrest. The implication is clear: Suite Francaise, aside from its literary value, is to be regarded as an authentic, even numinous document miraculously salvaged from the ashes of the great catastrophe, as poignant and as prophetic as the diary of Anne Frank, to which it has been frequently, and nonsensically, compared. In the words of one reporter, the novel is “a classic Holocaust story by an author who would not live to see her work published.”
The truth is, this was spin. Worse, it was a fraud. The fraud could be perpetrated because very few readers in our day know anything about Irène Némirovsky. Though she published more than a dozen novels between 1928 and 1942, only a few were translated into English. Even in France, where Némirovsky was extremely successful—so successful, as Jonathan Weiss reports in his immensely clarifying biography, that her income eventually outpaced that of her husband, a banker—her work was out of print until recently. Certainly very few readers would still remember David Golder, her first novel and, until Suite Francaise, her greatest success.
But success breeds a hunger for more success, and so it was inevitable that, following the windfall of Suite Francaise—the hardcover spent four weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, where the paperback is still holding strong, and both have been top sellers on Amazon as wel—Némirovsky’s publishers would seek to bring more of her work into English. First came Fire in the Blood, another previously undiscovered novel written during the war, but “far less ambitious” than Suite Francaise, as The New York Times charitably put it: a melodramatic murder-mystery-cum-romance set in a peasant village. Now, with the publication of four of Némirovsky’s earliest novels (most are really novellas), American readers will get a far more complete picture of Némirovsky’s work. And that picture is deeply disturbing.
The real irony of the Suite Francaise sensation is not that a great work of literature was waiting unread in a notebook for sixty years before finally being brought to light. It is that this accomplished but unexceptional novel, having acquired the dark frame of Auschwitz, posthumously capped the career of a writer who made her name by trafficking in the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes. As Weiss’s important and prodigiously researched biography makes clear, Némirovsky was the very definition of a self-hating Jew. Does that sound too strong? Well, here is a Jewish writer who owed her success in France entre deux guerres in no small measure to her ability to pander to the forces of reaction, to the fascist right. Némirovsky’s stories of corrupt Jews—some of them even have hooked noses, no less!—appeared in right-wing periodicals and won her the friendship of her editors, many of whom held positions of power in extreme-right political circles. When the racial laws in 1940 and 1941 cut off her ability to publish, she turned to those connections to seek special favors for herself, and even went so far as to write a personal plea to Marshal Pétain. And after her arrest her husband, Michel Epstein, pleaded with the German ambassador for her release, arguing that “it seems ... unjust and illogical to me that the Germans would imprison a woman who, though originally Jewish, has no sympathy, and all her books show this ... for Judaism.” About her books he was correct. But what seems even more unjust and illogical is that such a person should now be lionized as a significant writer of the Holocaust.
The story of the discovery of David Golder, Irène Némirovsky’s first published novel, is nearly as dramatic as the story of Suite Francaise. In one version, the manuscript was delivered to the publisher Bernard Grasset (who counted Proust among his authors) in a blank envelope, with the mysterious return address “Epstein, General Delivery, Paris-Louvre.” When he summoned the writer to his office, Grasset was reportedly stunned to meet the twenty-six- year-old female Russian émigré who presented herself as the book’s author. As she would later explain, Némirovsky had based her fable of a villainous Jewish businessman on the world of her father, a Russian-Jewish banker who lost everything in the revolution.
Born in Kiev in 1903, Némirovsky was raised largely by her French governess. (Like many members of the Eastern European upper class, the family spoke French at home.) Weiss describes her mother as “a beautiful but vain woman who happily spent her husband’s money and enjoyed the company of slick Latin-American men”—a description that applies equally well to the wife of David Golder in her novel. Némirovsky would grow so estranged from her mother as an adult that when her orphaned daughters begged help from their grandmother after the war, she slammed the door in their faces.
Michel Epstein claimed to the German ambassador that his wife’s family had never practiced Judaism, and there is no indication that they did. While the Némirovskys lived in an enclave of wealthy Russians, most of Kiev’s Jews lived in the podol, a poor neighborhood on the banks of the Dnieper. “A group of people with children who rolled in the mud,” Némirovsky described them in her late novel Les Chiens et les loups (The Dogs and the Wolves), “who spoke only Yiddish, who wore tattered shirts and enormous caps on narrow necks with long black forelocks. [The children] were like swarming vermin.” (I cite Jonathan Weiss’s translation of this and other untranslated works.) There were many writers during this period, of course, who portrayed Jews as vermin. The most notable among them was the man who became the author of the Final Solution.
After taking refuge for a year in Finland, the family settled in Paris in 1919, and Némirovsky began publishing her fiction in magazines almost immediately. She seems to have found her style early on. Némirovskywas predominantly a novelist of society, somewhat in the vein of Edith Wharton (another writer not generally known for her philo-Semitism), but with an acerbically satirical tone that negates the possibility of authorial compassion for her characters. From the start, her fiction incorporated the anti-Jewish stereotypes that would become something of a trademark. In an early novella called Le Malentendu, or The Misunderstanding, published in 1926, an aristocrat consults a Jewish co-worker for financial advice: a “typical young Jew, rich, elegant, with a long pointed nose in a narrow, pale face.” And the Jew takes advantage of his colleague financially.
In David Golder, an appalling book by any standard, Némirovsky spins an entire novel from that stereotype. The title character is an oil magnate who has sacrificed his life to his business and has nothing to show for it but money—money that his wife and daughter are constantly bleeding from him. His wife, Gloria, openly cuckolds him while expecting him to support her extravagant lifestyle. (When he enters the room, she hides her checkbook “as if it were a packet of love letters.”) Their eighteen-year-old daughter, Joyce, forces him to gamble until he collapses to win her money for a new car. “It’s just that I have to have everything on earth, otherwise I’d rather die!” she tells him. Golder, for his part, is alternately cruel and pathetic. In the novel’s first scene, he mercilessly refuses to cut his own partner a break on the sale of some oil shares, showing no pity and offering no explanation: “’Business,’ was all he murmured, as if he were naming some terrifying god.”
In the hands of Edith Wharton or Ford Madox Ford, these characters might have acquired some complexity—perhaps a redeeming quality, or just a kind word at some point to someone. But Némirovsky’s portrayals are relentlessly one-sided. The women come off particularly poorly. After the partner’s suicide, Golder overhears his wife, wearing an enormous pearl necklace, negotiating with the undertaker to downgrade the quality of his coffin. Gloria, too, will pursue a bargain at any cost: she haggles with a woman trying to sell a fur coat to help her boyfriend pay off his debts, but while she is waiting for the woman to agree to a better price, the boyfriend kills himself. (Gloria sees herself as the loser here, because now “of course she’ll keep the coat.”) In the novel’s cruelest moment, Gloria mocks Golder for his devotion to Joyce, revealing that she is not really his daughter.
Were it not for the Jewish dimension of this lurid plot, David Golder would be only a semi-tragic tale of money-lust and family cruelty. The racial component transforms it into something uglier. The Jewish caricatures are, frankly, shocking. Fischl, a business associate of Golder’s, is described as a “fat little Jew. He had a comical, vile and slightly sinister air as he stood in the doorway with his red hair, ruddy complexion and bright, knowing eyes behind thin gold spectacles. His stomach stuck out, his legs were short, skinny and misshapen. In his killer’s hands, he calmly held a porcelain bowl of fresh caviar.” Golder’s nose, Gloria muses at one point, is “enormous and hooked, like the nose of an old Jewish money-lender.” During the final oil-company negotiations, which help to bring about Golder’s demise, another man at the table, holding Golder’s hand, “vaguely remembered how he had once held the fractured, bleeding jaw of a dying Irish setter in the same way. Why did this old Jew so often remind him of a sick dog, close to death, who still bares his teeth, growls wildly and gives one last, powerful bite?”
Perhaps the most outrageous is the description of Golder’s friend Soifer, with whom Golder dines in the Marais, “a dirty little Jewish neighborhood”:
Bankrupted by inflation, Soifer had played the money markets and won everything back again. In spite of that, he had retained a mistrust of money, and the way revolutions and wars could transform it overnight into nothing but worthless bits of paper. It was a mistrust that seemed to grow as the years passed, and little by little, Soifer had invested his fortune in jewellery. He kept everything in a safe in London: diamonds, pearls, emeralds—all so beautiful that even Gloria had never owned any that could compare. Despite all this, his meanness bordered on madness. He lived in a sordid little furnished room, in a dingy street near Passy, and would never take taxis, even when a friend offered to pay. “I do not wish,” he would say, “to indulge in luxuries that I can’t afford myself.” Instead, he would wait for the bus in the rain, in winter, for hours at a time, letting them go by one after the other if there was no room left in second class. All his life, he had walked on tiptoe so his shoes would last longer. For several years now, since he had lost all his teeth, he only ate cereal and pureed vegetables to avoid having to buy dentures.
His yellow skin, as dry and transparent as an autumn leaf, gave him a look of pathetic nobility, the same kind of look that old criminals sometimes have. His head was crowned with beautiful tufts of silvery white hair. It was only his gaping, spluttering mouth, buried in the deep ridges of his face, that inspired a feeling of revulsion and fear.
Much later, Soifer would die all alone, like a dog, without a friend, without a single wreath on his grave, buried in the cheapest cemetery in Paris by his family who hated him, and whom he had hated, but to whom he nevertheless left a fortune of some thirty million francs, thus fulfilling till the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.
Though the Golders have tried to assimilate into French society, Némirovsky makes it clear that Jews can never escape their identity. “You’re still the little Jew who sold rags and scrap metal in New York from a sack on your back,” Gloria tells her husband. Recuperating in bed, “wearing an old greatcoat, a woolen scarf around his neck, and a worn-out black hat, he looked strangely like some Jewish secondhand clothes merchant from a village in the Ukraine.” At the novel’s end, Golder returns to the city of his birth, deep in Russia, and finds some emotional satisfaction there. And like Soifer, Golder will fulfill “the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth,” dying far from home with only a stranger at his side, whom he begs with his last breath to make sure Joyce is taken care of.
David Golder appeared in 1929. Would it be too much to say that such a book published in such a year was complicit, as many similar books were complicit, in the moral degradation of culture that became one of the causes of the imminent genocide? It has been painful to watch Némirovsky’s contemporary defenders tying themselves into knots to explain this racist travesty of a novel. In his introduction to the British edition of David Golder, Patrick Marnham sets the context with his first sentence—”Irene Némirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942”—and argues that “Men like Golder existed, and no doubt still exist. They had come a very long way, just how long we discover in the novel’s devastating climax.” He makes the book sound like merely a Continental version of William Dean Howells. And what does it mean to say that David Golder is true to life? To which part of life, exactly—the harshness of the arriviste’s lot, or the Jew’s love of money? “Golder is Jewish because Némirovsky was Jewish,” Marnham writes, persisting in his argument that the book’s ugliness is nothing but realism, “but her choice of an unsympathetic Jewish character did not make Némirovsky an anti-Semite any more than Robert Louis Stevenson was anti-Scottish because he created the diabolical figure of Ebenezer in Kidnapped.” This lets Némirovsky off too easy. For Golder’s Jewishness is not simply one of his many traits; it is his defining trait, the very essence of his being, the root from which his character and his corruption grows. And he is hardly an isolated case: all the novel’s primary characters are Jewish, and all are despicable.
Others have argued that it is wrong to read David Golder out of its historical context, and that such a caricature sounds very different today than it did nearly eighty years ago. I do not understand the point of this defense. If Némirovsky’s crude anti-Semitic stereotypes were banal in their time, and hardly worth protesting, then they are even worse to behold, since they were then just the common currency of a racist culture. And how is a properly contextual reading to account for the fact that, upon its publication, the novel was enthusiastically received by the right-wing press, and excoriated by Jewish critics? Weiss notes that Gringoire, a weekly political and literary journal that became notorious during the 1930s for its harsh anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant editorials, devoted more space to David Golder than any other publication, and “began to take a very active interest in Irène’s career.” From 1933 onward, Gringoire would publish most of her short stories and novels (in serialized form).
During the mid-1930s, the magazine’s main editorial writer, Henri Béraud, was responsible for a defamation campaign against Léon Blum. Gringoire’s literary critic, Jean-Pierre Maxence, was also a virulent anti-Semite. “It is not Céline who creates the abusive intrusions of Jews in the world of high finance,” he wrote, perhaps recalling David Golder, in 1938. “He only points out what already is evident to even the least perspicacious among us, what Jews themselves—and I have friends among them—deplore and disavow.” One of those friends, Weiss suggests, might have been Irène Némirovsky, who was known to socialize with members of the far right. Her circle of acquaintances included Jacques Chardonne, the author of a political tract called L’Amour du prochain (he sent her a copy as a gift) that proclaimed his admiration for Nazi Germany, and also the anti-Semitic novelist Paul Morand, whose wife was friendly with the wife of the German ambassador during the occupation.
It is true that Némirovsky said in 1935 that “if there had been Hitler [at the time], I would have greatly toned down David Golder, and I wouldn’t have written it in the same fashion.” So she knew what she had written. And she reiterated this in 1939: “How could I write such a thing? The climate is quite changed!” Némirovsky’s repudiation of her own novel makes it all the more shocking that anyone is still trying to defend it. Anyway, a thoughtful contemporary observer might have noticed that 1929 was already a rather dangerous time to be fanning the right-wing flames. Weiss notes that even in her own country “Irène seems to have been oblivious to the tumultuous political events surrounding the final two decades of the Third Republic. But behind this apparent indifference lurks a very palpable sympathy for right-wing causes.”
Némirovsky seems always to have been dangerously indifferent to politics. Describing her family’s experiences during the Russian Revolution in an interview in 1930, she said she was “curled up on a couch [and] proud to be reading The Banquet while a fusillade raged outside.” Some of this indifference is visible, too, in David Golder, in which Golder at one point advises Soifer to flee to Germany so as to avoid paying the fee to renew his identity card. To be sure, it is unfair to castigate Némirovsky in retrospect for not having been able to predict the future. But European fascism in 1929 was quite odious and threatening enough, as many brave writers and critics recognized. Indeed, there were some critics who raged at her recklessness. In an interview following David Golder’s publication, a Jewish journalist castigated Némirovsky for her “distasteful” portrait of Jewish society, and argued that a Jewish writer had an obligation “not to give ammunition to those against Jews.” Némirovsky responded that as a Jew she could not be accused of anti-Semitism, and anyway her novel had portrayed familiar figures faithfully: “That is the way I saw them.” Indeed, it was; but she seems not to have wondered whether there was more to Jewish life than what she saw, or whether what she saw was any different from what the racists and the anti-Semites were seeing.
Marnham is correct that a single character—even a single book—does not an anti-Semite make. But here’s the thing: Némirovsky did it over and over again. Her early novella The Ball, published in 1930 and also newly translated by Sandra Smith, depicts Monsieur and Madame Kampf (what a choice of name!), a pair of nouveaux riches trying to hide their previously middle-class identity, and their daughter Antoinette, the primary victim of her mother’s petty cruelties. When her mother forbids her to attend the ball that she is planning, Antoinette throws the invitations in the river. The night of the ball, she stays up to watch her parents’ humiliation as the guests fail to arrive. It is a silly and implausible little tale, soured by Némirovsky’s weird injection of race: Monsieur Kampf is identified as “a dry little Jew with fiery eyes,” who converted to Catholicism when he married Antoinette’s mother. This gratuitous insult seems intended to heighten the reader’s negative impression of the status-conscious, hypocritical Kampfs. “The more the Kampfs try to imitate the French Catholics around them,” writes Weiss, “the more they reveal themselves to be Jewish.”
Némirovsky returned often in her work to her image of the Jew who cannot escape his past. Le Vin de solitude (The Wine of Solitude) is a semi autobiographical novel still untranslated, in which the protagonist, according to Weiss, resembles the daughter in The Ball and her parents recall the Golders. Hélène bemoans her ethnic surname—”Oh to be called Jeanne Fournier, Loulou Massard, or Henriette Durand, a name that is easy to understand, easy to remember!”—and reproaches her father for his materialism and his Jewishness. Among his friends are Boris, a “little Jew who has come from nothing,” and Slivker, “a Jew with jet black eyes, whose arm shakes when he speaks, in a jerky motion, as though he still carried the stack of carpets he must once have sold in outside cafes.” This work appeared in 1935, the year of the Nuremberg laws.
In 1937, Gringoire published Némirovsky’s short story “Fraternite,” which describes a French Jew named Christian Rabinovitch who believes himself to be completely assimilated (again, note the name): “my nose, my mouth, the only Jewish traits I have kept.” While waiting for a train, he meets another man, also named Rabinovitch, “dressed poorly, thin, badly shaved, with dirty hands,” who speaks with a foreign accent. (The child with him, his grandson, has “horn- shaped ears.”) “All the Rabinovitches come from ‘there,’” he tells the Frenchman, “Odessa or Berdichef, like me.” For the first time Némirovsky introduces the old Enlightenment idea that the persecution of the Jews might have something to do with their situation: “Where doesn’t God cast the Jew?” says the second Rabinovitch. “Barely has he earned, by the sweat of his brow, some hard bread, four walls and a roof over his head, than comes a war, a revolution or a pogrom or something else.” But this compassion leads nowhere. In the end Némirovsky persists in her inability to see a Jew as anything other than a repulsive ethnic cliché. The first Rabinovitch denies any resemblance between the two men, but later, he did not know it, but with a slow and strange movement, ensconced in his reverie, he swayed gently in his seat, forward and backward his body finding thus the swaying that had before him rocked generations of rabbis bent over their holy books, money changers over piles of gold, and tailors over their workbenches.
The following year, Nemirovsky earned 64,000 francs, or $23,000, from Gringoire, and Hitler invaded Austria.
After war was declared in September 1939, Némirovsky sent her two young daughters—Denise was ten, Elisabeth only two—to stay with their governess, Cécile Michaud, and her family in Issy-L’Évêque, the small town in Burgundy that Némirovsky would immortalize as Bussy in Suite Francaise. (Two of the novel’s most sympathetic characters are a couple named Michaud, an apparent homage to her friend.) She and her husband joined them there the following year—Storm in June, the opening section of Suite Francaise, was likely inspired by his flight from Paris after the German invasion. Cut off from her friends and her publishers, Némirovsky felt herself in exile, but she kept writing: between May 1940 and her arrest in July 1942, she wrote ten short stories, two novels, and a biography of Chekhov, as well as the first two installments of Suite Francaise. She stayed in the village hotel, across the street from the Michauds, and apparently went out regularly to visit the village priest. (The family had converted to Catholicism a year earlier. Weiss detects some Christian religious feeling in her later novels and suspects that the conversion was heartfelt, but many critics have argued that it was simply an attempt to protect the family.)
By 1940, possibly warned by her right-wing friends, Némirovsky had some inkling of the disaster to come. She hoped that the power of her connections, as well as her position as a popular novelist, would qualify her for special treatment. In September of that year, she wrote a personal letter to Pétain, who had just become head of Vichy France. For obvious—but still unforgivable—reasons, the letter was omitted from the selection of her correspondence that was included in Suite Francaise. In Weiss’s translation, it reads in part:
Monsieur le Maréchal ... Here is the problem: I have learned that your government had decided to take measures against stateless persons. I am greatly distressed by the fate that awaits us. My husband and I were born in Russia, and our parents emigrated during the Revolution. Our two children are French. We have been living in France for twenty years, and we have never left the country. I hardly need to say that I have never concerned myself with politics, and that I have written only literary works. Finally, whether it be in foreign newspapers or on the radio, I have tried my best to make France well-known and well-liked. I cannot believe, Sir, that no distinction is made between the undesirable and the honorable foreigners, those who have done everything possible to deserve the royal welcome France has given them. I ask therefore for your kindness in including me and my family in the latter category of people, so that we can reside freely in France and so that I may continue to exercise my profession as a novelist.
War makes people desperate, of course. Who can blame Némirovsky for trying to save herself and her family? Still, it is hard to suppress a cringe at her language: “I cannot believe, Sir, that no distinction is made between the undesirable and the honorable foreigners.” And more to the point, this language was entirely consistent with the representations in her fiction. In any event, her letter appears not to have been answered, and no exception was made for her. In October 1940, the Vichy government passed a law forbidding Jews to work as editors (though not as writers). In response, the publisher of Candide—another right-wing literary periodical to which she had frequently contributed—canceled his contract with Némirovsky, to her great chagrin. Gringoire continued loyally to publish her work anonymously for another year. (Weiss notes that Némirovsky “seems not to have been aware of the existence of clandestine publishers,” and was simply calling upon her old friends, many of whom had now become collaborators.) Albin Michel, the publisher of her novels, informed her in October 1941 that he could no longer sell her books, but he and his chief editor, André Sabatier, continued to advance Némirovsky money and heroically supported her daughters through the end of the war.
‘My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it rejects me, let us think about it coldly, let us watch it lose its honor and its life.” These now-famous lines from Némirovsky’s journal have become a sort of credo for Suite Francaise, which she conceived as a no-holds-barred fictional record of France’s wartime years. The novel was not just a chronicle; Némirovsky saw it also as a form of revenge. “Have no illusions: this is not for now,” she exhorted herself. “So musn’t hold back, must strike with a vengeance wherever I want.”
In its bitterness, Suite Francaise is very much the work of the author of David Golder and The Ball, now twelve years older and considerably more skilled. She has retained the fine sharpness of her tone while losing the crudeness of her characterizations. There are many exquisite moments in Suite Francaise: the hypocritical generosity of Madame Péricand, her teenage son Hubert’s reckless patriotism, the romance between Jean-Marie Michaud and the peasant girl who nurses him, and other indelible scenes. Némirovsky sought to maintain the strictest fidelity to the events as they occurred: a list of requested items for Storm in June included “the complete collection of several French and foreign newspapers between 1 June and 1 July” and a book on “June birds, their names and songs,” and she worried in her notebook about whether to replace the strawberries in the text with forget-me-nots, noting that “it seems impossible to bring cherry trees in blossom and ripe strawberries together in the same season.” Yet her empirical scrupulousness did not extend to one element of the conflict. As many readers have noticed, there are no Jewish characters in Suite Francaise.
Weiss argues that with “Fraternité,” Némirovsky had begun subtly to moderate her portrait of Jews, a process that she would continue with Les Chiens et les loups, a novel about two Jewish families that was serialized in November 1939 and published as a book early the following year, and thus likely the last thing she wrote before starting Suite Francaise. Gringoire gave the book an anti- Semitic reading (“the torments of the Jewish soul, its perpetual sterile dissatisfaction, this morbid taste for money, are treated masterfully”), but Weiss argues that the novel is actually more subtle: the anti-Semitic discourse, while still pervasive, is gradually revealed to be incoherent, and the primary anti-Semite is presented as ignorant and bigoted. At the novel’s end, its protagonist, expelled from France, winds up in a small Eastern European town, surrounded by other Jewish women suffering the same fate, among whom she gives birth. Weiss reads in this ending Némirovsky’s newfound “solidarity, as a writer, with the destiny of the Jewish people.” He continues: “While this solidarity does not go so far as a public declaration supporting Jews or against the discriminatory measures, from 1939 on, Irène clears from her work any anti-Semitic or racist connotation. She no longer creates any Jewish characters.” From 1939 on!
Perhaps Némirovsky was incapable of creating sympathetic Jewish characters. Perhaps she decided at this point that it was better to say nothing about the Jews at all. But she did create sympathetic German characters. Many readers have been struck by the central romance of Dolce, the second novella of Suite Francaise, which portrays the developing relationship between a young Frenchwoman whose husband is at the front and the elegant, cultured German officer billeted in her house. Gabrielle Annan, writing in The New York Review of Books, commented that “in view of the circumstances under which she wrote, it seems strange, but all the more appealing, that Némirovsky describes all the Germans she writes about as decent and well-behaved.” On closer examination, it is not appealing at all. Something other than literary imagination was at work here. Nemirovsky and her husband apparently became friendly with some of the Germans living in the village. Michel Epstein even kept up a correspondence with one of them, “reminiscing about the good times [they] had had in Issy- L’Évêque.” The soldiers left behind a letter addressed to others who would later occupy the village: “Comrades! We have lived near the Epstein family for a long time and we have known them to be an honest and friendly family. We ask that you treat them accordingly. Heil Hitler!”
The affection was reciprocated. Némirovsky wrote in her diary on June 25, 1941 of “the thunder clap of Russia falling on our friends after their ‘mad night’ on the shores of the pond.” (Like their fictional counterparts in Dolce, the German soldiers—our friends—celebrated their last night in the village with a bacchanal.) She continued: “I am resolving now never to hold rancor, however justified it might be, toward a group of people, whatever their race, religion, conviction, prejudices, errors. I am sorry for those boys.” How belatedly she came to this resolve, and how sad that it was the Nazis who finally inspired her to it, rather than the Jews whom she had been insulting in her work as the tsunami of World War II was rising.
Irène Némirovsky was arrested on July 13, 1942, as part of a general roundup of foreign-born Jews. The previous winter had seen the walls closing in on her: the laws against the Jews grew stricter, and more than 13,000 French Jews were deported to Auschwitz. In February 1942 she was denied permission to travel to Paris, and in June the family was forced to wear the yellow star. “I have written a lot lately,” she wrote in her last letter to Sabatier. “I suppose they will be posthumous works, but at least they make the time pass.” Her arrest came two days later, and she was sent to Auschwitz on July 17. Back in Issy-L’Évêque, her husband pulled all possible strings to secure her release, even arguing in his letter to the German ambassador (an acquaintance of Némirovsky’s friend Paul Morand) that her writing was anti-Semitic. Of course, no exceptions could be made. In an irony that could have come directly from her own fiction, Némirovsky would die alone in an eastern country, far from her family, and leave behind a fortune in manuscripts—”thus fulfilling till the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.”
This article appeared in the January 30, 2008 issue of the magazine.