As the translator of Irène Némirovsky’s works into English, I took great offense at Ruth Franklin’s recent diatribe against this fine author. As someone who has literally read every word of the works to which Ms. Franklin refers, I simply cannot believe that she can draw the conclusions she does. Clearly, there is a hidden agenda here.
It is true that since the publication of Suite Française, many of Irène Némirovsky’s fine works are being reprinted and translated. Along with this high profile came the inevitable accusations: Why did a Russian Jewish immigrant in France portray Jews so true to “stereotype”? Why did her entire family convert to Catholicism?
The question of the family’s conversion to Catholicism is one that has been asked many times of Denise Epstein, Irène Némirovsky’s only surviving daughter. Her reply is always the same: It was September, 1939. No reason other than that was ever needed. They believed that converting would protect the family. Sadly, they were wrong. The laws against the Jews of 1940 clearly stated that Jewish descent went back two generations.
However, Denise remains adamant that while living a secular lifestyle--essential for even the most basic integration into French society in the 1930s--her family felt Jewish and were proud of their heritage. Denise never recalls “practicing” Catholicism as a family. However, when they lived in Issy l’Eveque and were required to wear the Yellow Star, they did so--and went to Church every Sunday: an amazingly courageous act that set the choice squarely in the hands of the townspeople: Will you denounce us or will you protect us?
In Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky clearly describes this choice:
Lucile remembered something Lieutenant von Falk had told her in confidence: “The very first day we arrived,”’ he’d said, “there was a package of anonymous letters waiting for us at Headquarters. People were accusing each other of spreading English and Gaulliste propaganda, of hoarding supplies, of being spies. If we’d taken them all seriously, everyone in the region would be in prison! I had the whole lot thrown on to the fire. People’s lives aren’t worth much, and defeat arouses the worst in men. In Germany, it was exactly the same.”
Were Irène and her husband denounced? Denise believes so, but no one will ever know for certain.
Némirovsky’s portrayal of the Jews in her writings displays the same acute powers of observation that she applies to all her characters. In David Golder, the novel that shot her to fame in 1929 at the age of 26, Némirovsky introduces her main protagonist and his friend Soifer as fitting the stereotype of the time. Soifer is wealthy but mean: He never takes a taxi, hoards money and jewellery and gets his friend to pay for meals. Yet beyond the stereotype lies a yearning for the past, for their roots, for a release from the pressure of society to conform to the stereotype in order to be accepted:
He half closed his eyes. Now, as night began to fall, the clatter of a handcart with its groaning and creaking drowned out the sound of the cars on the Rue Vieille-du-Temple, and darkness half cloaked the tops of the houses, he felt as if he had been transported back in time to the old country, was seeing once again those familiar faces, but deformed, distorted, as in a dream…
“Oy” he said suddenly, in his inimitable tone of voice, plaintive and ironic at the same time, “Oy, Lord God! ... You don’t think that they’re happier than we are? ...
“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, 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.”
In Le Bal, written in 1930, Némirovsky presents Alfred Kampf, a German Jewish immigrant who makes a fortune on the Stock Exchange. (Ms. Franklin takes great exception to the choice of name, but does she realize that ‘Kampf’ actually means “struggle” in German.) Once wealthy, he marries Rosine, a woman with a dubious moral background, and converts to Catholicism for her. She, like Gloria in David Golder, is obsessed with being accepted into the upper classes, with material possessions, status, and especially with making her own family jealous. They have shunned her for marrying a Jew. She decides to give a ball and is desperate for it to be a success. But have the Kampfs really been accepted into Parisian high society? One of their potential guests includes a woman who used to be seen “in a brothel in Marseille”:
[Y]es, yes, I can assure you… But that was a long time ago, nearly twenty years; her marriage completely transformed her, she now receives very classy people, and she’s extremely particular when it comes to her friends… As a general rule, all women with a past get like that…”
“My God,” sighed Madame Kampf, “it’s so difficult…”
“We must be methodical, my dear. … For the first party, anyone and everyone, as many of the beasts you can stand… It’s only after the second or third one we can be selective. … This time, we have to invite everyone in sight…”
In Les Chiens et les Loups, published in 1940, Irène Némirovsky presents a graphic description of the pogroms in Russia she and her family witnessed and were forced to flee to escape. We meet two branches of a Jewish family, one poor and living in the Ghetto, the other wealthy and living in a mansion. The rich relations will have nothing to do with their cousins, and it is only when they all immigrate to Paris that the lives of both sides of the family intertwine. This is Némirovsky at her best, illustrating the lengths to which immigrants were forced to go in order to be assimilated and to escape poverty, renouncing their religion, their heritage, their family just to survive.
And here we have the true crux of Némirovsky’s dilemma: anti-Semitism in France during the 1930s was so rife that Jewish immigrants were immediately stereotyped and rejected. The only way to be accepted was to assimilate, and the only way to assimilate was to be wealthy. How ironic that the Jewish immigrants of that time were forced to conform to their stereotype as ruthless, gold-digging businessmen in order to earn enough money to escape that very stereotype!
Némirovsky’s excellent novel Le Maitre des Ames portrays this dilemma beautifully. We are never expressly told that its hero, Dario Asfar, is Jewish. Asfar is a doctor who is so poor and desperate that he is forced to perform abortions to support his pregnant wife. It takes many years--and a terrifying journey from innocence to corruption--before he becomes accepted, powerful, even revered by the upper classes, who only afford him such honors once he has become as corrupt as they are.
In their insightful Preface to the Denoël edition (2005), Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt explain how the original title, Les Echelles du Levant (The Ports of the Levantine), symbolized an innate xenophobia amongst the French that reignited and fanned the ancient fires of anti-Semitism. There was no need to explicitly say Asfar was Jewish--Irène Némirovsky knew it would be assumed, and by deliberately NOT stating this, she was forcing her readers to examine and acknowledge their own prejudices.
Accusations that Irène Némirovsky was herself anti-Semitic are not only unfair, but reveal a total lack of understanding of her writing and French society before World War II. At that time, anti-Semitism was inextricably linked with the idea of being foreign--an idea Albert Camus would take up in The Outsider. Camus also lived through the Occupation and wrote poignantly of those terrible times. In The Outsider, the ideal of being true to oneself was subjugated to the idea of conformity--collaboration by another name?--and like Resistance, non-conformity was punishable by death.
Némirovsky is extremely critical of Catholicism in her writing, yet no one has ever accused her of being anti-Catholic. In Le Bal, the Kampfs’ daughter, Antoinette, says her prayers every night before going to bed. But what does she pray for? That her music teacher will die before her next lesson! And in Suite Française, the righteous, pious Mme. Péricand quickly sheds any sense of Christian charity:
Madame Péricand … could see Jacqueline and Bernard on the doorstep of the café. Their hands were full of chocolate and sweets that they were giving out to everyone around them. Madame Péricand leaped towards them.
“Get back inside! What are you doing out here? I forbid you to touch the food. Jacqueline, you will be punished. Bernard, your father will hear about this.” Grabbing the two stunned culprits firmly by the hand, she dragged them away. Christian charity, the compassion of centuries of civilization, fell from her like useless ornaments, revealing her bare, arid soul. She needed to feed and protect her own children. Nothing else mattered any more.
And how ironic that it is the ‘Penitent Childen’ whose charity was founded by the elder Monsieur Péricand--and to which he leaves millions when he dies--are the very ones who kill Mme. Péricand’s beloved son, Philippe.
Another character in Suite Française, the ridiculous Vicomtesse de Montmort, denounces one of the farmers she hates for stealing vegetables from her garden. Although she is always involved in “charitable works,” she is secretly pleased that the German soldiers are in the village to keep the lower classes in their place and “maintain order.”
In the Appendix to Suite Française, some point to the letters Michel Epstein wrote to try to get his wife released from the concentration camp as “proof” of Némirovsky’s own anti-Semitism:
[E]ven though my wife is of Jewish descent, she does not speak of the Jews with any affection whatsoever in her works. My wife’s grandparents, as well as my own, were Jewish; our parents practiced no religion; as for us, we are Catholic and so are our children who were born in Paris and are French.
It is clear from other correspondence that Michel Epstein was being advised what to say in order to free his wife. How heart-rending for this man to have to write such things, knowing full well how untrue they were! How much he must have loved his wife to say anything in order to get her released. He even offered to exchange himself for her, but it was all in vain.
Here are Némirovsky’s own words from her notes to Suite Française:
I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, errors.
Irène Némirovsky was sympathetic to the Jews she portrayed, just as she was to all her characters--even the ones who did not deserve it. What comes through in all her writing is her extraordinary insight into how people think and feel. Her compassion was universal and her style extremely modern for its time. Like Flaubert before her, she hands her readers a mirror to the world. Reflecting what she lived and saw, Némirovsky’s greatness lies in her ability to show us society and to have our responses reveal more about ourselves than anyone else.
Since the discovery and publication of Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky is being hailed as one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century, yet she was never granted French nationality. She died in Auschwitz as a “stateless” person. Her daughter, Denise Epstein, sees this as fitting: “My mother,” she said, “died a citizen of the world.”