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Élisabeth Gille’s Devastating Account of her Mother, Irène Némirovsky

I have never before come upon a book at once as loving and as devastating as The Mirador by Élisabeth Gille, the daughter of Irène Némirovsky. Némirovsky, it will be remembered, is the popular French-Jewish society novelist of the interwar era who came to attention in the United States and elsewhere after the discovery of Suite Française, her unfinished epic about the war years in France. Published more than sixty years after her death at Auschwitz, Suite Française—scribbled in minuscule letters in a journal that Némirovsky’s elder daughter had taken with her into hiding—earned Némirovsky critical accolades as a forgotten writer of the Holocaust and comparisons to Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank. But some of the earlier novels that were unearthed and republished in the wake of her great posthumous success revealed a less sympathetic Némirovsky—particularly David Golder, her first novel, published to a great sensation when she was only twenty-six. The novel depicts a villainous Jewish businessman, alternately cruel and pathetic, who is bled of his fortune by his rapacious, unfaithful wife and his materialistic daughter. It is written in language steeped in anti-Semitic caricature, referring at one point to Golder’s nose as “enormous and hooked” and repeatedly comparing Jewish characters to old, sick dogs.

David Golder, as I argued here a few years ago, would have been an appalling work by any novelist, but it was particularly appalling coming from a Jewish writer such as Némirovsky. In interviews conducted at the time, she seemed willfully oblivious to the damage that such a depiction of Jews could wreak in 1929. “That is the way I saw them,” she told a Jewish journalist who castigated her for her “distasteful” portrait of French-Jewish society and argued that a Jewish writer ought “not to give ammunition” to anti-Semites. By the mid-1930s, she was starting to regret her previous attitude, saying that if Hitler had already been in power, she would have “greatly toned down David Golder.” But as late as 1937, her short story “Fraternité” persisted in depicting Jews in clichéd, anti-Semitic language, and she continued to publish in collaborationist newspapers as long as they would have her—until the year before her deportation to Auschwitz in 1942.

The Mirador, which seeks to explore Némirovsky’s errors even if it cannot entirely excuse them, is an affecting and beautifully written book. The subtitle is “Dreamed Memories of Irène Némirovsky by Her Daughter,” but the book is written in the voice of Némirovsky herself, as a kind of ventriloquized autobiography—the autobiography that Némirovsky might have written. Gille was herself an editor and translator; after The Mirador, first published in 1992 and now appearing in English for the first time from New York Review Books (translated by Marina Harss), she went on to write several other acclaimed books before her early death from cancer in 1996. In the afterword to the new edition, René de Ceccatty speculates that she could not embark upon her own career until she had paid appropriate tribute to the mother she barely knew.

Because Gille was only five years old when her mother died and no written documentation survives from Némirovsky’s early years, much of the story here seems to be not “memories” or even “dreams,” but fiction. Gille admits as much in her acknowledgments, in which she writes that “This book was imagined on the basis of other books”—not just her mother’s, but works by many other writers, particularly Konstantin Georgiyevich Paustovsky and Sholem Asch. So we must think of the Némirovsky who appears in The Mirador as a fictional character.

Yet this is no life of a saint. It is, rather, a daughter’s fearless reckoning with a mother whose actions must have been deeply difficult to come to terms with. Gille imagines her mother with remarkable honesty, within the constraints of what is known about Némirovsky from her writings. The first part of The Mirador, in which the Némirovsky figure reminisces about her childhood, places her as a young mother in Paris in 1929, on the brink of her great success. She writes of her years growing up in Kiev with her father, a successful businessman, and her mother, a society lady whom her daughter grew to despise for her infidelity and frivolity, and who seems to have bequeathed her own revulsion at the “louse-ridden Jews of the Podol,” Kiev’s Jewish district, to her daughter. Despite her contempt for her mother—who hated visiting her parents in Odessa, she says, because their house, comfortable though it was, was located at the edge of the ghetto—Némirovsky does not question her mother’s feelings toward Jews. The Hebrew script of the ancient books in her grandparents’ library “inspired in me a kind of dark terror.” The servants’ stories about ritual murder “seemed no more unlikely than the fairy tales in which cruel witches pushed children into ovens and cooked them.” Even as an adult in Paris, when she sees the “immigrants dressed in rags, these pious Jews with sidecurls” in the Marais, she feels the same disgust. It is not at all difficult to imagine these thoughts coming from the mind that created David Golder, and it is to Gille’s great credit that she did not seek to sanitize her mother’s attitudes, which must have caused her a great deal of pain.

The Némirovsky character’s fantasy of an assimilated, apolitical France is of a piece with her lack of sympathy for her fellow Jews. “We are fortunate to live in France,” she says, “where, since the Revolution, Jews have been allowed, when they desired it, to assimilate with ease. My husband feels no more Jewish than I do,” though they were married in a synagogue, she explains, to please his father. “We feel the obligation to show at all times that we are French before we are Jewish,” she continues. “And what does Jewish mean to us, beyond an obscure filiation which will soon be lost in the mists of time? We are surprised by the anxiety felt by some of our friends ever since people began to talk incessantly about the National Socialist movement in Germany, which is truly anti-Semitic; to us it all seems very exaggerated.”

They were not surprised for long. In the second part of The Mirador, set in June 1942, Némirovsky, feverishly at work on Suite Française, is wracked with fear about the future and consumed with guilt about the past. “I feel no nostalgia for this ‘frivolous, sparkling young woman,’ too caught up in her pleasures to realize what was happening around her,” she says. But the “blindness” that she is willing to forgive in her adolescent self now seems “criminal in the happy and contented adult—with access to multiple sources of information—I was in 1929 and remained until my arrival here,” the country village where the family has sought refuge. “Hadn’t I read the newspapers?” She berates herself for her lack of political awareness, for her association with collaborationist magazines such as Gringoire, for her friendships with writers and editors who have now turned against the Jews.

But she regrets above all having written David Golder. “I have moments of dizziness, when I am plagued with guilt for having written this book, and I ask myself whether by denouncing this detested milieu—my own—I furthered the arguments of the anti-Semites,” she says. “I wonder how I could have acted with such suicidal thoughtlessness and irresponsibility.” Gille has her mother questioning even lines from her diary in 1941, in which she expressed sympathy for the German soldiers occupying the village. (This sympathy suffuses the “Dolce” chapter of Suite Française, which describes a love affair between a young woman whose husband is at the front and the elegant, cultured German billeted in her house.)

All this goes quite a bit further than the real Némirovsky did, at least in those writings of hers that have so far come to light. Though it is appealing to imagine that Némirovsky in hiding might have come to regret her “suicidal thoughtlessness,” there is no evidence for it. (In the years since Suite Française appeared, another minor, thoroughly apolitical novel written by Némirovsky in hiding has been published, as well as a long and hagiographical biography that nonetheless does not dispute her anti-Semitic attitudes.) But this final imagined reckoning is only all the more devastating in its confirmation of the poison of Némirovsky’s previous work—a poison that some of her present day defenders have tried to minimize or explain away as appropriate to the novel’s historical context. I would love to know what they think of the self-flagellating Némirovsky who appears in The Mirador.

Gille has Némirovsky admit that the character of David Golder’s wife was based on her own mother, and that she took pleasure in her mother’s discomfort and embarrassment in seeing her bad behavior on display. In The Mirador, Gille herself, more lovingly and subtly, performs just as piercing an act of maternal vivisection.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ruth_franklin.