Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

We are only interested in the upheavals

The above quote belongs to writer Irène Némirovsky. In its entirety:

"Contrary to what is believed, what is general passes, the whole remains, collective destiny is shorter than the destiny of the simple individual (that's not exactly right. It's a different timescale: we are only interested in the upheavals; the upheavals, either they kill us, or we last longer than them)." (Suite Française, 355)

As we know, the upheavals killed Némirovsky, her husband, and numerous family members; this comes to English readers courtesy of Suite Française, a book translated from the French in 2006. The remarkable story of the manuscript, what it documents, and its singular quality shot it to fame, leading to translations of other works: Fire in the Blood will appear next month, while David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, and The Courilof Affair will be published in January 2008. These novels, with their caricatures of Jews, are certain to cause to a stir.

Amid all the Némirovsky hoopla, Professor Jonathan Weiss has penned a small, brief critical biography. At 173 pages, Irène Némirovksy: her life and works is less an examination of the individual life than of her struggle to reconcile her Jewishness with an acquired French Catholic identity. To this end, Weiss, a Professor of French at Colby College, examined Némirovsky's works carefully, arriving at some forgiving conclusions.

Irène Némirovsky was born to wealthy Russian Jewish parents. Her mother, Fanny, was a beauty interested in jewels and young lovers; when her orphaned granddaughters appeared on her doorstep after the war, she slammed the door in their faces. Léon Némirovsky was a banker. Their only child was raised with governesses, a private education, and seaside vacations. French was spoken in the home; when the Revolution forced them to flee to Paris, Irène was overjoyed, and rapidly threw herself into wealthy French social life, a milieu that largely excluded Jews. The Némirovsky family was not religious; indeed, they shunned their brethren. Despite this, Némirovsky married a Russian Jew, banker Michel Epstein. At age 26, Némirovsky published David Golder, a sensation adapted both to screen and stage. The novel presents a scathing view of Jewish businessmen.

Némirovsky went on to publish numerous novels and short stories in this vein, most, remarkably, appearing in serial form in a variety of politically right publications boasting anti-semitic views. She counted amongst her friends Horace de Carbuccia, Jacques Chardonne, and Paul Morand, powerful writers who openly hated Jews. Her work appeared in their newspapers and anthologies; they paid her handsomely. As a modern-day reader, it is difficult to grasp Némirovsky's thinking: Weiss feels she struggled with her identity as a Jew, her fervent wish to be "French," with its pre-war implications of motherhood, conjugal fidelity, and nationalist feeling, and finally arrived at a sort of acceptance. That is, her earlier works, with their rapacious, hook-nosed characters, give way to broader thinking. All races are capable of greed and generousity, while the very best of us are less interested in acquisition than we are in love.

Nemirovsky never attempted to hide her Jewishness. As the Vichy government made it increasingly impossible to survive, Nemirovksy and her family left Paris for the village of Issey-L'Évêque, where Nemirovsky wrote part of Suite Française, made sketches for the rest of it, and wrote publisher André Sabatier:

"Reading is the only distraction possible. I have written a lot lately. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but at least they make the time pass." (Weiss, 153-4)

Before writing the above quote, Némirovsky and her husband seemed unaware of the gravity of their situation. They were certain their ties to right-wing aristocrats would save them: when Irène was arrested, Michel wrote numerous letters to various French and German officals, including the German ambassador to Paris. Incredibly, these letters survive, and are reprinted in Suite Française, a pathetic collection worsened by our realization that Michel continued pleading for his wife's freedom well after her death in Auschwitz. Evidently it never occurred to either of them that they might attempt hiding or even leaving the country. Instead they applied--in vain--to become French citizens and even converted to Catholicism. From our vantage point, they were shockingly naive. But Weiss takes pains to note that few people realized that the "work camps" were actually death camps and that reports of well-fed inmates who were "treated properly" were propaganda.


Weiss writes "Irène Némirovsky's tragic end has obscured any real criticism of her work, as it has masked any real analysis of her attitude towards Jews." (169) While I cannot help but think Weiss saw a critical publication opportunity in writing about Némirovsky's life and work, his assertions are indisputable and ultimately disappointing. For Suite Française is a deeply moving work, managing to capture the complexity of lives caught up in hideous actions seemingly beyond individual recourse. It is difficult to separate Némirovsky's experience while writing the text from the book itself; nor is it possible to read the book without considering its remarkable survival, unread in a suitcase for decades, lugged about by Némirovsky's daughters, who could not bring themselves to read it for years afterward.

Weiss feels Némirovsky's views changed, that she became more accepting of her Jewishness as a part of herself, and thus moved away from caricature as a topic. This is an appealing conclusion that Weiss argues adeptly, one we would all like to accept. Whether we will be able to hold on to this view after her other books appear in English is another matter. Perhaps, though, it is best to forgive Némirovsky, acting as she was in a an era long past. Yet we are simultaneously well advised to hold her confusion over religion, self, identity, and country in mind. Our current circumstances, after all, while different, are sadly analogous.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française. Translated by Sandra Smith. New York: Knopf. 2006.

Jonathan Weiss: Irène Némirovsky: her life and works. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2007.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have spent the last 3 days researching Nemirovsky for a book club meeting to be held this week. Needless to say, during my research, I came upon the controversy related to interpreting Nemirovsky's attitudes toward Jews and her own Jewishness. Based on all that I have read, I find your analysis to be fair, balanced, and perhaps accurate- since ultimately we will never learn the truth and can only guess based on what little historical and literary record remains.

January 07, 2008 5:49 PM  

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