A new biography further complicates the life and legacy of Irène Némirovsky
Irène Némirovsky with Les Nouvelles littéraires c. 1935.
CREDIT: Copyright Roger-Viollet, courtesy Random House
The rediscovery of the French Jewish novelist Irène Némirovsky has been one of the most ironic literary phenomena of recent years. It began with the publication in 2004, to wide acclaim, of Suite Française—a pair of novellas about the fall of France in 1940 and the subsequent German occupation. These were compelling stories, written within months of the events they describe, and of undoubted historical interest. But their merit alone hardly explained the rapturous reception of Suite Française, which led reviewers to compare Némirovsky variously to Tolstoy, Camus, and Babel. Such enthusiasm had at least as much to do with Némirovsky’s novelty—though well known in France between the wars, she was completely forgotten in the English-speaking world—and with her tragic story.
In July 1942, having written just two of the projected five parts of Suite Française, Némirovsky was deported from the small town of Issy-l’Évêque, where she and her family had taken refuge after the German conquest of Paris. Born in Kiev in 1903, Némirovsky had lived in France since the age of 16 and wrote exclusively in French; but she had never managed to secure French citizenship, leaving her an easy target for the new regime. Within days she was sent in a cattle car to Auschwitz, where she died, apparently of typhus, the following month. Three months later, Némirovsky’s husband, a fellow Russian Jewish immigrant named Michel Epstein, followed her to the death camp, leaving the couple’s two young daughters in the care of a Catholic governess. Thanks to Julie Dumot, Denise and Elisabeth Epstein survived the war and even managed to hold on to the suitcase containing the manuscript of their mother’s last work. Sixty years later, Denise decided to type out the manuscript and then have it published—thus sparking an international Némirovsky renaissance and making her mother more famous than she had ever been during her lifetime.
Such a terrible and moving story could hardly help coloring readers’ reactions to Suite Française, and Némirovsky was instantly adopted into the pantheon of Holocaust writers. Because she was both precocious and prolific—her first novel appeared when she was 23, and over the next 15 years she published dozens of novels, novellas, and short stories—there was a great deal of unknown material for publishers to reissue. But as more and more of Némirovsky’s work began to appear in English, some critics noticed a disturbing fact: This victim of the Holocaust trafficked in the most blatant anti-Semitic stereotypes. Notably, David Golder—Némirovsky’s most popular novel during her lifetime, which came out in an Everyman’s Library translation in 2008—is the story of a greedy and crooked Jewish financier, his rapacious wife and daughter, and his loathsome associates, who are all described using anti-Semitic clichés. (Golder’s nose, to take just one example, is “enormous and hooked, like the nose of an old Jewish money-lender.”) In a devastating essay in The New Republic, titled “Scandale Française,” Ruth Franklin argued that Némirovsky “was the very definition of a self-hating Jew”—a writer who ingratiated herself with a xenophobic French audience by defaming her fellow Jews.
Franklin’s essay provoked heated defenses of Némirovsky by her translators and admiring critics. At the time, no full-length biography of Némirovsky was available in English, to help readers decide the merits of the case. But now, at last, we have an English translation of The Life of Irène Némirovsky, by Olivier Philipponat and Patrick Lienhardt, which first appeared in France in 2007. This book is seriously disappointing in several ways: It is badly written and clumsily translated (by Euan Cameron), vulgar in its judgments and literary analyses, parochial on French matters, and tone-deaf on Jewish ones. There is still room, and need, for a good biography of Némirovsky, one that would fill in her Jewish and French background more clearly, delve more deeply into her social milieu, and have more intelligent things to say about her books. But with all its flaws, The Life of Irène Némirovsky contains enough hard facts to make clear that Franklin was right: The charge of Jewish self-hatred should not be made lightly, but it fits Némirovsky all too well.
Philipponat and Lienhardt make clear, however, that it was not herself that Némirovsky despised so much as her parents, and especially her mother. Leonid Némirovsky, a self-made businessman and banker, earned enough money to keep his wife Anna in the style to which she was accustomed; but Anna, in her daughter’s account, was a cold and vain woman, unfaithful to her husband and completely uninterested in young Irina, whom she saw only as a reminder of her real age. The Némirovskys, like many cultured Russians, were ardent Francophiles who visited Nice or Biarritz every year, and Irina learned to speak and write French better than Russian. After the Russian Revolution turned bankers into enemies of the people, Leonid and his family fled the Soviet Union for Finland, where they stayed briefly before settling in their beloved France.
From then on, they would be known as Leon, Fanny, and Irène, and all three would assimilate eagerly to the country they had always considered their real homeland. As a teenager, Irène took classes at the Sorbonne but devoted most of her energy to the dissipations of the Roaring Twenties—drinking, dancing to jazz music, scandalous love affairs. Her first published writing, in fact, was a comic dialogue between two flappers, Nonoche and Louloute, which appeared in a quasi-pornographic men’s magazine called Fantasio in 1921. She continued to publish in magazines, sometimes under pseudonyms, throughout the decade, while working on a vaguely autobiographical novel: the story of a Russian-Jewish businessman, his cruel wife, and his promiscuous daughter, clearly based on the Némirovskys themselves. Along the way, she married Michel, the son of another Russian-Jewish banker—a sign that, for all her love of France, her actual social milieu remained largely restricted to Jewish immigrants.
When she completed David Golder, in 1929, Némirovsky sent it to the influential publisher Bernard Grasset, just weeks before she was due to give birth to her first child. The legend goes that the publisher was bowled over by the work of this unknown, who had signed her letter simply “Epstein,” and wrote back the very next day to make an offer. But Némirovsky, who had used a post-office box to conceal the whole business from her family, was confined to bed and never got Grasset’s letters. Weeks went by as the publisher grew increasingly desperate, even taking out ads in the newspapers in search of the elusive Monsieur Epstein. When Némirovsky finally showed up at Grasset’s office, he was shocked to find that the author of this racy, sordid novel was actually a delicate young mother.
The whole story sounds too good to be true, and it may well have been cooked up Grasset’s skilled publicity department. Whatever really happened, there is no doubt that David Golder was a hit, selling 60,000 copies—more than any of Némirovsky’s other books—and making her famous overnight. The hatefulness of the Jewish characters did not go unnoticed, especially by Jewish critics, one of whom denounced Golder as “a Jew for anti-Semites.” Némirovsky denied any anti-Semitic intention but did not object to the insinuation that she was revealing the secret truth about Jews: “If I have been able to reflect the Jewish soul, it is—you may have guessed—because I am Jewish myself.”
Thanks to the success of David Golder, Némirovsky was a sought-after and well-paid novelist for the rest of the decade. Philipponat and Lienhardt assume a greater familiarity with Némirovsky’s work than American readers are likely to possess, since much of it has not yet been translated. But they make clear that Némirovsky worked at a feverish pace to support her family’s lavish lifestyle (strangely, the translator never gives dollar equivalents for the sums of francs that are constantly mentioned). And it is equally clear that the themes of David Golder were reprised in story after story. Némirovsky was genuinely fascinated by the subject of Jews—she wrote in her diary that she hoped to write an epic novel about the Jews, with characters based on Trotsky and the infamous French con man Stavisky.
But this fascination expressed itself in crude ideas about the Jews’ violent, all-conquering will, and she returned again and again to the same Jewish stereotypes. The Wine of Solitude was a novel about “a little Jew, eaten away by a kind of long and muddled ambition.” In the story “Fraternity,” an assimilated French Jew named Christian Rabinovitch meets a new immigrant with the same last name and realizes that both suffer from the condition of Jewishness: “Centuries of poverty, illness, oppression. … Thousands of poor, weak, tired bones have made me what I am.”
Philipponat and Lienhardt offer various half-hearted explanations as to why such works are not really anti-Semitic and why it was not shameful for Némirovsky to publish in viciously bigoted, nationalistic magazines like Gringoire. In 1938, contemplating a story about Stavisky, Némirovsky wrote in her notebook: “I should vow to myself to do a Stav, and not to give a damn about the effect it would have on the condition of the Jews, in general etc. After all, the Jews, I like them as guinea pigs, so!”
Philipponat and Lienhardt even try harder than Némirovsky did herself to argue that her conversion to Catholicism, in 1939, was a heartfelt spiritual act, rather than a last-ditch attempt to secure some protection against the stigma of Jewishness. “Nor did the majority of converts have the feeling that they had spat upon the Book,” they explain, “since the Church was the daughter of Israel.” This being the case, the authors go so far as to write that “in receiving unction Irène Némirovsky was displaying a Jewish awareness”—a sentiment that is not the less offensive because it is intended as an exculpation of their subject.
Of course, Némirovsky’s feelings about Jews or her own Jewishness had no bearing on her fate, which was sealed as soon as the Germans occupied France. As a non-naturalized Eastern European Jew, she was exactly the kind of person the new regime demonized: She was legally forbidden to publish, travel, or even use the telephone. Yet if Némirovsky had had a better sense of her real situation as a Jew in France, there were steps she could have taken. She could have fled to the southern, unoccupied zone—Issy-l’Évêque was not far from the border. She could even, as her daughter later observed, have tried to go to Switzerland, or to get a visa for America, as some other stateless Jews managed to do.
Instead, Némirovsky continued to operate on the same principle that had governed her life and her work: that she was not one of those Jews, that her love for France would surely win her some consideration from the French. She and her husband tried to work their high-placed contacts, asking for favors and special exemptions. “I hope that this state of affairs will not last and that our influential friends will succeed in setting us free,” Némirovsky wrote in June 1942, the month before she was deported. The nadir of this effort came after Némirovsky had been arrested, when Michel Epstein composed a letter to the German ambassador in Paris, pleading: “In none of her books (which moreover have not been banned by the occupying authorities), will you find a single word against Germany and, even though my wife is of Jewish descent, she does not speak of the Jews with any affection.”
Anything can be forgiven a husband pleading for his wife’s life. But how can a Jewish reader ignore the deep dishonor implied by such a letter—a letter that suggests that Némirovsky has written so hatefully about Jews that the Nazis should not consider her a Jew herself? Only by remembering the kind of world Némirovsky had to live in—a world saturated with Jew-hatred, where self-betrayal could appear to a Jew as emancipation—can we fairly judge this tragic writer, who has been reclaimed from oblivion by the very people she spent her life disowning.