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Was Irène Némirovsky an Anti-Semite?

New bio defends ‘Suite Française’ author

Marc Tracy
April 26, 2010
Némirovsky and cat.(New York Times)

Némirovsky and cat.(New York Times)

Irène Némirovsky was shipped off to Auschwitz before she could complete her magnum opus, Suite Française. But the Ukrainian-French-Jewish novelist has remained in the news, thanks to the blockbuster reception that book received when it was first published in English a few years ago, and thanks also to controversy surrounding her attitudes toward her own people.

In a 2006 essay for (Tablet Magazine’s precursor), novelist Paul La Farge marshaled the evidence that this woman who was murdered for being a Jew was perhaps something of an anti-Semite. During her life, her institutional supporters and personal admirers were invariably right-wing. A previous biography detailed her apparent distaste for poor, unassimilated Jewry. Suite Française is “curiously apolitical” for a novel about the occupation of France. And an early novel, David Golder,

abounds in caricatures that it would not be unfair to call anti-Semitic: Golder’s associate Simon has the “heavy, drowsy eyes of an Oriental” and teeth “paved with gold, [which] sparkled strangely in the shadows.” Simon’s wife has a “thin face with a large hard nose in the shape of a beak … her round bright eyes shone intensely beneath pale eyebrows, placed in a strange way, unevenly, very high up.” And so on.

But the French authors of a new biography flat-out reject the line that Némirovsky was an anti-Semite. Instead, reports the New York Times, they trace her apparent distaste for her co-religionists to her acute loathing of her (eminently loathe-able) mother.

That seems fair enough. Less fair is the Times‘s comparison of David Golder to another “book that also earned its author the label of a ‘self-hating Jew’”: Philip Roth’s 1959 Goodbye, Columbus. I haven’t read David Golder, but this seems tenuous: Roth’s lovely story collection has a Yiddish proverb as its epigraph and depicts postwar American Jews’ self-constructed shtetls with as much affection as unease; meanwhile, David Golder reportedly features “a greedy and crude Jewish banker with a long hooked nose and a grasping wife.”

For her part, Némirovsky denied being an anti-Semite. Describing David Golder in 1935—merely six years after it was published, but an epoch away—she said, “It is absolutely certain that had there been Hitler, I would have greatly softened David Golder, and I would not have written it in the same way. And yet,” she added, “I would have been wrong, it would have been a weakness unworthy of a real writer!”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.