The case of Irène Némirovsky
February 6, 2007 3:15 AM   Subscribe

French Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky's claim to fame rests on Suite Française, a novel that she wrote about the German occupation of France while awaiting death in Auschwitz but which was not published until 2004. Irène may also provoke interest because her early fiction was steeped in anti-semitic stereotypes and serialized in right-wing newspapers. [More Inside]
posted by gregb1007 (12 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
While Némirovsky's appeal to readers rests on her martyr status that symbolizes the fate of other European Jews, a new Jonathan Weiss biography argues that Némirovsky cavorted with French right wing xenophobes and catered to their anti-semitic views in her early writing.

Her novels were serialized in the right-wing newspaper Gringoire because their portrayals of Jews as suspect characters and cold and greedy Scrooge-like misers appealed to that newspaper's Jew-hating audience.

Fans of her writing included xenophobe literary critic Robert Brasiliach who as a fervent supporter of the Vichy regime published an anti-semitic newspaper during the French occupation and signed death orders for resistance members.
posted by gregb1007 at 3:24 AM on February 6, 2007

Interesting story, thanks.
posted by amyms at 3:33 AM on February 6, 2007

Are you sure Brasillach actually signed death orders?

I was under the impression he called for the execution of communist prisoners, resistence members etc in his newspaper column.
posted by the cuban at 3:51 AM on February 6, 2007

So she's hungry?
posted by emelenjr at 4:39 AM on February 6, 2007

Baby remember her naim.
posted by wobh at 5:58 AM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Has anyone read Suite Française? I read a few pages in the book store and couldn't get into it. It's unclear if it's really good in its own right, or the aura of the author and story behind it (probably some of both).
posted by stbalbach at 6:37 AM on February 6, 2007

I've read it. I thought it was really good for a first draft--I definitely wanted to see what else she'd have brought into it. However, her own story does add to her novel's appeal. The American edition of the book features letters her husband wrote arguing that she'd converted, she hated Jews, etc, using her novels as examples of her beliefs. Still didn't save her.
posted by leesh at 9:37 AM on February 6, 2007

Note: Sorry for the misspelling. The first line should say "claim to fame."
posted by gregb1007 at 9:56 AM on February 6, 2007

Mr la Farge writes of Nemirovsky's discomfort with her identity in this peice which seeks to establish her to be a Jew who disliked Jews.

I was christened in a Protestant church, but never attended Sunday school or church services, and never felt any belief in Christianity. By my own inclination and choice I have no identity as a Christian. If any of my actions or writing seemed disparaging about Christians, would I be displaying discomfort with my identity?

The Nazis insisted on identifying any person as a Jew whose parentage could be established by their standards as Jewish.

Nemirovsky chose to be a Christian, not a Jew. That was her right in a decent society. Is it too much for us today, with all the lessons we have been given, to respect the choice made by this woman?
posted by David Williams at 1:25 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

David, the question isn't about whether she has the right to be a Christian or not... She certainly did have the right to choose to convert to other religions and choose her own faith.

The issue is at hand is the potentially anti-semitic qualities of her writing, which should probably be looked upon with contempt, regardless of whether she identifies herself as a Christian or as a Jew.

There's also something quite nasty and malicious about insulting an ethnic group that you yourself are a member of. Remember that a Jewish identity is not only religious but also ethnic.
posted by gregb1007 at 1:33 PM on February 6, 2007

I just finished reading the novel on the bus this morning, as it happens. I thought it was excellent, though I agree with leesh that in parts its rough-draft-ness comes through. I definitely think its qualities as literature merit a read beyond the personal details of the author and rediscovery/publication.

What's most amazing was the precise tone: that she was able to achieve such serene detachment from the events she was describing, even though she was living through them. She also created some remarkable characters.

Incidentally, she was not of French origins, though she spoke French and lived in France for most of her life. She was born in Ukraine and was raised in Russia, then moved to France at 18. So says wikipedia.
posted by chinston at 1:40 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Now that the spelling is "fixed" my joke is meaningless. Alas.

Anyway, I don't think we should be too hard on poor Irene. Surely many of us, one time or another, wanted desperately to be something, anything, other than what we are. Perhaps she fell in love. When I read these I thought of Pip in Great Expectations, infatuated with a young woman and her station in life. He becomes exquisitely self-conscious of his "flaws" inherent in her perception of him. To make himself closer to her, Pip imitates her contempt for him upon all his family, friends, and neighbors, most of them he has no particularly great love for.

I also wished I could send Bernard Malamud story's "The Jewbird" (summary) back in time to her and hear what she thought of it. Alas.
posted by wobh at 7:58 PM on February 7, 2007

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