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The Life of Irène Némirovsky, 1903-1942  (cont.)


by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt



April 25, 2010

Assessing Jewish Identity of Author Killed by Nazis



The first novel of Irène Némirovsky’s that most people read was the last one she wrote. Némirovsky, the Russian Jewish author, died at Auschwitz in 1942 at 39 after completing two parts of a five-part novel titled “Suite Française.” Secreted away in a trunk carried by Némirovsky’s daughters, Denise and Elizabeth, as they escaped from German-occupied France, the manuscript was not published for more than 60 years. It received stunning reviews that simultaneously announced the discovery and loss of an enormous talent.

Némirovsky’s personal story contains plenty of drama, including the desperate, heart-rending attempts by her husband, Michel Epstein, to save her. He too died at Auschwitz. But along with the belated publication came charges from a handful of critics that Némirovsky, killed because she was a Jew, was herself an anti-Semite who courted extreme right-wing friends and wrote ugly caricatured portraits of Jews.

Next month a new biography, “The Life of Irène Némirovsky: Author of Suite Française,” and a collection of her short stories are being published for the first time in English in the United States, giving Americans another opportunity to assess Némirovsky’s life and work.

The biographers, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, who are French and have already received enthusiastic reviews in France and Britain, had access to a trove of untapped letters, journals, archives and personal remembrances that fill in gaps about Némirovsky’s life. They even unearthed an unknown short story and said they believe there is more unpublished work yet to come, including a radio play discovered just weeks ago.

As for the most incendiary charges, they unequivocally reject them. “The one word I refuse to hear is ‘anti-Semitism,’ ” Mr. Philipponnat said, speaking in English by phone from Paris.

What motivated Némirovsky, Mr. Philipponnat and Mr. Lienhardt argue, were deep and complex feelings about her Russian-Jewish bourgeois background, shtetl Jews and, in particular, an overwhelming loathing for her mother, Anna. Vain and snobbish, Anna Némirovsky had numerous affairs and saw her daughter as an albatross, obstructing her seductions and attempts to conceal her real age. “It seems clear that this child had not been wanted,” they write.

More shocking was Denise Némirovsky’s tale, reported in The Sunday Times of London in 2007, that when she and her sister showed up at her grandmother’s door after the war, she refused to open it, shouting “If you’re orphans, go to the orphanage.”

Charges of anti-Semitism first surfaced in 1929 after Némirovsky’s novel “David Golder” was published. Némirovsky, who said she was repeatedly playing out the relationship with her mother in her fiction, based the characters loosely on her family. She was 26 at time — the same age as Philip Roth when he wrote “Goodbye, Columbus,” a book that also earned its author the label of a “self-hating Jew.”

David Golder is a greedy and crude Jewish banker with a long hooked nose and a grasping wife. The novel, tagged as both a “masterpiece” and anti-Semitic, aroused fierce sentiments from people on the left and right, from Jews and non-Jews in France, which Némirovsky, who wrote in French, considered her true spiritual home since settling there in 1919. Némirovsky rejected the accusations. When a reporter from a Zionist newspaper showed up at her home, she said: “I’m accused of anti-Semitism? Come now, that’s absurd! For I’m Jewish myself and say so to anyone prepared to listen!”

But Jewish enemies were making use of her characters, the reporter persisted.

“Nevertheless, that’s the way I saw them,” she replied.

To Mr. Philipponnat and Mr. Lienhardt critics then and now have given the book a myopic reading. Calling it a depiction of a social milieu, they ask, “Had ‘David Golder’ been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff’s daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti-Semitic views?”

In 1935 Némirovsky pointed out how different the political climate was when she wrote the novel. “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,” she said. “And yet I would have been wrong, it would have been a weakness unworthy of a real writer!”

The charges of anti-Semitism that resurfaced in Israel and the United States when “David Golder” was reissued and translated into English, have been polarizing. Jonathan Weiss, the author of a 2005 biography, “Irene Némirovsky: Her Life and Works,” wrote in an e-mail message that because Némirovsky’s critics used quotations from his book, he was inaccurately classified as someone who condemned her attitudes toward Jews, gaining him the enmity of her family. Mr. Weiss, who started his research in the 1990s, did not have access to the cache of personal writings or the family recollections made available to Mr. Philipponnat and Mr. Lienhardt.

The authors, who knew Némirovsky’s work, approached a publisher about writing her biography in 2004, about two months before “Suite Française” first appeared. “When we presented the project, their first reaction was not to publish it because she was totally forgotten,” Mr. Philipponnat said. He and Mr. Lienhardt had previously collaborated on a biography of Roger Stéphane, a founder of the French newspaper L’Observateur. Denise Epstein, Némirovsky’s daughter, liked their treatment of Mr. Stéphane’s Jewishness, Mr. Philipponnat said, and so “decided to give us all the archives as she could and her memories too.”

Némirovsky wrote at least 50 short stories and 15 novels, including “Suite Française.” That book barely mentions Jews. The two parts capture the chaotic escape of French civilians from the German Army in 1940 and present a sympathetic portrait of a billeted German soldier. In the thick of the maelstrom she was describing, Némirovsky wrote, “I’m working on burning lava.”

Some of the 10 stories written between 1934 and 1942 and published in the new collection, “Dimanche and Other Stories,” came from that same molten pit.

In “Monsieur Rose,” written after the invasion, Némirovsky seems to be trying out characters and scenes for the exodus of French civilians depicted in “Suite Française.”

“Fraternité” (“Brotherhood”) will undoubtedly surface in the debate over Némirovsky’s Jewish identity. The protagonist, Christian Rabinovitch, was based on a Jewish journalist, Pierre Loewel, Mr. Philipponnat said, yet there are several autobiographical details as well, like the reference to ancestors in Odessa, the city where Némirovsky’s parents met, and her oft-repeated wish that she had been born in France.

Christian is a prosperous second-generation Frenchman, who notes that his “excessively long and pointed” nose and dry lips seemingly “parched by a thousand-year-old thirst” are “the only specifically Jewish traits I’ve kept.” At a train station he meets a poor, disheveled Jew from Russia with the same last name, possibly a relation from generations back.

After Christian departs from this shtetl doppelgänger, she writes, “Was it possible that he was of the same flesh and blood as that man?”

“Impossible, grotesque! There’s an abyss, a gulf between us!” Christian says, unsuccessfully trying to reassure himself that “he was a rich French bourgeois, pure and simple!”

In hindsight the story, written in 1936 but rejected by her publisher, seems both strangely prescient and unaware.

“Never, never can we settle!” the Jewish Rabinovitch bemoans. As soon as the Jews do, “there’s a war, a revolution, a pogrom or something else and it’s goodbye! ‘Pack your bags, clear off.’ ”

Némirovsky and Epstein, of course, did not clear off after the German invasion — a choice that still angers her daughter Denise. Since 1935 the couple had been trying to gain French citizenship, and in 1939 they converted to Roman Catholicism. Distancing her family from the lower-class Jews of Eastern Europe, Némirovsky considered herself a “respectable” not an “unwanted foreigner,” as she wrote Marshal Pétain, the head of the Vichy government in 1940 — in other words, a “French bourgeois, pure and simple.”

But as Mr. Philipponnat and Mr. Lienhardt write in their final chapter, from the day the gendarmes arrested her, Irène Némirovsky “ceased to be a novelist, a mother, a wife, a Russian, a Frenchwoman: she was just a Jewess.”



April 28, 2010


Irène Némirovsky's fine-weather friends


As the anatomist of smart pre-war French society, she saw men on the make, women on the prowl – and the fear that would lead to her murder

Frederic Raphael


Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt 
Translated by Euan Cameron 
466pp. Chatto and Windus. £25.
978 0 701 18288 5


Nathalie Sarraute’s novel Les Fruits d’or (1963) was a satire, largely in dialogue, about the reception of a novel, greeted as a masterpiece and then shredded to mereness by the literary judiciary. Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française was written in 1941 and 1942; but the manuscript was not discovered, and published, until 2006. Since then, it has gone through a belittling mill similar to that of Sarraute’s fictional fiction. Hailed at first as a posthumous chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, it was talked down into a sort of documentary which did not – as prim critics so often say – “work” as a novel. It works fine, however, as a reminder of how, in May 1940, sauve qui peut became the French order of the day.

Recollected in nothing like tranquillity in the early years of the Occupation, Suite française was composed by an author in increasing danger of deportation to – as her smart erstwhile friends pretended to believe – “work in the East”; in fact, to Auschwitz. While living in suspended animation in rural Issy-l’Évêque, in Saône-et-Loire, Némirovsky had time to recall, with implacable objectivity, the disintegration of Parisian society in flight from the advancing “Boches”. Fearful for her family, she drew with a steady hand a warty profile of the France which had become – in a phrase which Picasso applied to modern art – “a sum of destructions”.

After her arrest in 1942, the sole manuscript copy of Suite française lay, for more than sixty years, in a suitcase in the keeping of her daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, to whom it was given by their father, Michel Epstein, as he too was led away to prison before being dispatched to the gas chambers. His and Némirovsky’s capital crime was that, despite persistent efforts to become naturalized, they were still classed as stateless Jews. If that was the last thing he or she wanted (or considered themselves) to be, it was certainly the last thing they were, despite the family’s recent conversion to Catholicism. Almost all of their social and literary connections were reeds that proved pliant in the increasingly virulent anti-Semitic wind.

In October 1942, Némirovsky’s daughters were able to escape only because a German officer “took from his wallet a photograph of his little girl, who was as blonde as the thirteen-year-old Denise, and said to them: ‘I give you forty-eight hours to get away’”. Némirovsky had managed to send back brave words about her treatment, and the food, in the holding camp at Pithiviers. Michel’s hope was that Irène would return one day to finish (and, no doubt, revise) the contents of the suitcase which carried the initials of his wife’s dead father, Léon. The girls were hidden, until the Liberation, under the care of Julie Dumot, who had been Léon’s secretary. The publisher André Sabatier – the only one of Némirovsky’s fine-weather friends who remained loyal – contrived to keep Julie in (meagre) funds.

During the whole of the war, Némirovsky’s mother, Fanny, was lapped in discreet comfort, thanks to the remnants of her despised husband’s fortune. When the girls sought her help afterwards, she replied that she “had no grandchildren”. She saw them as nothing but evidence of old age, a blight of which motherhood itself had been the first symptom. Fanny died in 1972, at the age of ninety-seven. Denise would recall that she only ever called her grandmother “Madame” and never received so much as a kiss on the forehead from her. Fanny lives on, and on, as Gloria, clamped in the pillory of her only child Irène’s breakthrough novel David Golder.

Its author (self-portrayed, in the same pages, as the amoral playgirl Joyce) was born in the Ukraine, but her first language was French. Both she and Nathalie Sarraute were of Jewish origin, emigrated to France and became important French writers. Sarraute lived out the war in prudent clandestinity and, as old as the century, did not die until 1999. Némirovsky was thirty-nine when she was taken away and murdered. In an interview in 1934, she had quoted an old Ukrainian (Yiddish?) saying, “One ounce of good luck in a man’s life is enough; but without that ounce, he is nothing”. Since she was, at that time, a precocious, bestselling and critically acclaimed novelist, she had reason to observe “I’ve had my ounce” and to believe that it would carry her to secure eminence in her stepmother country.

The applause lavished on the incomplete Suite française (we have only two sections of a planned five) has led to a resurrection of interest in its author. As Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt’s biography proves, Némirovsky was a prolific prodigy in her own lifetime. When La Proie was published in 1938, Jean-Pierre Maxence, in Gringoire (later a savagely pro-Nazi publication in occupied Paris), “rated it a hundred times superior to the ‘overelaborate, artificial, heavy, even lumbering style of La Nausée’”, which the authors describe as “the first philosophical novel by a certain Jean-Paul Sartre”. The archness of the gloss is typical of the obiter dicta with which the authors spruce their diligence.

Anyone who reads La Proie today is likely to second Maxence’s judgement. Its account of political and social mutability between the wars has lost none of its edge. The rise and fall of Jean-Luc Daguergne is that of Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le Noir, transposed to the Third Republic; but less schematic and more trenchantly observed. Némirovsky displays an ability to inhabit male and female sexuality with equal conviction; she illustrates how close desire is to heartlessness, how gratitude spawns treachery and ambition self-destruction. There is often a leaven of comedy. She greatly admired Chekhov (and wrote a biography of him); she also admired Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and Noël Coward’s Cavalcade. “Deep down”, she noted, “acceptance of life is a sense of humour.” The last words were noted in English.

Némirovsky’s father Léon (Leonid) had Khazar origins and the toughness to endure life on his own from the age of ten. He too would be portrayed, with bestselling cruelty (and some sympathy), in David Golder, the novel which enabled twenty-seven-year-old Irène to wake up and find herself famous in 1930. The young Léon wheeled and dealt “from Moscow to the Pacific” (with alcohol the only medicine for his ailing lungs), until he had enough money to marry and head for France, where he prospered until he was brought down, somewhat, in the crash precipitated by Ivar Kreuger in 1932. Le Vin de solitude (1935) contains a dispassionate account of Léon’s financial humiliation and imminent death.

While Irène lampooned her mother’s vanity and social climbing in Le Bal (a novella first published, pseudonymously, in 1929), she never accused her father, however mercenary he could be, of the “resigned mediocrity” which she ascribed, in other places, to the “sagging ghetto Jew”. The world of the shtetl held no charm for the Némirovskys. Yiddishkeit represented everything they wanted to leave behind. Money alone could procure a way out of Russia and into the society about which, even as a girl, Irène had read so much in Stendhal, Maupassant and Balzac.

As The Courilov Affair (1933) shows, Irène’s tense childhood left her with a cruel sense of the glittering fragility of the tsarist regime in which “the Jews” were repeatedly the scapegoats of choice. The name Némirovsky means “one who knows no peace”; it derives from the city of Nemirov, in Galicia, where in 1648, the Cossacks slit the throats of 6,000 Jews. In the pogroms of 1905, the Tsar was an honorary member of the Black Hundreds, whose slogan was “Lynch the Jews, save Russia”. As thousands of Jews were slaughtered yet again, the baby Irène is said to have been hidden behind a bed by the Némirovskys’ cook, Macha, with an Orthodox cross around her neck, “praying that fate would spare her”.

A few years later she starred in a schoolgirl troupe reciting Rostand in Kiev. Congratulated on her French by the governor-general, General Sukhomlinov, she “was excited to find myself face to face with the symbol of terror, tyranny and cruelty. I saw a charming man . . . who had the gentlest eyes imaginable”. After she told him that she went to France every year, he said, “Ah my child, how I envy you . . . ! I wish I could go back and live my whole life quietly there”. When Irène told her nanny that she longed to be French, “Zézelle” said, “You’re right. It’s the most beautiful country in the world”. Why is France the one country that never loses its looks?

In 1917, as revolutionary convulsions shook St Petersburg, Zézelle would drown herself in the icy waters of the Moika, thus supplying a donnée for Les Mouches d’automne and a clutch of other stories. The bad mother and the good servant feature regularly in Némirovsky’s work, and life. Her abiding, and fertile, hatred was directed against the narcissistic Fanny, who milked and betrayed her husband and left her to be raised (as it happened, kindly) by hired hands.

David Golder – in which an ageing financier is portrayed lurching towards a lonely death, on the ship which is taking him from Bolshevik Russia towards Constantinople – has been read as the work of a “self-hating Jew” who “did no favours to her own people”. It also shows how keenly Irène had read Balzac’s Le Père Goriot whose daughters – like King Lear’s Goneril and Regan – are no nicer than the wanton and grasping Joyce Golder.

Did Némirovsky satirize Jews simply in order to ingratiate herself with an alien audience? Anti-Semitism was a stylish conceit in the Parisian circles to which she so diligently sought entry, but the émigrés’ world of conspicuous insecurity was also the one she knew best; it was her life-class. Memory kept it vivid, as it did the scene, from the early days of the Bolshevik revolution, of a mock execution which, in Irène’s view, presaged the horrors to come.

Like Proust, only more so, she at once acknowledged and derided the Jewishness she could never shuck (although females are never quite “Jews”, even to themselves, to the degree to which the anti-Semite takes males to be). Literary “self-hatred” can combine self-advertisement with a play for exemption. Karl Marx’s early polemic against the “huckster race” is an example; Harold Pinter’s bully boy Goldstein, in The Birthday Party, just might be another. Self-criticism is, however, fundamental to Judaism: it metastasized into both Communist and psychoanalytic confessional modes.

Némirovsky said later that she would never have written David Golder (and other stories) in so scathing a tone, if she had known that Hitler was imminent. In fact, the dormant bacilli of the Dreyfus affair, and its vocabulary, were always, like shingles, ripe for resuscitation in the Right as it itched for revenge. Meanwhile, the young Robert Brasillach, although already an acolyte of Charles Maurras’s right-wing Action française, stepped out of the ranks of Tuscany to cheer Irène’s early work: “this young woman of both Russian and Jewish origin . . . [grasps] the secrets of our race better than French writers”.

Only with the rise of Fascism, and then of Nazism, was Brasillach engorged by the prospect of power and happily perverted by the genocidal malice which, some say, has to be excused in Céline’s lethal frivolity. In the same spirit, after the defeat of 1940, Henri Béraud – a “friend” of Némirovsky who had won the Prix Goncourt in 1922 – chose to associate Jews with the English and with Freemasons and conclude, “In all conscience, yes, one should be anti-Semitic”. Anti-Semitism is often less a recondite sentiment than a social contagion; opportunism in its Sunday best. Under the Occupation, it could be worn, with profit, all week. Brasillach then advocated giving “serious thought to the deportation of little Jewish children”.

For all their industry, Philipponnat and Lienhardt lack the critical acuity to deal worthily with Némirovsky’s life and times. The publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 1920s is said, straight-facedly it seems, to “give a meaning to the absurdity of the war years”. Later, we read of “the Jewish dread of death, and the panic it instils in its victims”, quite as if Gentiles were immune to any such dread. Then again, the moral of Snow in Autumn and The Courilov Affair is alleged to be that “all effort is pointless and that the individual may not even exist”. After this vacuous philosophizing, the death of Léon Némirovsky in Nice in the autumn of 1932 is ticketed with a sentence that reads “Poor old dad”.

Similarly, when the Epsteins ignored advice to leave for the US, the authors comment, with glib irony, “Where is one safer than in the bosom of one’s family? And Irène Némirovsky’s family, more than ever, was France”. After Némirovsky remarks, in La Proie, “Youth is a precious wine that is usually drunk in a dirty glass”, the authors seek to cap it with “Daguergne wanted crystal, the wine had gone off”. They specialize in caps that don’t fit. When Pétain institutes measures to “squeeze Jews out of society”, they remark, “One cannot really pretend that Vichy encouraged philanthropy”. We are told, further down, that when Denise wore her yellow star to the village school in Issy, no child made any comment. “Yet”, we are then asked, “who at Issy would have criticised her for not wearing it?” As if there were no corbeaux in douce France! A few pages later, the authors explain that Laval, “to satisfy the quotas” (which he had proposed, of candidates for extermination) “would merely suggest that children, even naturalised ones, should not be separated from their parents during this distressing odyssey”.

Suite française occupies a place in Némirovsky’s oeuvre not unlike that of the last section of À la Recherche du temps perdu, in which Proust’s narrator perceives that the gratin to which he has deferred so sedulously, and so long, is a decadent crust. Redemption is recovered personality. Némirovsky’s last work mentions the word Jew only twice. All the vices which had seemed specific to Jews she now realized to be pandemic: her fastidious Parisian aesthete, Langelet, in his flight, cares more for his porcelain collection than for France itself. He scorns the Jewish fugitives hoping to reach Portugal or South America, but all his refinement cannot save him from being run over in the common panic. In the margin of her manuscript, describing his end, Némirovsky scribbled “the end of the liberal bourgeoisie”. Similarly, Hugo Grayer, in the short story “Le Spectateur”, presumes himself too fine for the doomed Europe which he abandons, only to find that he has taken flight on a literally sinking ship.

The Némirovskys’ failure to get further away from danger than Issy-l’Évêque remains puzzling. Their nanny, Cécile, was sure that they could all have crossed into the adjacent “Free Zone” and thence to Switzerland. Irène chose to depend for salvation on the two-faced Paul Morand (whose 1934 satire France la doulce had denounced Jewish movie people as “Parasites”) and his wife Hélène (a salonnière for collabos). Fame was the snare that disposed her to put her faith in men such as Jacques Benoist-Mechin (a priggish Vichy minister and a historian, like the late Alan Clark, half in love with the Wehrmacht) and the schizoid Bernard Grasset, who had made a fortune from publishing David Golder (as well as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and was soon the dear friend of Otto Abetz, the German “ambassador” in Paris.

Until 1940, Irène’s knowledge of France had been limited to Paris, Biarritz (where her mother went for her annual intake of lovers) and the Riviera. In Issy-l’Évêque she discovered “the marvellously effective malice” of peasant life. In an appended passage of Suite française, aware at last that she was on her own, she wrote: “Hatred+contempt=March 1942 . . . . What is this country doing to me? . . . let us consider it dispassionately, let us watch it lose its honour and its life blood . . . . Everything that is done in France within a certain social class has only one motive: fear. Pierre Laval and the stench of carrion”. Sewing the yellow star on Denise’s school clothes (two months after the child’s First Communion) was Némirovsky’s first experience of needlework.

In those months of rural dread, Irène had time to discover that the Vichy myth of “la France profonde” was as fatuous as her trust in Parisian decency: “Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money and doesn’t give a thought to the rest of the world”. Having spent twenty years anatomizing men on the make (and women on the prowl) in the smart world, Némirovsky came abruptly to realize that there were selfish, callous operators everywhere.

One of the sour criticisms of Suite française has been that the main German character is depicted as a piano-playing charmer. He must be based on Lieutenant Franz Hohmann, commander of the “correct” soldiers who bounced dear little “Elissabeth” Epstein on their grey-green knees. Michel Epstein, a fluent linguist, acted as interpreter and received an amiable reference from Hohmann when the latter left for Russia in 1941. Soon afterwards, the bad Germans flew in and licensed René Bousquet (President Mitterrand’s backdoor friend) and his police to do their worst with the “Youpins”.

This is a biography which flows level to its sources. Its thoroughness and its shallowness derive, I suspect, from dual authorship. It lacks any incisive analysis of Némirovsky’s work or of her character. The family’s conversion to Catholicism is treated, altogether too tactfully, as if possibly inspired by some kind of spiritual revelation, of which there is no hint in Irène’s temperament nor trace in her last work. Heine, Mahler, Karl Kraus and Schoenberg (who later reverted to Judaism) all embraced Christianity under social duress. Understandable as Irène’s baptism may have been, it supplied no salvation this side of the grave. The French Catholic Church largely shared Charles Maurras’s view that the defeat of the Third Republic was a “divine surprise”. The Church retrieved its honour, if it did, only in October 1942, when Archbishop Jules Salièges of Toulouse, alone of all his episcopal colleagues, denounced the rafles of Jews from the pulpit.

As for Némirovsky’s “self-hatred”, a single intelligence might have guessed that the mercilessness directed at “her own people” concealed a much wider scorn. Her underlying topic was the interplay of emotion and callousness, the alternations of vanity and despair, in all the players of the world’s game. Imaginative impersonation is the mark of the natural novelist; fiction is where the truth can be found; documentary is too often where it is confected. Némirovsky could play male or female, be villain or dupe, candid or duplicitous. She moved the black and the white pieces with equal versatility. The insolence of her impostures was a function of an isolation from which neither success nor marriage dispensed her.

Melodrama became realism in stories such as The Courilov Affair, set with precisely recalled decor in the top echelon of tsarist Russia. Stored in the writer’s memory, the saccharine Sukhomlinov became the all- too-human Courilov. The conceit – a revolutionary assassin infatuated with the man he has been deputed to kill – was used, more schematically, by Jean-Paul Sartre in Les Mains sales, where Hugo and Hoederer double for Léon M. and Courilov. Léon, the professional terrorist, tells us, early on, that his mother never loved him. The double agent disowns his father and his mother: the mission is paramount, as writing was to Irène Némirovsky.

Frederic Raphael’s most recent novel, Final Demands, the concluding volume of the Glittering Prizes trilogy, was reviewed in the TLS on April 23.



Olivier Philipponnat wrote:

Dear Mr Raphael, 
Obviously you read our book carefully, if not nigglingly, thank you. A few precisions : first, "Poor old dad" is a quote of "David Golder", not an "obiter dictum" of ours. Same with “the Jewish dread of death” : another quote of "David Golder". And were did we write that her baptism was “inspired by some kind of spiritual revelation” ? "Spiritual comfort” were the words, or so, and I think it makes some difference. With no "glib irony" at all,
Olivier Philipponnat





April 29, 2010

The Némirovsky Paradox





By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt

Translated by Euan Cameron

Illustrated. 448 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35



And Other Stories

By Irène Némirovsky

Translated by Bridget Patterson

293 pp. Vintage International. Paper, $15


In the spring of 1942, the Russian-born novelist Irène Némirovsky, then living in France, began to suspect that her recent conversion to Roman Catholicism was unlikely to exempt her from Hitler’s plans for the Jews. Already considering her works-in-progress “posthumous,” she jotted this entry in her notebook: “Try to do as many discussions and things as possible . . . that may interest people in ’52 or 2052.”

In fact, that revival of interest occurred roughly midway between those dates, and more than 60 years after Némirovsky’s death at Auschwitz. In 2004, her novel “Suite Française” — the manuscript had survived in a suitcase kept by her daughter — was published for the first time and went on to become an international best seller. Divided into two sections, one dealing with its French characters’ flight into the countryside to escape the German invasion, the other with small-town tensions under the occupation, the novel inspired comparisons to Camus and Tolstoy, and reached a wide audience moved by its tragic yet triumphant publication history and its portrait of a population reeling from a violent insult to its sense of security and identity. But when the book’s success inspired a parallel interest in Némirovsky’s life, the story that emerged was rather more complex. Although admired and famous in her own time, she was the author of several anti-Semitic novels as well as a regular contributor to xenophobic and racist French journals.

These controversial aspects of her career may be responsible for the impression conveyed by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt’s “Life of Irène Némirovsky,” which seems not so much written as transcribed from one of those French talk shows in which the participants convene to argue and shout and wave their arms. You can’t entirely blame the book’s translator, Euan Cameron, for the overwrought, ungrammatical text; the clichés (“For Grasset was not born yesterday: the ‘novel that spelled money’ had the wind behind it”), mixed metaphors and infelicitous word choices (a rough draft is described as “born of an impatient womb, brimming with outlines, dead ends, changes of direction and false starts”); or for the frequency with which a sentence’s meaning is obscured by nearly impenetrable convolution.

Ultimately, though, the effort of reading pays off, partly because Némirovsky’s life raises so many intriguing questions and partly because the sheer weirdness of her biographers’ method tells us so much (some of it unintentional) about France’s continuing efforts to deal with its anti-­Semitic past — and with the residue of anti-Semitism that still remains, in far more places than the bombast of ultra-right-wing politicians.

The book opens on an Auschwitz-bound transport. The authors have little new to add to the story of Némirovsky’s last days, aside from a mystifying generalization about the transit camp at Pithiviers: “The French police put in charge of guarding the camp are not bad men. Just disciplinarians.” The preface ends with what are presumably Némirovsky’s reflections before her death from typhus, at 39: “ ‘And so,’ she thinks, ‘I regret nothing. I have been happy.’ ” But the punctilious reader of endnotes will discern that this is actually a quotation from her 1940 novel, “The Dogs and the Wolves.” Philipponnat and Lienhardt seem uninterested in the line between autobiographical fiction and historical fact, presenting passages of fictional dialogue as if they were actual conversations. The confusion this occasions only grows when, later on, they write that Némirovsky herself “discouraged these simplistic parallels,” claiming that “I have certainly made use of real-life aspects, but sparsely.”

Still, the authors manage to put many pieces of the Némirovsky puzzle together, even if some of them appear to have come from another puzzle. Her father was a banker struggling to balance his love for gambling with his career in finance, her mother a vain, competitive monster given to flaunting her adulterous affairs. Moving from Kiev to Odessa and then St. Peters­burg, the family summered in France and provided Irène with everything but parental affection. After evading successive onslaughts of anti-Semitic violence, the Némirovskys left Russia in 1918; they came to rest in France when Irène was 16.

She began publishing humorous sketches of flapper life in a men’s magazine and married Michel Epstein, a fellow Russian émigré with whom she had two daughters. Her 1929 novel “David ­Golder,” an instant hit, was adapted for both the stage and the screen. Its protagonist is described by its author as “a thin little Jew.” Philipponnat and Lienhardt explain that Golder’s “miserable youth” has “taught him dirty tricks”; “a compulsive businessman, capable of driving his own partner to suicide,” he is married to “the daughter of a usurer from Kichinev, who covets jewelry ‘like a barbarian idol’ and who only knows that her first name was previously a Yiddish one.” In a novel written around the same time, Némirovsky made her hero a banker who is a “rich young Jew”; his clerk, also Jewish, has flabby hands and “an almost unseemly nose and a filthy gray beard.”

“Were they anti-Semitic clichés?” the authors ask. The question is more reasonable than their answer: “As a young French writer, Irène Némirovsky borrowed these stylistic accessories, almost without thinking, . . . as one of the ingredients of French wit that she envied. Even if it meant writing offensively. That a young émigrée writing in French should have taken mimicry so far that she was copying people’s prejudices proved only one thing: the triteness of the anti-Semitic cliché. Without it, the French writer’s full array of skills would not have been complete.”

Even readers who prefer biographies sympathetic to their subjects may be taken aback by the extent to which these particular biographers become apologists, by the contortions they engage in as they try to explain Némirovsky’s images of greasy Russian Jews, “chatty, obsequious, hopping about like old wading birds that had lost their feathers, and who . . . sold everything and bought even more.” This, they propose, indicates a Freudian eruption of memories repressed by her mother, “like so many hidden mirrors reminding the ‘assimilated’ young woman of her consanguinity with the ghetto.”

In considering Némirovsky’s willingness to write for loathsome publications, her biographers remind us that she was a writer, not a polemicist, and that, needing money, she could hardly afford to be difficult. Perhaps, they suggest, her “fierce individuality” (in a letter to Marshal Pétain, she distinguished between “respectable foreigners” like herself and “those who are unwanted”) was the cause of her “own indifference to her Jewish roots.” In 1938, they add, “Virginia Woolf described this as ‘freedom from unreal loyalties.’ ” Yet they don’t have much to say (apart from ascribing it to a “feverish state of mind”) about Michel Epstein’s plea to the German ambassador for help after Némirovsky’s arrest: “Even though my wife is of Jewish descent, she does not speak of the Jews with any affection.”

How disturbing that a biography so passionate in its denunciation of the horrors of Russian, German and French anti-­Semitism should have the effect of making us flinch each time the word “Jew” appears in its pages. What precisely are we meant to make of jaw-droppers like this: “She told herself not to spare anyone and she did not feel bound by any loyalty or any indulgence just because of the coincidence of her birth. Had ‘David Golder’ been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff’s daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti-Semitic views?”

Reading “Dimanche,” Bridget Patterson’s new translation of 10 Némirovsky short stories, has the effect of solidifying the impressions generated by “The Life of Irène Némirovsky.” The collection may also be a reminder of certain hesitations that were felt about “Suite Française.” One novella-length entry, “Flesh and Blood,” is a skilled, moody evocation of the ennui and resentments of family life, a bit like a Chabrol film before the killing starts. But too many of the other stories suffer from the same fault as “Suite Française”: a tendency to substitute stereotype for character. Once again, we are presented with the shallow aesthete, the self-important writer, the godly priest, the good-hearted whore, the brittle beauty, the older man mad for his cheating young wife, the bitter woman fearing age and mourning her lost youth. In “Brotherhood,” Christian Rabinovitch, an assimilated French Jew, is horrified by a chance meeting with a pathetic Jewish refugee who gesticulates comically, looks “almost like a monkey” and shares his last name. The inability to distinguish caricature from character is the hallmark of a writer unable to see the problem with doggedly insisting on the “honesty” of repeatedly painting slight variations on the all-too-familiar portrait of a long-nosed, scheming, unhygienic, miserly Jew.

In the end, the biography and the stories leave one feeling both sad and intensely conscious of the disparity between Irène Némirovksy’s literary offenses and the fate that awaited her at Auschwitz. What we’re left with are the paradoxes. A woman who wrote so often about the terror of aging was never given a chance to find out if old age was really as bad as she feared. A woman obsessed with defining her own identity learned how little her opinion mattered to authorities with their own criteria for determining who she was.

Francine Prose’s most recent book is “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife.”



Némirovsky in Context

Published: May 20, 2010

To the Editor:


Reviewing “The Life of Irène Némirovsky,” the recently translated biography by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt (May 9), Francine Prose writes that Némirovsky “was the author of several anti-Semitic novels as well as a regular contributor to xenophobic and racist French journals.” This is surprising, from a usually subtle writer like Prose. It is far from certain that Némirovsky wrote even one “anti-Semitic novel,” let alone several. Jewish readers in France and elsewhere, then and now, have had differing opinions of her works featuring Jews (only about a quarter of her fiction deals with “the Jewish question”). Some have expressed concern that her 1929 novel, “David Golder,” about the last days of a ruthless Jewish businessman, “made Jews look bad.” Other Jewish readers have found the book brilliant and unforgettable; this was the opinion of the novelist Romain Gary and of the statesman Maurice Schumann, among others. It is true that Némirovsky was not kind to most of her characters, including Jewish ones, just as Philip Roth, Mordecai Richler and dozens of other Jewish writers haven’t been kind to theirs.

As for the “xenophobic and racist” journals to which Némirovsky is said to have contributed, the reference here is to Gringoire, a literary and political weekly in which she published half a dozen stories before 1939 (she also published in apolitical or left-leaning magazines). Gringoire turned anti-Semitic in the late 1930s, but it is misleading to suggest that it was of the same ilk as the extreme right-wing papers L’Action Française and Je Suis Partout at that time. During the war, it was xenophobic and Pétainist, like most papers other than the clandestine press; its publisher, Horace de Carbuccia, took risks in publishing Némirovsky’s stories under a pseudonym, when Jewish writers were forbidden to publish (and she was her family’s sole breadwinner).

Her biographers are right to try to situate her choices in the chaotic context of the 1930s and ’40s. Even more such contextualizing is needed, together with balanced discussions of her works featuring Jews. The kind of simplistic judgment one finds in Prose’s review serves no one, least of all your readers.

The writer, a professor of the civilization of France and of comparative literature at Harvard, is writing a book on Némirovsky and Jewish identity in France.








MAY 7, 2010

A Writer's Contradictions

The disturbing views, and tragic fate, of the 'Suite Française' author


The Life of Irène Némirovksy

By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
(Knopf, 448 pages, $35)


If there are no second acts in American literature, as the cliché has it, there are often at least two acts in the lives of writers elsewhere, not least those caught up in the turbulent cultural milieu of Europe between the wars. The literary lives of the French writer Irène Némirovsky (1903-42) include a posthumous one: In 2004, more than six decades after her death at Auschwitz, the manuscript of a novel that she had left behind in her adopted homeland of France was published to an acclaim even greater than her work had garnered in the prewar days. The book also complicated her reputation in ways that no one who knew her earlier work could have expected.

"Suite Française" consisted of two novellas: "Tempête," which caustically captured the hurly-burly of Paris as the Nazis occupied it in 1940; and "Dolce," which pictured the strangely normal French life that managed to persist in a nearby village. Readers of "Suite Française," even if unaware of Némirovsky's fate in the Holocaust, cannot fail to be held by the strength of her vivid portraiture and her measured, limpid prose. As if out of nowhere, Némirovsky gave 21st-century readers an almost palpable sense of what it was like to be alive on the verge of one of the 20th century's major cataclysms. The reasons for the delay in the book's publication were at once mundane and moving: Thinking that the manuscript was a diary kept by their mother, Némirovsky's two daughters—who survived the war, shielded by a nursemaid— had simply been unable to bring themselves to look at it.

The world-wide success of "Suite Française" is a kind of bookend to Némirovsky's success in the 1930s, when she made a name for herself in France by writing a work very different in tone and intention. "David Golder," the best-selling novel with which she burst onto the French literary scene in 1932, was a powerful but exceedingly harsh portrait of avarice and hard-heartedness. Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, in "The Life of Irène Némirovsky," link the novel to a tradition going back at least three decades. They adduce Octave Mirbeau, whose play "Les affaires sont les affaires" (1903) also put at its center a ruthless money-dealer. But what made "David Golder" especially striking, even in its own time, was the fact that its unlikable main characters were Jewish, and pointedly so.

As Messrs. Philipponnat and Lienhardt carefully show, Némirovsky—despite being a Jew by birth and, as it would turn out, by death as well—was an ardent participant in a rightist, ultra-nationalist and often anti-Semitic intellectual culture. This was the age of the Stavisky scandal (over a businessman's fraud), which would roil French political life and unleash a torrent of anti-Semitic reaction not seen since the Dreyfus Affair a generation earlier. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Némirovsky was all too receptive to the anti-Jewishness of the Catholic right, which was itself in active opposition to the French left's anti-clerical views. As is so often the case with converts to a faith or ideology, there was a sense of Némirovsky's being "plus royaliste que le roi." The right-leaning French literary world of the 1930s was hardly a "fringe" phenomenon: It included such writers as François Mauriac and Paul Claudel (who served as France's ambassador to the U.S.).


Némirovsky contributed short stories to such journals as "Gringoire," whose editors, strongly anticommunist, routinely asserted an identity between Jews and Bolshevism. When Némirovsky, living in Paris, was rounded up by the Nazis in 1942, her husband— also Jewish and a Catholic convert, himself to be rounded up soon after—wrote desperately to the Nazi ambassador to France: "In none of [Irene's] books . . . 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. . . . The newspaper she contributed to as a novelist, Gringoire, has certainly never been well-disposed towards either the Jews or the Communists."

All true, even if it did Némirovsky no good with the Germans. Messrs. Philipponnat and Lienhardt, though, are eager to make a literary case for Némirovsky that stands apart from her cultural opinions. They emphasize, for example, the protean aspects of "David Golder." Yes, they concede, it was in some sense an anti-Semitic novel, but it also possessed the close observation and amoral neutrality of social realism. They liken Némirovsky to Henry Bernstein, a prolific French playwright whose play "Israël" 20 years earlier had engendered a controversy similar to the one that surrounded "David Golder." Bernstein, as it happened, was an opponent of the French right. He fled Paris in 1940 and spent the war in America, an angry critic of the collaborationist Vichy regime.

The biography inevitably focuses on Némirovsky's life in France, but it also gives a portrait of her early life in Russia, where she was born in 1903, the daughter of a banker in Kiev. She came to Paris with her family as a teenager, part of the wave of refugees fleeing the Russian Revolution.

As Messrs. Philipponnat and Lienhardt note, her later cultural outlook may have had something to do with the brutality she witnessed in the new Soviet Union. But the authors ascribe her convictions mostly to her family background—in particular to her hatred of her mother, whom Némirovsky regarded as selfish, unkind and grasping. Némirovsky's embrace of Catholicism was both a flight from her Jewishness and the expression of a desire to belong to a different segment of French society, a "higher" one, in her view. Officially, she was never able to obtain French citizenship, which left her (and her husband, also Russian) stateless when the Nazis occupied France and went about deporting anyone of Jewish descent.

Messrs. Philipponnat and Lienhardt begin "The Life of Irène Némirovsky" by describing her end—at Auschwitz, located roughly midway between her birthplace in the Ukraine and her adopted spiritual home in France. The authors believe that she died of typhus, as the Nazi records have it, rather than in a gas chamber.

Her ultimate fate was so tragic that it softens whatever harsh feelings one might have about her earlier, rebarbative views. It is possible, as some have done, to see her victimization at the hands of the Nazis as an ironically just fate, given those views—a kind of cosmic justice. But of course her fate was shared by millions—and there was no justice to any of it. In any case, the Nazis denied everything most precious to Némirovsky and her fiercely wrought identity: her Catholicism, her artistry, her Frenchness, her individuality, her humanity.

One is reminded of W.H. Auden's verse on the occasion of Yeats's death in 1939: "Time that is intolerant / Of the brave and innocent . . . / Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives / . . . And will pardon Paul Claudel / Pardon him for writing well." Irène Némirovsky wrote well, too, and time will forgive her, if it has not done so already.

Mr. Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.




Saturday, May 8, 2010


Irène Némirovsky: the life of and new work by the author of 'Suite Française'


By Michael Upchurch


'Dimanche and Other Stories'

by Iréne Nèmirovsky, translated by Bridget Patterson

Vintage, 293 pp., $15


'The Life of Irène Némirovsky'

by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated by Euan Cameron

Knopf, 464 pp., $35


The loss and revival of a literary reputation can be a strange and cruel affair.

In France, throughout the 1930s, Russian-born Jewish writer Iréne Nèmirovsky was known primarily for her 1929 novel, "David Golder," an acerbic portrait of a Jewish businessman and his money-grubbing family that some readers felt bordered on anti-Semitic in character.

The book was made into a stage-play and movie and brought Némirovsky some fortune and fame. Although she published increasingly mature and sophisticated work over the next decade, in her lifetime she remained "the author of 'David Golder' " just as Jay McInerney is forever the author of "Bright Lights, Big City."

Twenty-first-century readers, of course, know Némirovsky as the author of "Suite Française," her unfinished epic about the Nazi invasion of France in World War II (Némirovsky would die in Auschwitz in 1942). Because the story behind the "Suite Française" manuscript's survival and publication 60-odd years after its composition is so extraordinary, Némirovsky seems guaranteed a lasting place in world literature.

But is it the writing or the nightmare story of the author's ghastly fate that's giving Némirovsky her place?

These thoughts can't help but hover over any reading of Némirovsky ‘s"new" collection, "Dimanche and Other Stories" (finely translated by Bridget Patterson), and a new biography, "The Life of Irène Némirovsky," by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated by Euan Cameron.

The stories in "Dimanche," which appear to be arranged chronologically, reveal an agile and increasingly tough-minded author at work. The title story subtly traces the reveries of a Parisian mother who knows much more about her husband's infidelities and her 20-year-old daughter's budding sexual activities than she'll openly acknowledge. But within she's both resigned to her role on the sexual sidelines and wanting to re-engage with the erotic thrill and suffering of her past.

In another story, "Those Happy Shores," a woman of 22 is described having "a naïve, exaggerated understanding of physical desire, rather like a child who, given her mother's jewelry to play with, handles it with exaggerated yet touching respect, not realizing that the pearls she has been given are fake." Similar layered, intricate observations are at work throughout the book.

The shadows of "the war of 1940" intrude on two later stories focusing on self-involved men: a Uruguayan bon vivant in Europe in "The Spectator" and a wealthy collector in "Monsieur Rose." Both find their cocooned existences rudely violated as war grows from threat to reality. The stories aren't just critiques but documentation of how difficult it is to take in the reality of war when hostilities are still at a distance.

"Dimanche," alas, doesn't give the dates of the stories' composition. For that you need to turn to Philopponnat and Lienhardt's biography. The biography also provides a wealth of information on Nèmirovsky ‘s Russian-Jewish childhood, her family's escape from Revolutionary Russia, their settling in Paris, her clashes with her vain mother, her happy marriage, her brief literary success, and her and her husband's deaths at the hands of the Nazis (their two daughters survived).

Unfortunately, Philopponnat and Lienhardt couch the information in an overwrought prose that's in sharp contrast to Némirovsky's own sharp, penetrative style. Némirovsky is generously quoted throughout book, but sources for quotations are identified only in the notes. Her novels and stories are discussed in a nuttily allusive manner, with the title of the work in question often being the last thing supplied.

Likewise, explanatory details on key players on the French political and cultural scene often come only after several mentions of them. Some, of course, will be familiar to American readers - but it still seems a perverse way of going about things.

The book is, at best, a flawed way to gain further understanding of her work. Better to wait for more of her fiction to be translated and published here. The bibliography of "Life" hints there's plenty in the works.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer.



Winnipeg Free Press



Biographers detail literary life cut short

Reviewed by: Chris Smith


Irène Némirovsky

The Life of Irène Némirovsky, Author of Suite Française

By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt

Translated by Euan Cameron

Knopf Canada, 448 pages


Irène Némirovsky's greatest literary success came more than six decades after she died in Auschwitz at age 39.

Suite Française, a novel that gave an authentic account of life in France under the Nazi occupation that resulted in her death, was published 60 years after it was written when one of Némirovsky's daughters recovered it from a suitcase and, using a magnifying glass to read her mother's writing, typed a clean copy.

Suite Française has sold millions of copies since it was first published in French in 2004. But as French journalists Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt note in this informative biography, Némirovsky had made her name as an author in her adopted France in 1929 with the publication of David Golder.

Némirovsky's route to France began in Kyiv and Moscow where she and her family experienced anti-Semitic pogroms and where her father, a banker, was persona non grata to the new Bolshevik regime. The family fled to Helsinki, where she witnessed the Finnish civil war, before settling in France, where they had visited before the Russian Revolution.

It was fearful time for a young girl, who later was to say: "I never knew peaceful times, I've always lived in anxiety and often in danger."

Her home life was turbulent as well. Her father was able to improve the family's finances in France, but was a distant man who was seldom around, and Fanny, her mother, treated Irène almost as a rival, leaving the girl to be raised by a nanny.

David Golder, her breakthrough novel, was based largely on her family life and, ironically, was seen as anti-Semitic by many even as it was being called a masterpiece by critics.

Philipponnat and Lienhardt refute the anti-Semitism claim as being based on French tradition and certainly not fact. "Had David Golder been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff's daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti-Semitic views?" they ask.

Némirovsky married a banker herself, Michael Epstein, but became the main breadwinner as his earnings were low and expenditures high. She was a prolific author and made good connections in Paris's publishing business.

She did cast a critical eye on fellow Jews and the pursuit of wealth in order to be accepted. She sought financial security and stability by her almost feverish writing, producing nine novels, a biography of Chekhov and 38 short stories between 1935 and 1942 -- not an easy feat in the latter years as the Nazi threat was hovering over her.

But as the Nazis swept over Europe, eventually occupying most of France, Némirovsky's notoriety and connections couldn't help her or her family.

She and Michael converted to Catholicism and sent their two daughters to Catholic schools, hoping to divert the racial detectives of the Hitler regime and their French collaborators. Instead, they were forced from Paris to the south of France where they tried to shelter the girls.

Even as restrictions were piled on Jews (besides safety and economic issues, they weren't allowed to use a bicycle) Némirovsky and her family lived close enough to the safe (non-occupied) zone to make a run for it, but didn't.

Instead, she was transported to Auschwitz where she died shortly after arriving of an illness. Michael was taken to the camp three months later and killed right away.

But as he was being arrested, he convinced a German officer to give his daughters a 48-hour window and they survived with the help of a French nanny.

It's impossible to know what literary heights Némirovsky would have reached, given her earlier success, but her Suite Française certainly struck a note.

The authors paint a sympathetic, yet realistic, picture of a talented writer, and of a time of dishonour in their own nation when Némirovsky and so many others from all walks of life were sacrificed, slaughtered, for such base reasons.

Chris Smith is a Free Press copy editor.







'Irene Nemirovsky': A biography woven from diaries, archives

By Carol Memmott

Half a century after World War II, a daughter whose mother died at Auschwitz opened a suitcase and discovered the fragments of Suite Francaise.

The never-before-published novel, the last to be written by once-celebrated author Irène Némirovsky, would open a floodgate of interest in the woman whose works and tragic life story had fallen into obscurity.

Published in France in 2004, Suite Francaise arrived here in 2006 and became a best seller. As much as the gripping novel itself, which takes place in France during World War II, Americans became caught up in the short life of Némirovsky, who died at 39.

Two French journalists, also enamored, have written a most compelling biography, The Life of Irène Némirovsky: Author of Suite Francaise, first published in France in 2007.

Through diligent study of her diaries and newly revealed archival material, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt offer a window into Némirovsky's world that begins with her birth to Jewish parents in Ukraine in 1903.

Most fascinating: The authors allow us to see how Némirovsky — from the time her first short story was published in 1921 through the novels published before and after her death — mined her own life, especially her childhood and Jewish heritage.

Most telling, the biographers write, was the difficult relationship Némirovsky had with her mother, Anna,who rejected her in favor of passions for love affairs and material goods. The strained mother-daughter bond was prevalent in many of Némirovsky's stories as well as her flinty observations of the nouveau riche.When the Russian-born Némirovsky was a teenager, she and her family settled in France. While her development as a writer in France is interesting — she struggled with the double burden of being a woman and a Jew — the gripping part of this biography deals with what it was like to be a Jew in France in the run-up to World War II.

The authors examine but reject accusations that Némirovsky, who converted to Catholicism, was an anti-Semite whose dislike for all things Jewish was reflected in the crude caricatures of Jews that often appeared in her stories. Némirovsky denied such accusations, and her biographers insist that the portrayals reflect the complicated relationship she had with her mother and her Jewish identity.

Anti-Semitism flourished before the German invasion of France and steadily grew as the French government and the Germans set in place more and more restrictions on their freedoms.

The scene the biographers set accelerates in intensity up to the tragic moments when Jews, including Némirovsky, were rounded up and sent to prison camps. This noted author, who according to her biographers believed the tide of prejudice eventually would turn, was arrested in July 1942 and died at Auschwitz just a month later.

Her husband met the same fate, but not until after he set in place a plan to hide their daughters, Denise and Elisabeth. More than 50 years later, Denise would set in motion the re-emergence of their mother's literary legacy.


San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, May 16, 2010


'The Life of Irène Némirovsky'

Benjamin Ivry


The Life of Irène Némirovsky

By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt; translated by Euan Cameron

(Alfred A. Knopf; 448 pages; $35)


The Russian-born French novelist Irène Némirovsky (1903-1942) won headlines when her posthumously published, incomplete "Suite Française" appeared from Knopf in 2006, two novellas depicting the German occupation of France. Némirovsky's writing career and life ended soon thereafter, as she was shipped off to Auschwitz because she was Jewish. In 2008, the New Republic printed an article alleging that Némirovsky's books contain anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews.

Indeed. In the high-finance novel "David Golder" (1929), one of the title character's business colleagues is a "fat little Jew. He had a comical, vile and slightly sinister air. ... In his killer's hands, he calmly held a porcelain bowl of fresh caviar." Golder's nose is "enormous and hooked, like the nose of an old Jewish money-lender." The fact that these descriptions (and many others like them) were written by a Jewish-born author who died at Auschwitz does not diminish their anti-Semitism. French Jewish writer Myriam Anissimov reasonably enough called Némirovsky a "self-hating Jew" in her introduction to the French edition of "Suite Française," but this opinion was silently deleted from the book's English-language edition.

Némirovsky has thereby benefited posthumously from two basic misconceptions shared by naive novel readers and biographers: 1. Talented writers must be nice people; 2. All historical victims must be nice people.

Némirovsky's literary verve, combined with her status as Holocaust victim, however unsympathetic, have earned her a flood of translations of earlier novels. Added to these is a 2007 French biography, newly available in English translation. Its authors are Olivier Philipponnat, a former CD reviewer, and his collaborator Patrick Lienhardt, a former press agent for Yves Saint Laurent. Together this pair produced a useful 2004 life of the French journalist and Resistance hero Roger Stéphane, but, in this case, they are in over their têtes.

A full biography of Némirovsky in English is welcome, because all that exists is Jonathan Weiss' well-meant but sketchy "Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works" (Stanford University Press, 2006). Yet "The Life of Irène Némirovsky" turns out to be a perfect storm of crassly bad writing further marred by inept translation. A typical sentence: "This voice was that of the tziganes, at whose harsh tones all the Russians in Paris, heartbroken in their stupor, would feel their blood heat up as though it were a fire on the steppes." Or Némirovsky's mind described as "too set on dancing to detect the dance of damnation that was taking place all around her, the depravity of the senses, the scoffing at death that followed the four years of mud during which the old world had stagnated."

Adding to the muddle are the biographers' heavy-handed attempts to describe post-World War I Paris, calling "black jazz bands" the "principal weapon of conquest of the American liberators." Making this book amazingly unfriendly to the English-language reader is the near-total absence of footnotes to define allusions obscure even for most French readers today. Worst are some unbelievably stupid formulations: "Had David Golder been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff's daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti-Semitic views?"

Given this ghastly presentation, Philipponnat and Lienhardt's apologetic stance toward their subject, taking at face value Némirovsky's disingenuous claims that her books were not anti-Semitic, rings particularly false. The only responsible way to evaluate Némirovsky today is to accept the obvious anti-Semitic content of her work. To do otherwise betrays not only her writings, but also her life.

Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Rimbaud, Ravel and Poulenc.


San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, May 16, 2010


'Dimanche and Other Stories'

Gregory Leon Miller


Dimanche and Other Stories

By Irène Némirovsky; translated by Bridget Patterson

(Vintage; 293 pages; $15 paperback)


English-language readers of the remarkable "Suite Française" will be thrilled with this addition to Irène Némirovsky's tragically curtailed literary career. Némirovsky had grand plans for "Suite Française"; conceiving it as her "War and Peace," she worked on it incessantly during the early days of World War II, but had only finished two of its projected five parts when she was taken to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942. Her masterpiece was finally published in France in 2004, where it was immediately met with great acclaim. Another previously unknown work, "Fire in the Blood," appeared soon afterward.

The contents of "Dimanche and Other Stories" were published during Némirovsky's lifetime, but here appear for the first time in English. Written between 1934 and 1942, most of the stories are set during wartime or colored by the war's inevitability. Némirovsky focuses on the French bourgeoisie to which she belonged, but she has a remarkable facility for inhabiting characters from across the social spectrum. Smoothly translated by Bridget Patterson, these stories touch on religious identity, sexuality, the cruelty of family and the kindness of strangers.

The longest and best story in this collection, "Flesh and Blood," tells how an old woman's illness brings to the surface tensions between her middle-age sons and daughter. Némirovsky burrows into alternating perspectives to reveal layers of misunderstanding, hypocrisy and precarious desire. She can take a simple narrative declaration such as, "They were good sons," and, by artful placement, have it simultaneously convey the erroneous perspectives of both mother (wishful thinking) and sons (self-flattery). The once-beautiful daughter has made a mess of her life, having "stupidly married a much older man, and even more stupidly divorced him." "Flesh and Blood" is the most corrosive account of family resentment, hapless hostility and uncorked fury this side of Thomas Bernhard's "Extinction."

Some readers are put off by apparent stereotypes of immigrant shtetl Jews in the work that Némirovsky published while she lived. Her family's conversion to Catholicism in 1940 raises further questions, as well as the fact that she contributed stories (some included in this collection) to right-wing journals. But self-preservation may have motivated the family conversion and, if Némirovsky held prejudices, they more likely stemmed from the same class-based superciliousness that she satirized in art.

In light of these questions, the story "Brotherhood" feels especially revealing. A wealthy Jewish widower named Christian Rabinovitch, en route by train to witness his son's marriage into a wealthy Catholic family, encounters a lower-class Jew who shares his last name. Christian instinctively rejects this man's attempts to bond over the coincidence: "What did he have in common with this poor Jew?" Three of the stories in this collection involve a small-spirited member of the bourgeoisie forced to rub shoulders with a lower-class person; initially repelled, the privileged character experiences a sort of epiphany about their common humanity. By the end of "Brotherhood," Christian tries to shake off this disturbing challenge to his prejudices: "He was a rich French bourgeois, pure and simple! And what about his children? ... 'They'll be happier than I've been,' he thought, with deep and passionate hope."

Such hope acquires startling poignancy in the shadow of Auschwitz. Némirovsky and her husband died in the camp; their two daughters survived, carrying their mother's last handwritten fiction with them as they hid from the French and German police. Némirovsky's death robbed the world of the completed "Suite Française," and who knows how many other books. Thanks to her daughters' efforts, however, she has permanent standing in 20th century French literature.

Gregory Leon Miller is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.



May 15, 2010

More stories from Némirovsky

By Heller McAlpin


Irène Némirovsky
Translated, from the French, by Bridget Patterson
Vintage, 304 pp., paperback, $15


Sixty-two years after she died at Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39, the Russian-born, French writer Irène Némirovsky became a literary sensation with the publication of “Suite Française,’’ her long-lost, incomplete novel about France under siege. After its success, a lesser unpublished novel, “Fire in the Blood,’’ also written while she was in exile in the German-occupied Burgundy village of Issy-l’Eveque, followed in 2007. Several of her early bestsellers, including “David Golder’’ (1929), were reissued both in France and abroad.

“Dimanche and Other Stories’’ is the latest addition to Némirovsky’s posthumous bookshelf. Written in the 1930s, these 10 short stories, translated into English for the first time, range from Balzacian portraits of French families and unhappy marriages to moral tales about ethical flaccidity, greed, and Parisians in flight from the German occupation. They provide an excellent introduction to Némirovsky’s work.

For Némirovsky, no sentimentalist, the ties that bind are as likely to be fiscal as amatory. “Those Happy Shores’’ picks up her recurrent theme of female emotional dependence on inconstant men. More than beauty, a significant dowry spells the difference between landing on “those happy shores, never buffeted by storms, where only a light, perfumed breeze would blow,’’ and bobbing like “an old boat being tossed on the waves.’’

The title story, “Dimanche,’’ set in a bourgeois Parisian household on a spring Sunday in 1934, portrays a family in which the older daughter, at 20, is already, unwittingly, headed toward a life of bitter disappointment mirroring that of her cast-aside mother.

Némirovsky’s stories, like her novels, show influences of Balzac, Flaubert, and, to a lesser extent, Tolstoy. Her prose, with florid descriptions of the Seine, which “twined itself around Paris like a woman putting her arms around her lover — a very young woman, affectionate and blushing,’’ and characters’ thoughts spelled out blatantly, seems at times stylistically old-fashioned. But there’s nothing quaint about her sharp social observations and reportage on France under siege.

In both her stories and novels, Némirovsky skewers the arrogance of the rich. Hitler’s approach upsets even comfortable lives, teaching hard lessons about humanity and humility. In “Mr. Rose,’’ a rare act of altruism on the chaotic flight from Paris saves a snobbish collector. The bon vivant in “The Spectator’’ at first believes that Europe’s plight is not his concern: “He was a civilized man! He had nothing to do with their war!’’ When the supposedly neutral ship on which he flees France is torpedoed, he quickly learns that there’s no such thing as neutrality in such a conflict.

Némirovsky, who never practiced Judaism and converted to Catholicism in 1939, wrote surprisingly little about her ancestral religion in her late novels. The story “Brotherhood’’ is a remarkable exception, a stark exploration of Jewish identity. When a rich, assimilated Frenchman of Jewish heritage is approached by a downtrodden old Jew at a train station, he is surprised to learn that they share a last name. The none-too-subtly named Christian Rabinovitch wonders, “What did he have in common with this poor Jew?’’ He thinks, “My nose, my mouth, the only specifically Jewish traits I’ve kept.’’

The clincher comes in describing her haughty, anti-Semitic character pondering this question. Némirovsky who has been accused of anti-Semitism herself and was murdered because she was classified as Jewish despite her lack of religious affiliation writes slyly, “his body found itself repeating the rocking movement that had soothed earlier generations of rabbis bent over the holy book, money changers over their gold coins, and tailors over their workbenches.’’

Heller McAlpin is a freelance critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.







May 22, 2010 –

The Life of Irène Némirovsky, Author of Suite Française
By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated by Euan Cameron
Alfred A. Knof
448 pp; $36


Reviewed by Geraldine Sherman


The magnificence of Suite Française, two novellas set and written in Nazi-occupied France and published in 2004, has been almost overshadowed by the story of the resurrected manuscript and the fate of its author, Irène Némirovsky. In the appendix to her masterpiece we read about her plans for more stories, her desperate pleas for French citizenship and finally her arrest and murder in the Holocaust.

Némirovsky was 39 when she died in the ovens of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. Her husband of 16 years followed soon after. They left behind two young daughters, entrusting the older one, Denise, with a suitcase of her mother’s unpublished notebooks that remained unopened for six decades.

While Suite Française brought Némirovsky posthumous international acclaim, she had already been a much-published writer in France. Her career began in 1929 with the appearance of David Golder, the most celebrated and controversial of the 14 books published in her lifetime. It sold 60,000 copies and became a play and a hit movie. Admirers compared it favourably to Balzac’s studies in greed and cruelty. Others despised the portrait of the money-grubbing Russian-born Jewish speculator, abused by his daughter and betrayed by his wife. They called Némirovsky “the ultimate self-hating Jew.”

Even the author admitted that the characters mirrored her own family. She, too, was an émigré, born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a free-wheeling financier, Leonid, and a selfish, promiscuous mother, Fanny. The family survived pogroms, the Russian Revolution and war in Finland, before settling in France in 1920. This was the country Némirovsky had loved from a distance since childhood, thanks to the French governess who gave her the affection she craved but would never receive from Fanny. Motherhood, as  Fanny saw it, hampered “her dreams of endless seduction.”

Following the triumph of Suite Française, publishers released seven novels, new and old, in English. Once again, intense debate erupted, focusing on the author’s attitude toward her Jewishness. In almost all her stories the villains are grasping Jews from the East, variously described as “scum, vagabonds, dressed in their grease-stained great coats” or “unhinged and depraved rich, idle folks.”

Némirovsky herself responded to charges of anti-Semitism by claiming that as a francophone she was engaged merely in mimicking her contemporaries and that, after all, she wasn’t in politics. In a 1935 interview she did acknowledge that “had there been a Hitler, I would have greatly softened David Golder. And yet, I would have been wrong. It would have been a weakness unworthy of a real writer!” But even before Hitler, she had witnessed the death of innocent Jews in Russian pogroms and had been forced into exile in France, where the hatred aroused by the Dreyfus affair still festered. And what could she have thought when her own French publisher brought out an edition of the most infamous anti-Semitic book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?

The Life of Irène Némirovsky and her own books demonstrate that her knowledge of Judaism was limited. She recognized only two types within what was commonly called the “Jewish race” — the ghetto poor and the Biarritz phonies like her parents.
In the end, despite her fame and connections, Némirovsky and her husband were repeatedly denied French citizenship. In 1939, with the German invasion looming, the whole family converted to Roman Catholicism and moved to a village in Burgundy. Their two children survived in the care of a former employee. Decades later, Denise opened her precious suitcase and transcribed the minute script in which her mother had written
Suite Française.

Olivier Philipponnat, a former music critic, and Patrick Lienhardt, a former publicist with Yves Saint Laurent, previously collaborated on a life of Roger Stéphane, founder of L’Observateur newspaper and a cultural television promoter. Perhaps inevitably, they write most confidently about the musical structure in Némirovsky’s work and far too much about French publishing. Alfred Adler, a renowned psychoanalyst, was Némirovsky’s relative by marriage, but that’s no help. The authors don’t even try to sort out the relationship among Némirovsky, her monster mother and her remote father. All that is left for a more speculative chronicler.

The Life of Irène Némirovsky lies uneasily between literary biography and academic monograph. Philipponnat and Lienhardt constantly shunt the reader between Némirovsky’s fiction, her journals and short comments by a vast number of critics, leaving a trail of quotation marks, footnotes and asterisks that send us flipping through 40 pages of endnotes. The translator, Euan Cameron, seems to doze off every few pages, slipping into clichés and clumsiness.

Once more the fate of Irène Némirovsky has fallen into the wrong hands.

An exhibit based on Némirovsky’s life and works, curated by Philipponnat, will open in October at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris.