Book Essay // Refracted Identities, Mirrored Lives

By | Mar 17, 2017
2017 March-April, Arts & Culture

The Némirovsky question:
The Life, Death and Legacy of a Jewish writer in 20th-century France
Susan Rubin Suleiman
Yale University Press
2016, 367 pp., $35

by Amy E. Schwartz

Susan Rubin Suleiman can tell you a lot about the politics of identity. Not the simple kind pandered to by politicians and pollsters, or chanted in slogans on college campuses. Rather, Suleiman, a Hungarian Jewish emigré who became a pioneering feminist and an eminent scholar of French literature, has spent a much-laureled lifetime exploring just how complicated it really is to figure out who you are.

It’s almost inevitable that she would have been drawn to the story of Irène Némirovsky, the controversial, once-forgotten French novelist who perished at Auschwitz and whose Jewish identity—and her tortured relationship with that identity—has occasioned fierce controversy since her masterwork, Suite Française, was discovered in a suitcase and published in 2004.

Suleiman’s new book, The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in 20th-Century France, explores Némirovsky’s tragic career and the deteriorating civil society of pre-World War II France that first nurtured the writer and then ultimately turned on her. Drawing on parallels to her own life, Suleiman makes of the story a meditation on allegiance, foreignness and assimilation—one with uncanny echoes for today’s politics.

Born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Suleiman hid from the Nazis as a small child and fled the Communists with her family in 1949, sneaking on foot across the border to Czechoslovakia and from there to Vienna, Haiti and finally New York. She ended up as an American citizen, an influential feminist literary critic, the first woman ever hired to teach full-time at Columbia College and, eventually, a prestigious Professor of the Civilization of France (now emerita) at Harvard University. Her many books include Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature (1994) and the memoir Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook (1993).

Némirovsky’s story of displacement had no such happy ending. A Russian Jew who fled the Revolution as a teenager, Némirovsky broke into the inner circle of elite best-selling French novelists almost at once, writing haunting and sometimes harsh portraits of Jewish emigrés like herself struggling to find a place in French society. Her first novel, David Golder, published in 1929, portrayed the sometimes unsavory rise of a Russian Jewish businessman and became a popular film. Her exotic characters, Jewish and otherwise, attracted avid attention from French readers.

Some Jewish readers, even in those prewar years, expressed unease at the cold eye Némirovsky cast on Jewish social climbers such as Golder and on the tensions that simmered between Jews of differing social status. The French Jewish press criticized her in terms that read like the attacks later leveled by American Jews at Philip Roth in the 1950s. Like Roth, Némirovsky responded in interviews that she was merely portraying the people she knew best and that the writer must write what she sees.

In Némirovsky’s case, though, the subsequent fate of French Jewry haunts the argument. With the rise of Vichy, her fame, her assimilation and even her conversion to Catholicism failed the author, and she fled with her husband and two young daughters to a village in Burgundy, only to be arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Right up to the end, it emerged much later, she had been working frantically on what ultimately became Suite Française—a brilliant, unfinished multi-volume novel about France under German occupation. Némirovsky died of typhus at Auschwitz, but the manuscript survived, in a suitcase kept through the years by her orphaned daughters.

When Suite Française came to light in 2004, critics quickly hailed the detailed, unforgiving, almost Tolstoyan portrait of the French under occupation. Others, however, noticed the absence of Jews in the narrative and the troubling Jewish characters in the author’s earlier novels. The unease exploded in 2008 in a scathing piece in The New Republic, entitled “Scandale Française,” in which critic Ruth Franklin—biographer of Shirley Jackson and author of a book about Holocaust memoirs—accused Némirovsky of being “the very definition of a self-hating Jew” who made her reputation by “trafficking in the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes.”

Suleiman hadn’t thought of writing a book about all this until the day she found herself debating Franklin at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York in 2008. Long immersed in the literature and culture of the period—she’d written her first book, Authoritarian Fictions, about the ideological and often fiercely anti-Semitic French novels of the 1930s—she took a partly sympathetic view, very different from Franklin’s, of Némirovsky and her choices. “We were shouting at each other,” Suleiman recalls now. “And I thought, ‘This woman’s been dead for more than half a century. Why do we care so much what kind of Jew she was?’”

And then the literary critic in her came to the fore, and she thought, “This is a text I can analyze.”

“It felt like a necessary book to me, a book I had to write,” Suleiman told a friendly audience in a cozy, crowded living room at Washington’s Alliance Française in December, shortly after the book’s release. Némirovsky, she felt, had gone overnight “from being an interesting writer to being this hateful figure. There’s a kind of self-righteousness influencing these charges people have made, a judgmental name-calling that I wanted to avoid. It seemed to me that that way of reading Némirovsky’s fiction—and her life—was not worthy of her work.”

She could relate to Némirovsky, whose Eastern European parents, like her own, were “mismatched culturally.” Némirovsky’s Russian father was a driven, self-made banker like the ones in her fiction; her mother, with whom Némirovsky had what Suleiman calls “one of the most outrageously awful relationships between a mother and a daughter that one has ever run across,” was from a family of elegant, French-speaking Russian Jews who looked down on such less-assimilated strivers as her husband. This family configuration felt familiar to Suleiman: Her own father, the yeshiva-trained son of a highly observant Polish Orthodox family, had been destined for the rabbinate until he met her more worldly and assimilated mother, who “was used to going to theatre and opera and concerts, having a good time.” Although the tensions in her own family weren’t as extreme, she wasn’t shocked by the “poisonous portraits,” full of bitterness and cultural condescension, that critics such as Franklin took as hostile stereotyping of Jews by the author herself.

Susan Rubin Suleiman

Némirovsky “really puts her finger on the wound,” Suleiman says, by way of explaining the critical reaction. “She sees the snobberies and class differences, and the language differences—who spoke Yiddish? Who didn’t?—that were so real in Eastern European Jewish life.” Even in the United States, German Jews looked down on the Yiddish-speaking Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants. “This was a very deep, long-standing source of anxiety and tension within the Jewish community,” whether in Budapest, Paris or elsewhere, Suleiman says, and Némirovsky turns a ruthless focus on “the way wealthy Jews on their way to assimilation, or attempted assimilation, are looking down on—but are also terrified of—their poor cousins on the lower rungs of the ladder, because they may contaminate the richer Jews.”

The crux of the argument against Némirovsky is that she writes about Jews like an anti-Semite. “But if you compare her with actual anti-Semites, you see the difference,” Suleiman says. “In actual anti-Semitic books of the time there is always an us-versus-them schema. But in Némirovsky’s books, it’s never Jews versus the French. It’s always one Jew against another. I think I show that she was not an anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew but a very anxious Jew. Her reality was the anxiety of assimilated Jews: ‘Can we ever be accepted?’”

In a way, Suleiman says, Némirovsky was like the protagonist of one of her favorite novels, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: “She knew things as a novelist that she didn’t know as a person.” Like the secret portrait in Wilde’s novel, which ages instead of the character himself, Némirovsky’s work depicts a parallel universe in which Jews could never be accepted—an ugly truth that the author in her normal life seemed not to see. “In her novels, she’s so aware of the impossibility of Jews’ being truly accepted by the non-Jewish community around them; she has an ironic attitude about it,” Suleiman says. “Her characters, at least the most interesting ones, feel estranged from the French and the Jews and the Russians. But in her life, she seems to have believed she could be an exception. She kept thinking that her friendships with established writers, most of them genteel or even not-so-genteel anti-Semites, would somehow allow her to escape.”

Of course, they didn’t. When the Vichy government caught up with the Jews of France, the question of assimilation became painfully moot. Suddenly, almost overnight, all privilege vanished. Suleiman’s book traces Némirovsky’s increasingly desperate efforts to use her connections. She even wrote directly to Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Pétain, citing acquaintances they had in common, to plead that she should not be classified as an “undesirable foreigner,” in light of her literary career and her oft-demonstrated love for France. The letter had no known effect, but it is a prime exhibit in the critics’ indictment of Némirovsky, along with the fact that she continued to write anonymously throughout this period for the anti-Semitic publication Gringoire. (Suleiman points out that Némirovsky was the only breadwinner in the family during the war and worried constantly about money, particularly once Jews were prohibited from writing for publication.)

The Némirovsky Question fills in a broader picture—one in which many seemingly assimilated and established Jews, not only Némirovsky, were taken totally by surprise by the Vichy clampdown of October 1940, in which all “members of the Jewish race” were barred from professional jobs. Perhaps Suleiman’s most striking example is Emmanuel Berl, an established Jewish intellectual who actually wrote a few speeches for Pétain when he first came to power. Berl wrote “one of Pétain’s most infamous lines,” she says, in which the collaborationist leader intoned, “I hate these ideas that have done you [the French people] so much harm.”

“He’s referring to communism, atheism—it was part of his rhetoric about how France had been destroyed from within by the Jews, the Freemasons, the communists,” Suleiman says. “This was around the summer of 1940, when it wasn’t clear what was going to happen. Vichy was a very right-wing government and had terrible things to say about Jews and foreigners, but it hadn’t done anything yet. Later that summer, it issued all these decrees against foreigners—not mentioning Jews. But then in October comes the statute on Jews—teachers, professors, from one day to the next, out! For the established Jews, war veterans, members of the judiciary, magistrates, senators, this came like a bolt of lightning. But by then it was too late.”

And what happened to the speechwriter? “He went into hiding and survived,” Suleiman says, “and he never really expressed regret.” She describes an interview after the war in which Berl said he, too, had been “against having all these foreigners in France. And the interviewer said, but what about Hitler, and anti-Semitism, and so forth? And Berl said, ‘You know, I underestimated Hitler’s anti-Semitism!’”

Stories like this make Suleiman “just go wild” when she reads the newspaper today. In fact, it’s Berl who comes to her mind when people mention presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner as evidence that Jews have nothing to fear in Donald Trump’s America. On that front, she sees grounds for concern on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Unfortunately, the book is all too current,” she says. “France is a country that I love, but it does have anti-Semitism, a particular type of anti-Semitism, directed against the idea of the foreign—the foreigner who is destroying French society. You hear it today about Muslims, about how Muslims are destroying French civilization. And the discourse you had then about how ‘these foreigners are corrupting our identity, are a threat to our identity’—you find this discourse not only in France but in the United States. The Mexicans are raping our women and corrupting our identity? I can’t believe Jews can sit still for it. Jews who support Trump don’t understand that when it comes to talking about bad foreign influences, if the Jews aren’t your target now, they will be tomorrow.”

Suleiman begins The Némirovsky Question with an epigraph from the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas—“To ask oneself about Jewish identity is already to have lost it”—as well as one from Franz Kafka: “What have I in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself.”

This insistence on the complexity of identity runs not only through the book but also through all of Suleiman’s work and life. As a literary scholar, she was a prominent member of the movement known as poststructuralism, an approach to reading that mined literary texts for their multiple, slippery, sometimes unintended meanings and whose most famous practitioner was another conflicted French Jew, Jacques Derrida. People often blame poststructuralism for the idea that there is no objective truth, only “narratives,” but Suleiman calls that a misreading in itself. To say that stories and voices are complex, that language is deceptive and communication can go awry, is a far cry from suggesting that nothing is true.

“I’m so sad and angry when I hear people today saying, ‘There is no truth, there are only narratives,’ or when Trump goes around telling lies and people say, ‘Oh well, there is no truth, it’s all a matter of your perspective,’” she says. “That’s a perverted, watered-down understanding of some of the great insights of poststructuralism—that nothing is simple, that plurality and polyphony are to be valued.” 

The connection to her own life is clear. Displacement and exile exposed Suleiman to a dizzying interplay of languages and loyalties, evident in a story she tells about her family’s six-month stay in Haiti, waiting for the paperwork that would allow them to settle in New York. While they were waiting, she attended a school run by French nuns.

“Talk about identity conflicts!” she says. “My father, who was quite religious, had been told before we left that there were no kosher butchers in Haiti. So he had found a shochet in Vienna and had acquired the instruments and learned the ritual for slaughtering chickens and goats. So every day we lived in Port-au-Prince we had a kosher chicken slaughtered by my father, and meanwhile I was going to school with the Sisters of St. Rose de Lima, who taught me to love French grammar.” The nuns, “hoping to convert the little Jewish girl,” lavished attention on her and, when the family left Haiti, gave her a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. When the 11-year-old Suleiman got to New York, she had a sudden moment of truth—“a crise,” she calls it, “a real identity crisis”—and, with a cry of “I’m not Catholic!” threw the medal out of her grandmother’s eighth-floor apartment window.

It was a moment of moral clarity, but experience has taught Suleiman that such moments are rare. With that knowledge, she can sympathize with Irène  Némirovsky and her agonizing, complicated, always-to-be-disputed choices in a time and a place where only luck could have saved her. “In the book, I try to examine her choices without condemning her,” she says. “None of us can be sure what choices we would make.”

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