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Otto Selles

Enigmatic Testimony

The life & work of Irène Némirovsky.

When I first heard about Irène Némirovsky's novel Suite française, I suspected a publisher's clever marketing ploy, a book that owed its success to a powerful backstory based on the sufferings of a Holocaust victim. A Russian Jew exiled in France, Némirovsky was arrested in July 1942 and died a month later in Auschwitz. Her husband, Michel Epstein, would be arrested that fall and also die in Auschwitz, but their daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, escaped, entrusted with a suitcase containing a manuscript. Denise Epstein waited some sixty years before speaking to a publisher about the manuscript, a novel about the first years of the German Occupation of France in 1940-1942. Suite française went on to win (in 2004) the Renaudot Prize (the French equivalent of a Pulitzer) and became an international bestseller.

Could a lost manuscript be that good? Would another novel really add anything new to the myriad novels, historical studies, films, and documentaries on the Occupation? And so, most smugly and cynically, I decided not to read Suite française.

Since 2004, numerous books by Némirovsky have been reissued in both English and French, along with various biographies and academic studies. And I now feel sufficiently chastised by my own tardy discovery of a skilled writer. Némirovsky's success in the 1930s and her posthumous celebrity also raise complex interpretive questions on how to read, after Auschwitz, the works of a Holocaust victim who wrote before Auschwitz.

Born in Kiev in 1903, Némirovsky grew up in a wealthy family, neglected by her heartless mother and her business-obsessed father. Thanks to a French governess, she could claim French as a native language, which proved convenient when, at the time of the Russian Revolution, the family fled to Finland and then settled in Paris. Ironically, Némirovsky discovered her literary heritage at the Sorbonne, where she studied Russian literature. In 1929, at age twenty-six, she published David Golder, a successful first novel that recounts the slow death of a callous Jewish businessman beset by his equally callous wife and daughter. Némirovsky continued to publish novels, short stories, and film-related pieces during the 1930s, with enough success to earn more than her husband Michel, a junior employee in a Parisian bank.

Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt's biography of Némirovsky, first published in French in 2007, provides interesting background information on Russian Jewish émigré communities of the early 1900s and the manner in which wealthy families such as the Némirovskys spurned the ghetto to adopt French manners and extended vacations in France. The hypocrisy and rapacity of this wealthy class stand as the target of David Golder's biting social satire.

Some critics, particularly in the United States, have found this satire to be sordidly stereotypical and proof that Némirovsky was a "self-hating Jew." In The New Republic, Ruth Franklin went so far as say that David Golder is "an appalling book by any standard" with its descriptions of hook-nosed, corrupt Jewish businessmen. In response to such criticism, Philipponnat and Lienhardt acknowledge Némirovsky's early heedlessness and excuse it as mimicry of French literary clichés of the time. They highlight instead how a contemporary Jewish writer such as André Maurois saw in Némirovsky's writing moral depth and the "nihilism of Ecclesiastes." In a recent critical study, Angela Kershaw offers this balanced analysis about David Golder: "It is an ambivalent work of fiction which uses negative stereotypes of Jewishness but which does not propose anti-Semitic arguments and is […] politically disengaged."

From a literary point of view, I'll admit I found Némirovsky's early novels to be well-written but a bit thin. Where was the heft of 19th-century greats (Balzac, Flaubert, Zola) or the complexity of her fellow 20th-century writers (Proust, Gide, Breton, Mauriac, Camus, Sartre)?

Then I finally read Suite française—and what a marvelous read it is. Suite française presents in fact two novels, Storm in June and Dolce, the beginning of Némirovsky's unfinished plan for a five-part, War and Peace-sized treatment of France during World War II. Storm in June provides an extraordinary account of the "Exodus"—the flight of millions of French in June 1940 from the advancing German army. With multiple character lines and cross-cutting chapters, Storm in June reads like a finely edited movie. The characters represent the different strata in French society, from a bourgeois Catholic family to Parisian intellectuals and low-level bank employees. Némirovsky balances psychological depth with a broad satire of the cowardice and avarice the French defeat provoked, or rather, revealed. In her eyes, the rich veneer of French civilization was just that—a thin layer of sophisticated social codes stripped away by a humbling defeat.

Némirovsky did not experience the June "Exodus" directly, as she had already fled south from Paris to Issy-l'Evêque, a village soon occupied by the Germans. Issy became the inspiration for Bussy, the fictional setting for Dolce. As the title suggests, Dolce presents the calm that followed the storm of the German Blitzkrieg. While Némirovsky continues to present a cross-section of French society, her main focus is the relationship between Lucille, an upper-middle class French woman, and Bruno, a sophisticated German officer billeted to her manor home. This conflicted Franco-German romance presents an extended metaphor for the conflicted ties between the French population and the German army at the beginning of World War II.

It is truly extraordinary that Némirovsky could write such a fine work while exiled to a small village—and while anti-Jewish legislation steadily shut down her career, restricted her movements, and forced her and her family to wear the yellow star. The last part of her biography is particularly difficult to read as she continued to put a mistaken faith in her high-placed Parisian connections and the supposed decency of French and German authorities. But by July 1942 she had lost hope. Two days before her arrest, Némirovsky wrote her editor: "I've written a great deal lately. I suppose they will be posthumous books but it still makes the time go by."

As I made my way through Suite française, I was nagged by a notable absence: no major or minor Jewish characters, no description of Nazi anti-Semitic ideology. The low-level bank employees, the most honorable characters in the book, clearly mirror Michel Epstein's experience of being fired from his bank after he fled Paris. But how could a novel about World War II, written during the war by a Jewish author who died in Auschwitz, contain no mention of the Final Solution?

In his extensive study of Suite française, Nathan Bracher offers a response to that question by avoiding "the two most common pitfalls of our time: historical anachronism and ideological instrumentalization." In other words, ardent fans and harsh critics of Némirovsky judge her according to our current knowledge, seeing her book as a biographical or historical document and not as a unique literary text. The main merit of Bracher's study is to place Némirovsky's book in the context of other works written during the war. Bracher shows that Jewish writers such as Marc Bloch and Léon Werth also examined the 1940 French debacle, but "the Jewish question […] was neither central to their thinking nor a priority in their historical narratives." And "it is simply not realistic to expect pre-Holocaust writers such as Bloch, Werth, and Némirovsky to display the moral and intellectual priorities that are ours today."

Bracher argues persuasively that Némirovsky's Suite française is superior to one of the best-known resistance novels, Jean Bruller's Le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea). Published clandestinely in 1942 under the pen name "Vercors," Le Silence de la mer offers a striking parallel to Némirvosky's work: a French family houses a German officer but repels his seductive talk by giving him the silent treatment. Némirovky gives, however, a much more in-depth presentation of the Occupation's ambiguities. For example, she doesn't shy away from describing sexual tensions, and relations, between French women and German soldiers. She portrays Bussy as a veritable "snake pit" roiling with "acute enmities and injustices stemming from the entrenched structures and mentalities of social class in rural France," divisions the Occupation only intensified. And contrary to some critics' charges that she favored collaborationists, Némirovsky satirizes with great skill the pro-German discourse of French aristocrats and notables.

Surprisingly, Bracher's study does not address Némirovsky's conversion to Christianity in February 1939. Philipponnat and Lienhardt suggest that this conversion parallels Némirovsky's desperate attempts to become a French citizen and so secure her status in France. But her biographers feel it also points to "an evident need for spiritual consolation that Judaism, which her upbringing had made irrelevant to her, could not provide her with." If Némirovsky did not seem ultimately completely committed, it is because she was reluctant, "out of pride, to bury herself heart and soul in religious matters."

Némirovsky's last entries in her notebook suggest, however, that God was not far from her mind when she was writing her last novel. On July 1, 1942, only days before her arrest, she wrote this reflection on the projected conclusion to her Suite française:

What lives on:
1 Our humble day-to-day lives
2 Art
3 God

Instead of "nihilism," perhaps the realism of Ecclesiastes moved all of her writing and inspired her keen, cold eye on society's vanities. While the publication of her Suite française stands as a 21st-century literary miracle, it is a 20th-century tragedy—another sad legacy of World War II—that Irène Némirovsky did not live a few more days under the sun to complete her masterwork.

Books discussed in this essay:

Irène Némirovsky, Suite française, translated by Sandra Smith (Knopf, 2006).

Irène Némirovsky, David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair, translated by Sandra Smith (Everyman's Library, 2008).

Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, The Life of Irène Némirovsky, 1903-1942, translated by Euan Cameron (Knopf, 2010).

Anglea Kershaw, Before Auschwitz: Irène Némirovsky and The Cultural Landscape of Inter-War France (Routledge, 2010).

Nathan Bracher, After the Fall: War and Occupation in Irène Némirovsky's Suite française (Catholic Univ. of America Press, 2010).

Otto Selles is professor of French at Calvin College.

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