Something Survives | Review of The Némirovsky Question by Susan Rubin Suleiman — Laura Michele Diener
Irene Némirovsky is an odd choice for critics to attack and defend. Surely, in any political climate, let alone today’s, more obvious proponents of anti-Semitism exist than a woman who wore a yellow star and died at Auschwitz. But she asked uncomfortable questions in uncomfortable times that quickly became dangerous times. —Laura Michele Diener
The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France
Susan Rubin Suleiman
Yale University Press, 2016
376 pages; $35.00
“It is impossible, as many liberals believe, to belong to two nations, the Jewish and the French,” –Robert Brasilac, 1938, Je suis partout, French newspaper
“What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself”
–Franz Kafka, Diary
Exquisitely erudite and boundlessly empathetic, Susan Suleiman’s newest book, The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France, is far more than a literary biography of Irene Némirovsky but rather a study of twentieth-century Jewish identity with one writer’s life as the fulcrum. Irene Némirovsky, now most famous for the miraculous posthumous adventures of her novel Suite Francaise, was during her lifetime, a respected and successful writer on the French literary scene. Born to a wealthy Russian Jewish banking family in 1903, after the Russian Revolution, she moved to France as a teenager where she wholeheartedly embraced the language and culture of her adopted country. Classified as a foreign Jew under the Vichy regime, she was arrested by the French police in July 1942, and subsequently transported to Auschwitz where she died a month later. The unfinished draft of a novel (actually two novels, the first of a proposed five) survived with her two young daughters, Denise, age twelve, and Elisabeth, five, to be published to acclaim in 2004. That year, it won the prestigious literary Renaudot Prize in 2004, the first time the award was bestowed on a deceased author.
First French, and then English speakers have adored Suite Francaise, two beautifully executed studies of French civilians under German occupation, rife with tender relationships and written in real time by a sharply observant narrator. World War II has become part of the collective consciousness of many Americans and Europeans, and with its portrayals of the quiet upheavals and wartime romances of an occupied village, Suite Francaise fulfills many twenty-first century fantasies of vintage wartime. Publishers seized the opportunity to reissue her older books and translate them into English, but their portrayals of prewar immigrant Jewish characters—particularly the 2007 translation of David Golder—struck some readers as more archaic and even disturbing. Its original publication in 1929 was Némirovsky’s first big break in the literary world, but she also received criticisms from Jewish readers who questioned the value of a story about an unscrupulous banker.
In the article, “Scandale Francaise,” that appeared in the January 30, 2008, issue of the New Republic, critic Ruth Franklin boldly and uncompromisingly states that “Némirovsky was the very definition of a self-hating Jew” who “made her name by trafficking in the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes.” Although she admits that Suite Francaise “is a fine novel,” she questions the absence of Jewish characters, suggesting that “perhaps Némirovsky was incapable of creating sympathetic Jewish characters. Franklin’s article followed other condemnations, including a review of The Dogs and the Wolves in the Times Literary Supplement by Naomi Price, and an article Jewish Ideas Daily, by Dan Kagan-Kans, titled, “Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Hating Jew.” In the end, the crux of these arguments rests on two points, the visibility of Jews and the invisibility of Jews in her fiction, neither of which critics find acceptable. Some of the reviews, like Kagan-Kans’, display an almost astounding blindness towards historical context (he writes scathingly of the absence of Jewish characters in All Our Worldly Goods, a novel Némirovsky published in 1941, when she was already wearing a yellow star and writing under a pseudonym, because Jewish authors were banned), and Susan Suleiman treats them with more politeness than they deserve. On the other hand, Ruth Franklin, herself the author of the recent well-received biography of Shirley Jackson (Shirley Jackson: A Haunted Life, Liveright, 2016) as well as a A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2011) presents a conundrum. She has done her homework, and Suleiman’s book is partially a continuation of an in-person conversation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, on December 12, 2008, which Suleiman describes as heated. Both women, like Némirovsky, are Jewish women writers deeply concerned about Jewish women as writers as well as women writing about Jewishness. The debate centers around Némirovsky’s views on Jewish assimilation into French society. As Franklin interprets them, assimilation in Némirovsky’s novels is doomed to fail because their inherently negative Jewish characteristics will inevitably surface. “Though the Golders [characters from the 1929 David Golder] have tried to assimilate into French society, Némirovsky makes it clear that Jews can never escape their identity.”
Suleiman carefully outlines the debate and rightly asks, “why reasonable readers can argue with such passion about the alleged self-hatred (or not) of a Jewish writer who has been dead for almost three-quarters of a century?” and why these reasonable readers have always been exclusively Jewish. Non-Jewish critics display little desire or interest to enter that inflammatory conversation. Much of Sulieman’s book examines Némirovsky’s writing as an exploration of deeply divisive questions about Jewish identities, a group as divided today by language, ritual, class, and politics in the 1930’s as they are today.
To do so, she delves into the thorny question of Jewish self-hatred, a concept dating back to the nineteenth century, when the political climate allowed a number of German, Austrian, and French Jews to escape the ghettos and enter mainstream society. The resulting identity crises among assimilated Jews contributed to the outpourings of Jewish artists and intellectuals. In every conceivable medium, Jews questioned who and what they were, and how they fit into the growing nationalisms of nineteenth-century Europe. Can a Jew be a good German? Or a good Frenchman? Or even entirely French?—the latter an incendiary question that burst into full-scale flame in 1894, with the Dreyfus Affair. In addition to questions of patriotism, for assimilated Jews, the even larger question loomed—What is a Jew? If a person distances themselves from language, ritual, and belief, what inalienable element continues to define them as Jewish, and somehow of a piece with other Jews? Suleiman explains:
It is this estrangement experienced by Jews themselves from other Jews that some people call self-hatred or Jewish anti-Semitism. But the fact is that it existed and continues to exist, not only among Jews but also among other devalued minorities, and not only in Europe.
Accusations of self-hatred have been leveled at a fairly respectable group of intellectuals and artists including Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Hannah Arendt, Philip Roth, Joseph Roth, Isaac Babel—proving at least that Irene Némirovsky is in good company and perhaps that the definition of Jewish self-hatred, if such a thing exists, is so all-encompassing as to be meaningless. After all, anyone who explores their genetic and cultural inheritance with anything but the most unflagging enthusiasm could effectively be considered self-hating. Suleiman views the question of Némirovsky’s or anyone else’s Jewish self-hatred as insolvable, and certainly ahistorical, and argues that “rather than speak of Jewish self-hatred, it makes historical as well as philosophical sense to speak of the ambiguities and ambivalences regarding Jewish identity and self-definition during this period.”
The title of her book, The Némirovsky Question, plays on another nineteenth century concept, die Judenfrage, one that Suleiman proffers as “a useful alternative to Jewish self-hatred if one wants to think about dilemmas of Jewish identity in modern times.” Today, the Jewish Question possesses ominous connotations of cattle cars and concentration camps, but before the Nazis repackaged it as “how to get rid of the Jews,” Jewish intellectuals themselves, including Theodore Herzl, Oskar Jaszi, and Anna Lesznai interpreted the question as a series of inquiries into the place of Jews in mainstream society, Jewish group identity, and most acutely, how people characterized more by division than similarities related to each other.
As Suleiman argues, the Jewish question haunted Némirovsky, who lived out the complexities of interwar Jewish identity. Many of her Jewish characters were reflective of her own family members, eastern immigrants to France, wealthy, on the path to assimilation, but at most a generation away from the ghetto. Her father, Leon Némirovsky was from a poor Yiddish-speaking family near Odessa while her mother came from a wealthy Jewish family more assimilated. As in her family, so in her books, the choice of French, Russian, or Yiddish language declares affiliation. The family lived the elegant and fashionable life of the French upper class, and Némirovsky received her education first through a French governess and then the Sorbonne. She enjoyed close friendships with French Catholics, notably the siblings Rene and Madeleine Avot, who would care for her children after the war. But the husband she married at the age of twenty-three, Michael Epstein, was another Russian Jew from a banking family, and one more religious than her own. The couple converted in 1939 to Catholicism, sent their children to Catholic schools, and in their own words, considered themselves entirely French-Catholic. But waves of refugees from Nazi Germany as well as a growing antipathy to foreigners challenged their self-identification with their adopted country. Between 1920-1939, the number of Jews in France tripled, with many of the newcomers Yiddish speaking, religiously observant, and poor. In her novels David Golder (1929), The Dogs and the Wolves (1940), and The Wine of Solitude (1935), she considers the tensions between these groups ostensibly sharing an identity. In her short story, Fraternité, published in February 1937, these uneasy cousins literally confront each other in the encounter between a wealthy assimilated Jewish banker, brilliantly named Christian Rabinovitch, and a Jewish immigrant from Russia, also named Rabinovitch.
No character in Némirovsky is so successfully assimilated that they aren’t haunted by the specter of their poor religious antiquated Jewish selves. These internal tensions among French Jews play out against a context of French anti-Semitism, which in the end, renders issues of Jewish identity null. Ruth Franklin’s accusation becomes Suleiman’s explanation: “Though the Golder’s have tried to assimilate into French society, Némirovsky makes it clear that Jews can never escape their identity.” Sadly, her stories were prophetic, as she lived to experience. She moved through her life from exile to beloved and feted community member and, finally, to exile again, dying far from the home she had claimed. In 1942, she wrote chillingly, “I have written a lot lately. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but at least they make the time pass.”
The scope of Suleiman’s book extends beyond Némirovsky’s life and even her posthumous fame. She devotes the last third of the book to the story of Némirovsky’s daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, and along with them the collective stories of child survivors of the Holocaust. After the arrest of their parents, the girls spent the last two years in Occupied France living under false identities, constantly on the move, mainly under the care of their nurse Julie Dumot. They joined the more than ten thousand Jewish children who had lost one or both parents during the war, and Suleiman considers them as such, employing trauma theory and the literature on children with hidden identities to discuss their experiences. Through their own writing, particularly Elisabeth’s 1992 memoir, Le Mirador, and editing of their mother’s papers, Denise and Elisabeth, both raised and educated as Catholics, sort out their complicated legacies and memories. Suleiman’s own relationships with the family, especially Denise whom she interviewed extensively before her death in April 2013, form the heart of this section, which is entirely unique in terms of Némirovsky scholarship.
The Némirovsky Question represents the culmination (at least so far) of Suleiman’s prestigious academic career. A professor of comparative literature at Harvard, she has written seven books and edited three others on avant garde French literature, women writers, collective and individual memories of the Holocaust, and artistic expressions of trauma and exile. Suleiman portrays Némirovsky as a woman always writing from the middle, a place defined by difference, occasionally by unease, and like Némirovsky, although a generation younger, Sulieman shifted between the fluid identities in post-war Europe. As she reveals in her memoir, The Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook, she was born into a Hungarian Jewish family a few weeks into World War II, and spent her earliest years living under a variety of false identities before immigrating to America after the war. Her parents, with their varying degrees of faith, reflect the extremes of Jewish identities. Only as an adult with two children did she revisit the country of her birth and connect her fragmented memories of a disrupted past. Her familiarity with intercultural identities obviously predisposes her to empathize with Némirovsky’s Russian-Jewish-French-Catholics selves, and the book reads as a labor of love from writer on behalf of another.
Irene Némirovsky is an odd choice for critics to attack and defend. Surely, in any political climate, let alone today’s, more obvious proponents of anti-Semitism exist than a woman who wore a yellow star and died at Auschwitz. But she asked uncomfortable questions in uncomfortable times that quickly became dangerous times. As Suleiman writes about Christian Rabinovitch, which could well apply to Némirovsky’s other Jewish characters, as well as the author herself: “[He] may not be to everyone’s liking. But the questions his story raises continue to resonate.” Issues of identity predominate in the twenty-first century among Jews, for whom politics, particularly American-Israeli relations, even more so than faith, frequently become the dividing line. European Jews also grapple with renewed waves of anti-Semitism, particularly in France, where ultra-nationalists and terrorists make strange bedfellows. But Suleiman’s book reminds us that the Jewish question can become anyone’s question, whenever people struggle to define themselves against a majority society. In a 1934 radio interview, Némirovsky explained her choice of Jewish characters. “I contrive to depict the society I know best, which is made up of dislocated people who have left behind the milieu where they would normally have lived and whose adaptation to a new life is not without shocks and suffering.” Dislocated people, from a myriad of ethnic backgrounds, find themselves just as vulnerable in 2017. The surge of revolutions, occupations, genocides, and dictatorships doesn’t appear to be slowing down, and readers may find Némirovsky’s books increasingly relevant in a world that continues to yield refugees and exiles. One can only hope that they find a more welcoming society than she did.
—Laura Michele Diener
Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.