The Némirovsky Question

Susan Rubin Suleiman
  • Review
By – January 11, 2017

Rather than con­tribute (anoth­er) biog­ra­phy of Irene Némirovsky, Suleiman takes on the more dif­fi­cult task of assess­ing her work, par­tic­u­lar­ly the so-called Némirovsky ques­tion,” of whether the writer was a self-hat­ing Jew or an anti­semite. Such accu­sa­tions have been lev­eled at Némirovsky for var­i­ous rea­sons — that she allowed her sto­ries to be pub­lished in Gringoire, an anti­se­mit­ic mag­a­zine; that she con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism; that her war nov­el, Suite Française, made no men­tion of Jews what­so­ev­er; and, per­haps most dis­turb­ing, that her sto­ries and nov­els fea­tured anti­se­mit­ic stereo­types. After dis­cussing the his­to­ry of the con­cept of the self-hat­ing Jew,” Suleiman offers a brief biog­ra­phy of Némirovsky, end­ing with her death in Auschwitz in 1942

This bio­graph­i­cal mate­r­i­al pro­vides some answers to the anti­semitism ques­tion. Read­ers learn, for instance, that Némirovsky hat­ed her vain and abu­sive moth­er. Thus her fic­tion is full of loath­some Jew­ish moth­ers since — after all — many of her works involve Jew­ish char­ac­ters. The ground­work has also been laid for eval­u­at­ing Némirovsky’s con­ver­sion to Catholi­cism; its tim­ing (1939) sug­gests a des­per­ate attempt to pro­tect her­self and her fam­i­ly, rather than some great pas­sion for Chris­tian­i­ty. Still, Suleiman explores the con­text of her con­ver­sion — oth­er Jews who con­vert­ed, her note­book thoughts about faith, and her tur­moil over the actu­al cer­e­mo­ny — so read­ers can come to their own conclusions.

As for the mag­a­zines in which Némirovsky pub­lished, here Suleiman’s famil­iar­i­ty with the French lit­er­ary scene is use­ful, as she describes not only the polit­i­cal lean­ings of the edi­tors, but their dra­mat­ic shifts once France became Naz­i­fied. By 1940, Némirovsky was grate­ful for any edi­tor who would pub­lish her, even pseu­do­ny­mous­ly; she need­ed the mon­ey to feed her fam­i­ly after her Jew­ish hus­band was fired from the bank where he worked. Even­tu­al­ly, Jew­ish con­tent was also pro­scribed, which explains why Suite Française has no Jew­ish char­ac­ters, except, as Suleiman points out, the ever-present, invis­i­ble, but unmis­tak­ably Jew­ish narrator.

The most com­pli­cat­ed aspect of the Némirovsky ques­tion” involves the unpleas­ant­ness of the Jew­ish char­ac­ters in her sto­ries and nov­els. Some of her men are giv­en stereo­typ­i­cal hooked noses and curly fore­locks. The women are often grasp­ing, unfaith­ful social-climbers. Mak­ing things even more com­plex, she has her Jew­ish char­ac­ters mak­ing anti­se­mit­ic obser­va­tions about each oth­er, in what Suleiman iden­ti­fies as free indi­rect dis­course,” lead­ing some read­ers to debate whether this is the author’s point of view, or mere­ly” her char­ac­ters’ atti­tudes. But this unease Jews can feel about each oth­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly the well-assim­i­lat­ed, non-prac­tic­ing Jew’s dis­com­fort in the pres­ence of a recent immi­grant, or a more reli­gious Jew, is one of Némirovsky’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. And this brings Suleiman to some of her riski­est, but most use­ful analy­sis, on the rela­tion­ship of stereo­types to anti­semitism, and how to eval­u­ate the inten­tion of a work. Suleiman’s very nuanced dis­cus­sions of how to read” stereo­types offer insights into the com­plex­i­ties of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics in lit­er­a­ture, which take us beyond this one writer’s story.

The last sec­tion of the book explores the sto­ries of Némirovsky’s daugh­ters and their descen­dants, based on Suleiman’s per­son­al inter­views. This mate­r­i­al not only brings the saga into the mod­ern era, it reminds us that the Nazis mur­dered Némirovsky, but did not wipe out her legacy. 

Relat­ed Content:

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions