In her novel The Prodigal Child, Irène Némirovsky paints with great detail and sensitivity the dream of assimilation through the lens of the young poor Jewish protagonist, Ishmael. The story unfolds as a morality tale, with language that crystalizes the themes of assimilation and aspiration, beauty, love, and innocence lost, as well as avarice and moral decay.
At first, Ishmael, a poor Jew from the ghetto of a port town on the Black Sea, catches the fancy of the Princess (who is actually not a princess, but the widow of the former governor- general of the town) after she becomes enchanted by the raw talent of his poetic songs. She takes him to her lavish mansion, and he finds himself quickly at home among the “tapestries and mirrors painted with birds and flowers in the Italian style.” Despite his belief that he has finally escaped his humble Jewish origins, ultimately the Princess tires of him and casts him out, replacing him with a set of beautiful white dogs.
The Prodigal Son is a parable of assimilation that Némirovsky tells with rich sensual language, a tale that could even be read as a foreshadowing of Némirovsky’s own tragic fate. Similar to Ishmael, from an early age Némirovsky enjoyed the warm cultural embrace of not a Princess, but of France. Her sense of cultural belonging solidified as she matured into a celebrated writer. She enjoyed literary success at a young age with the runaway success of her first novel, David Golder. Like Ishmael at home within the Princess’s beautiful estate, Némirovsky felt as if she truly belonged in France, identifying it as a creative safe haven, a place where she felt the most free, accepted, and uninhibited. In March of 1940, for an interview with the literary magazine Les Nouvelles litteraires, when asked who she was, a French author or a Russian author writing in French, her response is poignant, given what we know of her fate: “I hope and I believe I am more a French than a Russian author.”
Némirovsky believed, up until the absolute last moment, that France would never reject or cast her out, given how deeply the country and the language ran through her blood, work, and life. And yet, by the early summer of 1942, one of her journal entries reads, without a date: “My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it rejects me, let us think about it coldly, let us watch it lose its honor and its life.”
Perhaps this early novel’s imagery, in its dream-like symbolism, is a warning not only to Némirovsky herself, but also to all of us who attempt to escape our roots and disown where we came from in search of another preferred identity that might offer, for a time, safety and reprieve from persecution and otherness. It’s dangerous, Némirovsky seems to be saying, to forego and forget who we are in exchange for false idols.
Alexis Landau is a graduate of Vassar College and received an MFA from Emerson College and a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Empire of the Senses and lives with her husband and two children in Los Angeles.