LITTLE MORE THAN a decade ago, in 2004, Suite Française was published in France. The book quickly became a popular and critical success. It dominated the bestseller lists in France — and, two years later, in the United States — and won the prestigious Renaudot Prize, making its author, Irène Némirovsky, a literary star. Or, better yet, remaking her a star. As readers discovered, none of this fanfare would have been new or unusual for Némirovsky, who had already established a solid literary reputation in the 1930s.
The difference was that, this time around, she had been dead for more than a half-century. Foreign-born and Jewish, Némirovsky was deported from France and murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, a victim of the very historical forces she narrates with stunning detachment in Suite Française.
Now, more then a decade after Némirovsky’s return from oblivion, Susan Rubin Suleiman, the C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France at Harvard University, offers a personal, poignant, and perceptive account of what she rightly calls the lingering “Némirovsky question.” By this, Suleiman means the many questions which revolve around the dark star of Némirovsky’s relationship to Judaism, other Jews, and her own Jewish background. The author handles this complicated subject — which has created a cottage industry among academics and fueled very public debates — with lightly worn erudition and deeply felt compassion.
Born in Tsarist Russia in 1903, Némirovsky immigrated with her parents to France shortly after World War I. Barely settled, the young woman, confident and outgoing, entered the Sorbonne and nurtured her literary ambitions. In an era when few women enrolled in universities, and even fewer pursued writing careers, Némirovsky set herself apart. She continued to follow her own path when, in 1926, she married a fellow Russian-Jewish émigré, Michel Epstein. A banker, Epstein shared his young wife’s love of French culture and encouraged her efforts at writing. The problem — if that is the word — is that Epstein, like Némirovsky, had not taken French citizenship. Once married, they continued to delay the process of naturalization. Their reasons remain elusive, but the consequences — following the fall of France and advent of the Vichy regime — were clear and tragic.
In 1929, Némirovsky’s first novel, David Golder, reached the bookstores. Not only was it a hit — it remained Némirovsky’s bestselling work until the posthumous publication of Suite Française — but it also revealed the author’s ambivalent attitude toward the nature and place of Jewish immigrants in France. The novel’s eponymous hero, like Némirovsky’s own father, is a Russian Jew who settles in France and becomes a fabulously wealthy businessman. Golder, who abhors his fellow Jewish immigrants, eagerly clambers up the social ladder. Driven by insatiable ambition and riven by inner conflict, never fully accepted by a French society steeped in anti-Semitism, he dies alienated from the society that shaped him, as well as the society that refuses to accept him.
Critics, however, were — and remain — divided. In 1930, some praised the work’s indelibly drawn characters and psychological insights, while others argued that the characters were crude anti-Semitic stereotypes and the only psychological insight to be taken away was Némirovsky’s Jewish self-hatred. In 2008, Ruth Franklin amplified these claims in The New Republic, slamming Némirovsky as “the very definition of a self-hating Jew” and David Golder as a “racist travesty of a novel.” For good measure, Franklin added that this was not a one-off: when it came to Jewish self-hatred, Némirovsky “did it over and over again” in her subsequent books. Even Suite Française was not spared. For Franklin, the absence of Jewish characters in the novel was one more symptom of Némirovsky’s allergy to Jews and to herself.
Suleiman will have none of this. Not only does she make a powerful case for the narrator — Némirovsky herself — being the Jewish character in Suite Française, but also argues that Franklin’s critique ignores the complexities of Némirovsky’s ties to her Jewishness. In her fiction, Némirovsky captures the ambiguous status of Jews in interwar France, as well as the many fault lines that ran through this motley community. She knew firsthand the scorn and suspicion, shame and self-doubt that flowered in the no-man’s-land between native-born and foreign-born Jews, Ostjuden and German Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, professionals and artisans, capitalists and communists. “Instead of tarring her with the label of self-hater or antisemite,” Suleiman observes,
we do best to consider her as a Jew who knew exactly where to pour salt on the deepest wounds of Jewishness — in other words, who was intimately familiar with the feelings of anxiety and existential unease, coexisting with equally strong feelings of pride, ambition, and irony toward non-Jews as well as toward oneself.
In truth, Némirovsky was also familiar with the unsavory politics of the journals for which she wrote in the 1930s — yet another piece of evidence that her detractors cite as proof of her anti-Semitism. Most notably, she had a long relationship with Gringoire, a literary paper that grew increasingly anti-Semitic over the course of the decade. Suleiman notes that Némirovsky started with the paper before it underwent this change. More important, Némirovsky’s writings were not a pastime — they paid her family’s bills; she simply did not have the financial freedom to drop a relationship that grew increasingly knotty over time. (These knots redouble upon learning that the paper’s editor, Horace de Carbuccia, continued to publish Némirovsky’s work, though under a pseudonym, after Vichy passed its anti-Semitic legislation.)
What Henry James called the “picture of the exposed and entangled state” is, in fact, the picture of most of our lives. In the contexts of both interwar and German-occupied France, the state of Jewish lives became exposed and entangled to a fatal degree. This was the case with Irène Némirovsky’s life, as it would have been for many of us in her situation. As Suleiman observes, Némirovsky “probably made choices the way we all do — not knowing how they will turn out, sometimes barely aware of them as choices, simply following the current and hoping for the best.” Rather than undermining the power of her fiction, these all too human traits add layers of complexity and pathos. With her own knack for nuance, Suleiman captures the quality that sets Némirovsky apart, despite or perhaps because of her flaws: as a writer, she is attachant. We read and treasure her — we are attached to her — because, at her best, she brilliantly conveys the entangled state of our ties with others and with our own selves.