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Irène Némirovsky: The Dogs & the Wolves

The reputation of Irène Némirovsky, in the English-speaking world as in France, rests on Suite Française, an unfinished multipart novel that appeared in print only in 2004, some sixty years after its author’s death. During her lifetime Némirovsky was best known for an early work, the novel David Golder (1929). Astutely promoted by its publisher and swiftly adapted for stage and screen, David Golder was a runaway commercial success.

Némirovsky never struck it quite as rich in the rest of her short career (she died at the age of thirty-nine, one of the victims of the Final Solution). She wrote a great deal, her books sold well, but in an age when experimental Modernism held the high ground she received little serious critical attention. After the war she slid into obscurity. When in 1978 Germaine Brée published her authoritative survey of French literature of the half-century 1920–1970, Némirovsky did not figure in the list of her top 173 writers (nor, however, did Colette, who would today be among many critics’ top ten). Even feminist critics paid her scant attention.

All of that changed when Suite Française—which by amazing good luck survived the war in manuscript—was finally published. Against all precedent, Némirovsky was awarded the Prix Renaudot posthumously. Suite Française became both a critical success and a best seller. Hastily her publishers began reprinting her oeuvre.

With its large cast of characters and wide social range, Suite Française is more ambitious than anything Némirovsky had previously attempted. In it she takes a hard look at France during the Blitzkrieg and the subsequent occupation. She saw herself as following in the line of Chekhov, who had addressed the “mediocrity” of his times “without anger and without disgust, but with the pity it deserved.” In preparation for her task she also reread War and Peace, studying Tolstoy’s method of rendering history indirectly, through the eyes of his characters.

Of the four or five novels of the planned Suite, only the first two were written. At the center of the second is a young woman, Lucile Angellier, whose husband is a prisoner of war and who has to share her home with a Wehrmacht officer billeted with her. The officer, Lieutenant von Valk, falls deeply and respectfully in love with her, and she is tempted to respond. Can she and he, nominal enemies, not transcend their political and national differences and, in the name of love, make a separate peace? Must she really, in the name of patriotism, deny herself to him?

Today it may seem puzzling that a writer confronting the crisis for the individual conscience occasioned by the occupation and the wider war should have framed that crisis in such romantic terms. For the war in question was not just a matter of political differences spilling over onto the battlefield: it was a war of conquest and extermination aimed at wiping certain despised peoples from the face of the earth and enslaving others.

Genocide is of course not the enterprise von Valk signed up for. Lucile has even less of an inkling of Hitler’s ultimate goals. But that is hardly the point. Had Némirovsky appreciated how monstrous the conflict was in which France and Germany were embroiled, how different in essence it was from the wars of 1870 and 1914, she would surely, one thinks, have given herself a different plot to work with, one that would pivot on the question not of whether a separate peace was attainable between individuals but rather—for instance—of whether honorable German soldiers should not disobey the orders of their political masters, or of whether French civilians like Lucile should not be prepared to risk everything to save the Jews among them.

(Interestingly, Lucile does risk her life to save a fugitive, but that fugitive is not a Jew—there are no Jewish characters in Suite Française. As for von Valk, Némirovsky’s design was for him to die fighting on the Eastern Front.)

Unlike War and Peace, which, as Némirovsky notes in her diary, was written half a century after the event, Suite Française is written from “on the burning lava.” It was planned to cover the occupation from beginning to end. Its first two parts take us through mid-1941. What would happen next—in the novel as in the real world—Némirovsky could not of course foresee: in her diary she called it “God’s secret.” In regard to herself, God’s secret was that, in July of 1942, she would be arrested in her home by French police and passed on to the German authorities for deportation. Weeks later she would be dead of typhus in Auschwitz. In all, some 75,000 Jews would be shipped from France to the death camps, a third of them full French citizens.

Why did Irène Némirovsky and her husband—who certainly had the means to do so—not flee while there was time? Both born in Russia, they were, technically speaking, stateless persons residing in France, and therefore unusually vulnerable. Yet even when, in the mid-1930s, popular opinion began to harden against foreigners, and the anti-Semites on the French right, emboldened by events in Germany, began to beat their drums, the two did nothing to regularize their status. Only in 1938 did they exert themselves to obtain papers of naturalization (which, for whatever reason, were not issued) and go through the motions of renouncing the Judaic faith in favor of the Catholic.

After the defeat of 1940 they had an opportunity to relocate from Paris to Hendaye, a stone’s throw from the Spanish border. Instead they chose the village of Issy-l’Évêque in Burgundy, inside the German-administered zone. In Issy, as anti-Jewish measures began to bite (bank accounts of Jews were frozen, Jews were forbidden to publish, Jews had to wear the yellow star), the truth may have begun to dawn on them, though not the full truth (it was only in the winter of 1941–1942 that word began to filter down to the administrators in the conquered territories that the solution of “the Jewish Question” was to take the form of genocidal extermination). As late as the end of 1941, Némirovsky seems to have believed that whatever might befall the Jew in the street would not befall her. In a letter addressed to Marshal Pétain, head of the Vichy puppet government, she pleads that as a “respectable” ( honorable ) foreigner—as distinct from an “undesirable”—she deserves to be left in peace.

There are two broad reasons why Irène Némirovsky should have considered herself a special case. The first is that for most of her life it had been her heart’s desire to be French; and to be fully French, in a country with a long history of harboring political refugees but notably unreceptive to notions of cultural pluralism, meant being neither a Russian émigré who wrote in French nor a French-speaking Jew. At its most juvenile (see her partly autobiographical novel Le Vin de solitude ), her wish took the form of a fantasy of being reborn as a “real” Frenchwoman with a name like Jeanne Fournier. (Némirovsky’s youthful heroines are typically spurned by their mothers but cherished by more than motherly French governesses.)

The problem for Némirovsky as a budding writer in the 1920s was that aside from her facility in the French language, the capital she commanded on the French literary market con-sisted in a corpus of experience that branded her as foreign: daily life in pre-revolutionary Russia, pogroms and Cossack raids, the Revolution and the Civil War, plus to a lesser extent the shady world of international finance. In the course of her career she would thus alternate, according to her sense of the temper of the times, between two authorial selves, one pur sang French, one exotic. As a French authoress she would compose books about “real” French families written with an irreproachably French sensibility, books with no whiff of foreignness about them. The French self took over entirely after 1940, as publishers became more and more nervous about the presence of Jewish writers on their lists.

As for the exotic self, exploiting it required a careful balancing act. To avoid being labeled a Russian who wrote in French, she would keep her distance from Russian émigré society. To avoid being cast as a Jew, she would be ready to mock and caricature Jews. On the other hand, unlike such Russian-born contemporaries as Nathalie Sarraute (née Cherniak) and Henri Troyat (né Tarasov), she published under her Russian name, in its French form, until the wartime ban on Jewish writers led her to resort to a pseudonym.

The second reason why Némirovsky should have thought she would escape the fate of the Jews is that she had cultivated influential friends on the right, even the far right. In the months between her arrest and his own, these friends were the first people her husband contacted with pleas to intercede. To bolster her case he even scoured her books for anti-Semitic quotes. All of these friends let her down, mainly because they were powerless. They were powerless because, as it began to become clear, when the Nazis said All Jews with no exceptions they meant all Jews with no exceptions.

For her compromises with the anti-Semites—who, as the Dreyfus affair had made plain a half-century before, were fully as influential in France, at all levels of society, as in Germany—Némirovsky has recently had to undergo the most searching interrogation, notably by Jonathan Weiss in his biography of her.1 I do not propose to extend that interrogation here. Némirovsky made some serious mistakes and did not live long enough to correct them. Misreading the signs, she believed, until it was too late, that she could evade the express train of history bearing down on her. Of the large body of work she left behind, some can safely be forgotten, but a surprising amount is still of interest, not only for what it tells us about the evolution of a writer now in the process of being absorbed into the French canon but as the record of an engagement with the France of her day that is never less than intelligent and is sometimes damning.

Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903. Her father was a banker with government connections. An only child, Irène had French governesses and spent summer vacations on the Côte d’Azur. When the Bolsheviks took power the Némirovskys moved to Paris, where Irène enrolled at the Sorbonne and dawdled for five years over a degree in literature, preferring partying to studying. In her free time she wrote stories. Interestingly, though Paris was the hub of international Modernism, the magazines to which she sent her work were conservative in their literary and political outlook. In 1926 she married a man from the same milieu (Russian Jewry, banking) as herself; they had two children.

  1. 1

    Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works (Stanford University Press, 2007). A translation of the illuminating new biography by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt ( La Vie d’Irène Némirovsky ), which draws heavily upon diaries and notebooks that have resurfaced in the last few years, is due to be published in the US by Knopf in 2009.

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