To the Editors:

While warmly appreciating Nathaniel Rich’s generous and comprehensive assessment of my book, Politics and Literature at the Dawn of World War II [NYR, December 21, 2023], may I clarify a point about Irène Némirovksy’s Suite française? According to Rich,

the near-total absence of Jewish characters in Suite française is as much an aesthetic blunder as a moral one. The story of Némirovsky’s own efforts to secure protection from Vichy France would have neatly complemented the narratives of vanity and self-delusion that define the novel.

Rich then quotes the letter in which Némirovsky begged Marshal Pétain to distinguish her as a French woman of letters from ordinary Jewish immigrants: “undesirable and the honorable foreigners.” To enhance her appeal, she cites as a reference André Chaumeix, a director of the prestigiously conservative Revue des deux Mondes, to which she has contributed. “He could attest to my character,” she writes.

Read in light of the novel she would go on to write, this letter bristles with unintended irony. Chaumeix was not just a director of the Revue but a strong supporter of Pétain’s collaborationism as well as a frequent visitor to his residence in Vichy’s Hôtel du Parc. But neither Pétain (as Rich notes) nor Chaumeix ever lifted a finger on Némirovsky’s behalf. On the contrary, her biographers argue that Chaumeix is the original behind the fictional character of Gabriel Corte, a writer so infatuated with his own prestige that he cares for almost nothing and no one else.

If this is true, Némirovsky’s portrayal of Corte could well be read as a covert critique of her own earlier self: of her sense of entitlement, of her assumption that literary distinction placed her not just outside the world of politics but above “the undesirable”: the sort of people that Corte despises when he sees them on the road. And let us note what happens to the only character in Suite française who entertains an antisemitic thought. Not long after Charlie Langelet tells himself “with a scornful smile” that he can safely stay in France during the Occupation because “he was neither Jewish nor a Mason, thank God,” he is fatally struck by a car.

James Heffernan
Hanover, New Hampshire