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Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Hating Jew

The French author Irène Némirovsky lived through one world war and died at Hitler's hands in the second.  Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Kiev at the turn of the last century, she came of age just in time to flee revolutionary Russia for Paris.  There she launched a wildly successful literary career, wrote more than 15 books, joined the ranks of the literati, married, and had two children. She was the model of the modern assimilated Jew.

Relevant Links
The Némirovsky Paradox  Francine Prose, The Némirovsky Paradox. A new biography unconvincingly defends Némirovsky, whose work, rediscovered in 2004 to worldwide adulation, was then revealed to harbor an anti-Semitic streak.
Scandale Française  Ruth Franklin, New Republic. Given all that has come to light from Némirovsky’s recently published work in English, those who apologize for or deny her anti-Semitism can do so no longer.
The Devil and Jean-Paul Sartre  Clive James, Slate. If Sartre wanted to avoid examining his own behavior-and clearly he did-he would need to develop a manner of writing philosophy in which he could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing. To the lasting bamboozlement of the civilized world, he succeeded.
The Némirovsky Paradox  Francine Prose, New York Times. A new biography unconvincingly defends Némirovsky, whose work, rediscovered in 2004 to worldwide adulation, was then revealed to harbor an anti-Semitic streak.
Scandale Française  Ruth Franklin, New Republic. Given all that has come to light from Némirovsky’s recently published work in English, those who apologize for or deny her anti-Semitism can do so no longer.
The Devil and Jean-Paul Sartre  Clive James, Slate. If Sartre wanted to avoid examining his own behavior—and clearly he did—he would need to develop a manner of writing philosophy in which he could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing. To the lasting bamboozlement of the civilized world, he succeeded.

To judge by All Our Worldly Goods—one of her last novels, recently published in the United States for the first timeNémirovsky was a fine, even first-rate, writer.  The book is a marvelous, decades-spanning love story that starts just before the First World War and ends after the imagined conclusion of the second.  Némirovsky's keen observation of the Hardelots, the bourgeois family at the center of the novel, is sometimes lacerating but girded with a stout admiration for the family members and their proud, stubborn proprieties.

Agnès Florent and Pierre Hardelot, childhood friends in the small French town of Saint-Elme, have grown up together, and, over time, fallen deeply in love.  Though Pierre's parents wanted him to marry a girl from a wealthier family, they reluctantly allow him to marry Agnès.  Then the war starts, and Pierre is called up.  We follow the separated couple, their parents, and their newborn son in a series of extraordinarily well-told vignettesthe family fleeing Saint-Elme for Paris under German fire, Pierre's visits from the front, his time at war.  

While historical events play out, Némirovsky never takes her eyes off Pierre and Agnès' relationship.  It is always at the forefront, growing richer and deeper even in scenes in which neither of them appears.  They make it through the war and start to rebuild in a changed society, not suspecting that history will repeat itself all too soon.

The novel shows us exactly what the old ways were, how they died, and what was lost and gained.  At first, we see the family's bourgeois norms supporting them as their world collapses: When Pierre's mother's thinks she can't flee any farther, her fear of being seen crying in public almost physically picks her up and pushes her forward.  But then we see how war exhausts those same proprieties.  The family is so happy to have survived that correct social behavior hardly seems to matter.

Némirovsky's focus is on the social and personal effects of war.  These she knew first hand: All Our Worldly Goods was written in the early 1940's, while Némirovsky was keeping a low profile in a rural town much like Saint-Elme.  But she is strangely indifferent to war's political and moral angles.  Stranger still, All Our Worldly Goods is one-hundred-percent free of Jews.  It was written in the middle of World War II.  Némirovsky was hiding in the countryside precisely because she was Jewish.  Yet there is, incredibly, not a single mention in the book of Jews, Jewry, or Judaism.  Why might this be?

Here we come to the problem with Némirovsky: She was an anti-Semite.  There is no evidence that she was a fascist; but, as Ruth Franklin reports in her definitive 2008 essay in the New Republic, Némirovsky trafficked in "the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes."  Her early novel David Golder, which made the 26-year-old Némirovsky a household name in France, featured a Jewish oil executive with an "enormous" hooked nose and a greedy wife.  Later, in an attempt to spare herself and her family anti-Jewish persecution, she converted to Catholicism. After Némirovsky's arrest, her husband wrote to a German official that while she was ethnically Jewish, she had little sympathy for her people—as her books amply demonstrate.  She wrote for fascist journals; All Our Worldly Goods was first published as a serial in the far-right newspaper Gringoire.

When Némirovsky wrote about Jews, she denied them compassion.   When she wrote with compassionas she did in All Our Worldly Goods and in her later Suite Française, which extends a kind hand even to the young Wehrmacht soldiers occupying a French townshe didn't write about Jews. 

Hers was a very modern kind of anti-Semitism: She was anti-Jewish by being a-Jewish.  Her ideal world was not one in which Jews were persecuted or exterminated.  It was one in which Jews had simply never been invented, in which the ancient, grubby problem of Judaism had never arisen.  

Or perhaps what we see in her later work is the only response her politics allowed her to make to the persecution of Jews: to stop writing about Jews at all.

So, how should we think about Némirovsky? Do we give her prejudice a pass because of her brilliance? Do we write off the brilliance because of her prejudice?  Where do the facts of the Holocaust and its unique evil enter into the moral calculus?  For suggestions, if not answers, we can turn to Némirovsky's youngest daughter, Élisabeth Gille, whose first book, written in the early 1990's, is now out in English for the first time.

The Mirador (the title means "watchtower" in French) is a unique mélange of fact, fiction, and autobiography.  It is not an autobiography of Gille, but of her motheror, more properly, what Gille calls her "dreamed memories" of her mother.  The memories are "dreamed" because Gille was just five years old when her mother was arrested by French police and sent to Auschwitz; by Gille's own admission, she remembers little.  These memories, starting with Némirovsky's childhood in Kiev and continuing until her arrest, are instead based on Némirovsky's conversations with Gille's older sister, Nemirovsky's books and letters, and other writers' works.  It is this absence of contemporary experience and first-hand knowledge that makes The Mirador so problematic and so interesting. 

Gille should have taken a page from Némirovsky, who wrote that "the historical and revolutionary facts" of a narrative "must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides must be described in detail."  By contrast, the first-person narrator in The Mirador too often lapses into a third-person history lesson, giving us sentences like this one: "During the presidency of Paul Deschanel, the 'Blue Horizon Chamber' and Millerand's administration were interested only in obtaining reparations from Germany, which was growing increasingly defiant."

This problem would be merely stylistic if it didn't contribute to a more consequential problem: The book feels like an act of ventriloquism.  Famous names and events are dropped.  Sentences meant to foreshadow seem like forced attempts at historical context.  Scores are settled, but whose? Némirovsky's lips move but, all too often, Gille speaks.

As a result The Mirador is best read for its insight not into Némirovsky or the era in which she lived but into Gille and her responses to her mother's twin legacies of greatness and prejudice. Put another way, The Mirador is not biography, it is judgmenta daughter's very-much-in-progress accounting of her mother.

To her credit, Gille doesn't shy away from her mother's anti-Semitism, though it clearly pains and confuses her.  Gille's Némirovsky looks back from the vantage point of 1942 and recognizes the blatant anti-Semitism in David Golder. So far, so good: The real Némirovsky did later express some regret for that book's excesses.  But Gille-as-Némirovsky goes further, apologizing for writing the book in the first place and wondering whether she "furthered the arguments of the anti-Semites." From our remove, this is almost too easy to imagine: of course she would apologize. How could any human not? But the real Nemirovsky did no such thing, as far as we know, and her political disinterest (blindness?) suggests that she might not have understood the consequences of her earlier actions.

Clive James, in his book of essays Cultural Amnesia, assigns the descent of Europe into madness as the great test of the 20th-century intellectual. Camus, the Resistance fighter, passed the test and deserves our adulation.  Sartre, a coward during the war and an anti-Nazi braggart afterward, failed and deserves our condemnation. But if Sartrewho livedfailed, what are we to think of Nemirovsky, who died? Her death cannot be the price paid for her sins; neither can it be her absolution. In the end, her anti-Semitism and her death are, and must remain, separate. But can death at Auschwitz shield her from the test? And if it can, must it?

Dan Kagan-Kans is a program officer at the Tikvah Fund.  He lives in New York.

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Sam Schulman on October 25, 2011 at 9:18 am (Reply)
A fine and noble piece--and amazing that it is the first I've seen about Nemirovksky that makes this point, rather than merely gushing. One thing should be said, however. Among the French, in the period in which Nemirovsky wrote, loudly proclaiming one's anti-Nazi and philosemitic beliefs turned out to be no predictor of behavior during the Occupation, as Simon Epstein shows in his book "Un paradoxe français." Vichy--not only its back offices but its enforcement officials--was larded with former members of anti-fascist committees, which protested the treatment of Jews by Hitler and the like. Nemirovsky's silence on these matters she took to her early grave. Who knows what would have happened to her views and her writing had she survived 1942, with the knowledge that the defense mechanisms (many Jews had done much worse than merely deceive themselves, as Nemirovksy did, in the face of the juggernaut) had been overwhelmed by the facts?
Dvorah getzler on October 25, 2011 at 10:58 am (Reply)
What a mean-spirited and judgemental article! Nemirovsky's and Sartre's positions don't seem to me to be remotely comparable. And have we the right to judge Nemirovsky merely because she and we shared/share our Jewishness? Did she not have the right to prefer opting out? As far as I am aware, she never asked for anyone's sympathy because she was Jewish. Opting out (even conversion to Catholicism) did not save her, something which we can assume caused her no little anguish on the journey to Auschwitz and during whatever limited time she spent there. Couldn't we permit her memory the respect of leaving her alone now? What is the reviewer trying to say--that it all served her right? Or perhaps this: "Listen, readers, this is the fate of those who leave the fold, no matter how talented, and it will serve you right,too!" As noted: mean-spirited! My advice: Go ahead, readers, and admire, even enjoy, Nemirovsky's considerable gifts; don't force your problems on her, don't moralise, don't rob her in retrospect of her right to free choice.
Alan Astro on October 25, 2011 at 1:23 pm (Reply)
Finally: Némirovsky's Jewish self-hatred put as clearly as possible.
joe on October 25, 2011 at 1:57 pm (Reply)
When it comes to self-hatred, Nemirovky can't hold a candle to Gertrude Stein--who, despite being Jewish (and a lesbian), safely sat out World War II in Vichy France, thanks to a Nazi collaborator friend. Stein even said once that Hitler should get the Nobel Peace Price. Yet Kagan-Kans provides no mention of her. Why? Perhaps because, unlike Nemirovsky, Stein was a political reactionary (she loved Spain's Franco) and, thus, was a right-winger--the bent of JID!
Alan Astro on October 25, 2011 at 4:07 pm (Reply)
Joe: The article was about Némirovsky, who has received a lot of idolatrous praise recently--and is a rather second-rate writer. Not that Stein's genius excuses her--but did the author of this article "have" to mention Stein? And, Dvorah: We could gladly "leave her alone" if she hadn't been generally lauded by the likes of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. If there are those who praise her loudly, I don't see why one shouldn't point out what is wrong with such praise.
Sam Schulman on October 25, 2011 at 4:22 pm (Reply)
Ms.Getzler, I would agree with your generous sentiments completely if Nemirovsky were like Edith Stein, who was called by Roman Catholicism and became a nun out of deep conviction--and who was killed by the Nazis--without ever turning on her former identity. (There is a wonderful book on Stein by Alasdair Macintyre.) But Nemirovsky was a novelist, writing about herself, and she not only wrote out her own identity, which is of interest to any reader, but also trafficked in anti-Jewish stereotypes--which goes quite a bit farther, condemning her own identity.

From what I can bear to read of her writing, her self-betrayal is more intriguing than her novels. Also intriguing to me is the fascination her writing holds for highly assimilated American Jews who are unaware of the back story we learn here.
Alan Astro on October 25, 2011 at 9:45 pm (Reply)
Dear Mr. Schulman, I could not agree with you more. I do think that Dan Kagan-Kans was perhaps a little unfair to Némirovsky's daughter, Élisabeth Gille, who moved light-years away from her mother's Jewish self-hatred, even though she herself was not raised in a Jewish milieu--an evolution all the more admirable. I allow myself to cite my article on Gille from the "Jewish Women's Encyclopedia":
PHILIPPONNAT on October 26, 2011 at 3:49 am (Reply)
"All Our Worldly Goods" was not written in the middle of World War II. Némirovsky began to write it months before the invasion, and by fall 1940 it was already finished. No wonder there is "not a single mention in the book of Jews, Jewry, or Judaism." Furthermore, Némirovsky was not "hiding in the countryside precisely because she was Jewish:" She fled from Paris before June 1940 [when the Nazis occupied France]. I'm sorry to say that there is no "evidence" of Némirovsky's being anti-Semitic, only suspicions by evil-minded readers; on the contrary, there are many evidences of her anti-fascism, the first ones in 1934. Last but not least, where did you find that "Némirovsky wrote to Marshal Pétain that while she was ethnically Jewish, she had little sympathy for her people?" I've got a genuine copy of this letter : not one of such words in it.
Olivier Philipponnat, biographer of Némirovsky
The Editors, Jewish Ideas Daily on October 26, 2011 at 11:37 am (Reply)
Indeed, it was not Némirovsky but her husband who wrote that she was a woman "who, though originally Jewish, had no sympathy [for Judaism], and all her books show this."

We regret the error and extend our thanks to M. Philipponnat for pointing it out.

The text has been corrected.
Alan Astro on October 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm (Reply)
Cher M. Philipponnat, try reading "David Golder" for evidence of her anti-semitism. But there are none so blind as those who will not see. Does she have to operate a gas chamber for you to be convinced?
PHILIPPONNAT on October 26, 2011 at 3:50 pm (Reply)
I read "David Golder" three times in its original language. What I read was a novel, not a pamphlet; it's a satire of the "nouveaux riches," not of the Jews. As a (pretty upset) Jewish reporter put it in 1930, "Némirovsky is not anti-semitic, neither is she Jewish." Not far from truth, though Némirovsky never hid her being Jewish: "I'm too proud of it," she said. She even thought that Golder was highly representative, to her eyes (not mine), of "Jewish qualities" (the ones of her father). Undeniably, you may find in this novel some anti-semitic stereotypes ; I think, nevertheless, that this is not enough to make her a true anti-semitic believer. You find the very same ones in the novels of the great Yiddish writer Shalom Asch, for instance, or even in Zangwill's "Ghetto Comedies."
Alan Astro on October 26, 2011 at 8:28 pm (Reply)
Cher monsieur, you're not the only around here who reads French, or speaks it. And you're not the only one who's published on her: I refer you to Alan Astro, “Two Best-Selling French Jewish Women’s Novels from 1929,” Symposium 52 (1999): pp. 241-54. I was the one who dug up the now famous interview in L'univers israélite. And it's precisely that she wasn't Asch or Zangwill that removes any right for her to deal in stereotypes. Context. It is amazing how this writer of littérature de gare is defended bec et ongles by her fans.
SW on October 27, 2011 at 9:35 am (Reply)
An interesting article and set of exchanges which follow.

What is true as it is certain is that when the enemy of Jews defines one as Jewish, being fully assimilated as was Némirovsky or fully converted as was Stein, the end result is the same. Whether one becomes a member of a Yevsektsiya [the Jewish section of the Bolshevik Party] or holds forth as a devout atheist, the end result is the same. Whether one attends minyans regularly or leans to a self-hating anti-semitism, the result will be the same.

One may quibble about one's "Jewish" position across the gray areas of religious and political definitions, but the hardest and fullest definition comes not from us, but from our enemies.

For this, an Auschwitz awaited many. What awaits us next? It is an unnerving question.
PHILIPPONNAT on October 27, 2011 at 10:36 am (Reply)
"Whoever wants to drown his dog, says it has rabies" (Molière). The end.
Alan Astro on October 27, 2011 at 7:01 pm (Reply)
I don't know why you think you have the right to declare the discussion closed. Do you insist upon having the last word? Go ahead, have it.
SW on October 30, 2011 at 3:52 pm (Reply)
It is often a problem to respond with someone's quote as an argument. Molière is also reputed to have said, "A learned fool is more a fool than an ignorant fool." Molière never said, "Yeder nar iz klug far zikh aleyn." But he could have, I suppose. Molière cannot answer, "What awaits us next?" What awaited Némirovsky, she probably could not imagine. Stein and so many others as well. The lesson is for us to ponder.
Tevya Zee on December 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm (Reply)
The fact that her death was committed by the very people she admired shows how sick the anti-Semite is. No matter how literary these self-hating Jews are, they only aid the Jew haters.
Alan Astro on December 19, 2011 at 3:47 pm (Reply)
I certainly won't disagree with you, Tevya.

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