Friday, January 25, 2008

The Party's Over, Irène Némirovsky

Like just about everyone else who read it, I was totally absorbed in Suite Francaise when it came out a couple of years ago: an unfinished novel, by a writer who would ultimately die at Auschwitz, about people who had lost their home under the Nazi Occupation and would find themselves not only having to get along with their captors, but in at least one case falling in love.

The novel had two advantages you don't normally see in literature from the time. One was an absolute sense of being in the middle of an event as it is happening, of witnessing events which seemed like on-the-spot reportage.

The other was that it had a view of Nazis that was not completely monstrous, a view which said (as well as the author could manage at that time) that monstrous people are not incapable of human feeling.

The author died before she could finish the novel, but in a sense the book did have a sense of completeness to it, as Nemirovsky's daughter -- who transcribed the novel -- detailed her mother's career and included a considerable amount of her father's correspondence, which shows him doing everything he could to save himself and his wife.

I can't locate my review of it, but here are some quick thoughts from 2006 while I was writing it:

I finished "Suite Francaise" this morning and got so into writing about that I was nearly late for work.

You end it with a real feeling of heartbreak and triumph.

To read the absorbing and intimately detailed unfinished novel -- where so many descriptions have the breath of immediacy to them -- then to read Nemirovsky's notes on her epic-scale plans that would not be realized, then to read those desperate letters by her and her family in which they tried to stave off the machinations of Vichy France, and then to read the truly amazing story of how the manuscript was hidden away for decades, with even her children unaware of what exactly they had on their hands until one of them started transcribing it only a few years ago ... well, it all makes for a staggering literary experience.

To read it is experience resurrection. The book you are holding in your hands is a book that has been brought back from the dead.

Maybe this was a little too good to be true.

As Ruth Franklin details at some length in her latest article for The New Republic, in which she reviews Jonathan Weiss's Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works:

The real irony of the Suite Francaise sensation is not that a great work of literature was waiting unread in a notebook for sixty years before finally being brought to light. It is that this accomplished but unexceptional novel, having acquired the dark frame of Auschwitz, posthumously capped the career of a writer who made her name by trafficking in the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes. As Weiss's important and prodigiously researched biography makes clear, Némirovsky was the very definition of a self-hating Jew. Does that sound too strong? Well, here is a Jewish writer who owed her success in France entre deux guerres in no small measure to her ability to pander to the forces of reaction, to the fascist right. Némirovsky's stories of corrupt Jews-- some of them even have hooked noses, no less!--appeared in right-wing periodicals and won her the friendship of her editors, many of whom held positions of power in extreme-right political circles. When the racial laws in 1940 and 1941 cut off her ability to publish, she turned to those connections to seek special favors for herself, and even went so far as to write a personal plea to Marshal Pétain. And after her arrest her husband, Michel Epstein, pleaded with the German ambassador for her release, arguing that "it seems ... unjust and illogical to me that the Germans would imprison a woman who, though originally Jewish, has no sympathy, and all her books show this ... for Judaism." About her books he was correct. But what seems even more unjust and illogical is that such a person should now be lionized as a significant writer of the Holocaust.

Franklin makes her case at some length, but at the end I wasn't absolutely convinced, and didn't find myself loathing Némirovsky quite as much as I guess I'm supposed to. The reason is that somewhere midway through her article I found myself asking a question that first occurred to me when I read Philip Roth: when is a self-hating Jew not a self-hating Jew? Is it okay to make Jewish caricatures if you're a Jew? Is it okay to use the word "nigger" if you're black?

In the early Roth novels, there's a very thin line between "I'm a Jew, and I hate myself" and "I'm a Jew and I'm fine with it, but what I'm portraying here is the deep self-consciousness of other people who are Jews, not all of whom are fine with it and some of whom aren't very good."

There's the soldier in "Defender of the Faith," who uses his Jewish identity, and plays on the guilt of his sergeant, just so he can goof off. There's Brenda Patinkin's family, which has everything money can buy, even a nose job for their daughter. And there's Alexander Portnoy, whose Jewishness -- or whose heightened sensitivity to it, whichever you prefer -- drives him bonkers. His dad is weak, put-upon, and constipated; his mom is overbearing, hyper-hygienic, and endlessly melodramatic -- she renders guilt “like fat from a chicken” -- and the Jewish world of their son's childhood turns Alex into a basket case:

“You mustn’t do this, you can’t do that – hold it! Don’t! You’re breaking an important law! What law? Whose law? They might as well have had plates in their lips and rings through their noses and painted themselves blue for all the sense they made!”

“Please," he asks, "who crippled us like this? Who made us so morbid and hysterical and weak?”

Just good, harsh fun, we say today; back then, people weren't so sure. Following the publication of Goodbye, Columbus, Roth was asked by the moderator at a heated panel discussion at Yeshiva University: "Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you've written if you were living in Nazi Germany?"

I haven't read the early Némirovsky novels Franklin refers to or the Weiss biography, so I can't really comment at length -- but is it possible, as some of Némirovsky defenders have framed it, that the kind of Jews portrayed did exist? Is there a broader context in which this story can be viewed?

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