Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Hating Jew

This is a guest post by Dan Kagan-Kans.  This article was first published on October 25, 2011 by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with permission.
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.
To judge by All Our Worldly Goods—one of her last novels, recently published in the United States for the first time—Némirovsky 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 vignettes—the 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 compassion—as 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 town—she 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 mother—or, 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 judgment—a 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 Sartre—who lived—failed, 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.
(Photo: nathangibbs)