Listen to Bernard Kops interview on Tikkun Spectrum, the Jewish daily hour-long programme on Spectrum Radio, 558MW tomorrow, Wed 10 Mar at 3pm. He reads and discusses THIS ROOM IN THE SUNLIGHT with Michael Milsten. His collected poems he says, are his biography in verse.
Archive for March, 2010
The Russian-born French author of the unfinished masterpiece Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky, is something of a controversial figure in the Jewish world. Her early novel David Golder (published in France in 1929) has as its central character an unpleasant Jewish banker. She wrote stories in anti-Semitic magazines, converted to Catholicism in 1939, and to prevent herself and her family being deported to Auschwitz she appealed (unsuccessfully) to Marshall Petain, the head of the Vichy Government for clemency. These facts are well known and much discussed ( see Stuart Jeffries carefully balanced feature in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/feb/22/secondworldwar.religion)
A new biography by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt reveals even more new information about her. It was most fascinating to hear Philipponat, Nemirovsky’s daughter Denise Epstein and Nemirovsky’s translator, Sandra Smith, at Jewish Book Week ‘s closing evening on Sunday. Philipponat said Nemirovsky’s great desire was to be accepted as French and her Catholic conversion was as much connected with her application for citizenship, (which was rejected) as it was with religion and the impending Nazi threat. Denise described herself as Jewish – to audible murmurings of approval.
But the murmurings inside my own head have been about the qualities of Nemirovsky’s writing. To my mind she stands in a tradition of women writers who wrote without sentimentality about the world around her. Her dystopian vision of greed, selfishness and betrayal, her despair at the supine subjugation of France to the Nazis, meant she spared no-one. There are curious similarities with Esther Kreitman http://www.davidpaulbooks.com/diamonds.shtml who in Diamonds created in her lead character a Jewish diamond dealer as odious as David Golder or that any anti-Semitic caricaturist might have dreamt up. But Kreitman’s detached writing style, social commentary and observation, modelled on Dickens, never ventured far beyond what she knew, an enclosed world of Jewish characters, and young women who sought escape from its confines. No-one could possibly say she was anti-Semitic. Nemirovsky, howver, though writing in a similar vein – she also sought a kind of detachment and drew on Tolstoy and Chekhov for her style – had to a large degree assimilated and was seen to be detaching herself from her roots.
And so, probably unfairly, the objectivity of her characterisations of Jews are thus tainted by her own ambiguous attitudes to Judaism. And it is for this ambiguity the Jewish world will never forgive her even when praising her writing. She never fought the Jewish cause and though she recanted from her David Golder character later – as it had been taken up by anti-Semites – and her terrible fate draws sympathy – there will always be a question-mark over what she stood for. But she also is a symbol of the effects of persecution and prejudice. She wanted to establish herself in a a mono-cultural world that did not care for Jews. So she was, in every sense, a victim, and we need to have the pity for her she herself aspired to find for her characters.
Ruth Barnett, author of Person of No Nationality, spoke eloquently at Jewish Book Week of her feelings of abandonment at the age of four when her mother sent her to England to escape the Nazis. She described how it was easier in her mind to imagine that her mother was dead than to have to deal with her feelings at having been left on her own. When her mother came to take her back home to Germany in 1949, four years after the war’s end, Ruth was unable to believe it was her and had a most difficult relationship with her thereafter.
It was a fascinating session comparing the experiences of British children who were evacuuated, and also separated from their parents but who were, at the least, able to send letters home.
An interesting fact to emerge in Ruth’s session is that Susan Soyinka is related to Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner for Literature who is her brother-in-law. It all made sense in a session about inter-cultural experiences. Susan is the white, Jewish, English, author of East End to Land’s End, about the evacuation of the Jewish Free School.
Later, in the evening, Bernard Kops read from This Room In the Sunlight at West End Lane Books. As a child he wanted to escape the stifling confines of the Jewish East End, and he found his form of escape through books. Now he writes about those experiences. Not that he wants to – “inspiration seeks you – you don’t go chasing it” he explained.
Tomorrow will be busy. First with Kindertransportee Ruth Barnett’s Save The Children event at Jewish Book Week at Ipm with Karen Pollock chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust and Susan Soyinka whose written a book about the evacuation of the Jewish Free School to Cornwall. I am always surprised and interested in the people who comes to events. It brings a welcome sense of connection to that strange activity of book publishing. It will be Person of No Nationality’s first outing. Next will be Bernard Kops reading in the ecening at West End Lane Books. A nice little bookshop with a good range of titles. He is always good to watch performing and I haven’t been bored once hearing him speak. When he read on Sunday at Jewish Book Week there was an audible sigh of pleasure from the audience when he read out his first poem and you just knew you were in the right place.