Dystopian visions


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.

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