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The Absence of the “Jewish Question” in Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise

Thursday, February 26, 2015| Permalink

Earlier this week, Alexis Landau shared the story behind her debut novel, The Empire of the Senses, as well as books that inspired her while she wrote. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Many questions surround the writing and eventual publication of Irène Némirovsky’s masterful last unfinished novel, Suite Francaise. For instance, why was any scholarly consideration of Némirovsky’s work nearly nonexistent before the publication of Jonathan Weiss’s biography in 2005? Her writing has also been denied canonical status, creating a yawning absence of over sixty years in which Némirovsky was erased from the literary discourse in both Europe and the U.S., despite the fact that in the 1930s she was one of the most prolific and widely read French authors of her generation.1 Then there is the mystery of the suitcase, hidden for sixty years containing Némirovsky’s unfinished manuscript, Suite Francaise (published in France in 2004), which she was writing up until the point of her deportation to Auschwitz in July of 1942. Her daughters—who miraculously survived the war—discovered the manuscript (but there are differing dates as to when they knew the manuscript existed) and had it translated. Soon after, the book became a New York Times bestseller in 2006. And in terms of Némirovsky’s identity in relationship to her position in the literary field of 1930s France, this raises even more questions, resulting in a heated, ongoing debate over whether or not Némirovsky should be classified as a Jewish writer, a French writer, an anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew, or a Russian émigré desperate to fit into French society, plagued by her conflicting and multiple identities, a debate that began with the initial reception of her novels by the French press, and continues now, most pointedly between critics Ruth Franklin and Susan Suleiman.

Given how much of Nemirovsky’s work as a novelist and short story writer dealt with themes of Jewish identity and assimilation, another central question critics have been puzzling over is the absence of Jews in Suite Francaise.

It may seem strange to complain about the absence of a certain theme or subject matter in a work of literary fiction, as opposed to talking about what is present in the text. But in Nemirovsky’s case, a writer highly conscious of her endangered position as a Russian Jewish emigrant living in France during the German occupation, it seems odd that in this last novel, which details the German occupation of a small French village—one very similar to the town where she and her family were living under increasingly stringent anti-Jewish laws, any mention of Jews and their trials and tribulations of assimilation and acceptance into French society is strikingly absent.

Some critics claim that the absence of Jews in Suite Francaise evidences Némirovsky’s lack of sympathy and identification with Jews but as Susan Suleiman explains, nothing points to this reason given how in the spring of 1942, while she was deep in the writing of the novel, Némirovsky walked around the village of Issy-L’Eveque wearing the designated yellow star—“Whether she liked it or not, she was identified as a Jew, and she made no effort to escape it.”2 Suleiman then offers what seems to be a more plausible explanation for why Némirovsky doesn’t include Jews in her novel. Given how, by the early 1940s, she had arrived at the conclusion that Jews would never fully feel, or be, fully accepted by the French, this perhaps translates into the impossibility of her representing Jews ‘together with’ the French, “as if she could not see them in the same viewfinder—or in the same story and same history.”2 Jonathan Weiss offers another conclusion—that from 1940 onward no Jews appear in any of Némirovsky work because she had now decided to fashion herself into an entirely French writer writing on French themes, which no longer included the Jewish Question. He writes: “It is doubtful that the projected volumes of Suite Francaise would have taken Jews into account; the notes Irène left behind do not reveal any Jewish characters or any reference to deportation. After the publication of The Dogs and the Wolves in 1940, Irène kept Jewishness out of her writing. As an author, she continued to create for herself a purely French identity and left no trace of her origins in her later fiction.”4

Another reason, perhaps, was that while writing Suite Francaise, Némirovsky felt the most rejected and cast out by her beloved France, and therefore used the novel as a vehicle of criticism and, in part, revenge on the French, the same land and its peoples she so idealized in her novel All Our Worldly Goods only a few years earlier. In the early summer of 1942, before her deportation, a journal entry reads, without a date: “My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it rejects me, let us think about it coldly, let us watch it lose its honor and its life. And others, what are they to me? Empires die. Nothing is important. Whether one looks from a mystical point of view or a personal one, it’s all the same. Let us keep a cold head. Harden our hearts. And wait.”5 Increasingly, from 1940 onward, life for Némirovsky and her family grew more difficult. In June of 1940, after the German occupation of Paris, the Némirovskys moved to Hotel des Voyaguers in Issy-l’Eveque. In October of 1940, a law was passed giving Jews inferior legal and social rights and most importantly, it defined Jewishness based on racial criteria. The Némirovskys were classified as both Jewish and foreign, becoming “stateless” people in the eyes of the French state, rendering their baptism certificates useless. Michel, Irène's husband, could no longer work at the bank and the publishing houses were “Arayanizing” their staff and authors, prohibiting Irène from being published there. More race laws were passed in October 1940 and June 1941 stipulating that Jews could be placed under house arrest, or deported and interned in concentration camps. Issy-l’Eveque was now in the occupied zone and the hotel where Irène and her family were living was full of German soldiers. Irène, her husband and her eldest daughter all openly wore the Jewish star.6 Even though in Issy-I’Eveque life was still relatively calm for Jews in the summer of 1941, Irène was aware that in Paris, round-ups continued—on July 16, 4,000 Jews were deported, both children and adults; between August 20 and 23, 4,000 more were arrested and the detention camp at Drancy was opened. In occupied France, Jews were no longer allowed to own radios. And on September 5, an exhibit entitled “The Jew and France,” went up in Paris. The catalogue reads: “Jews are at the root of all the troubles, all the perturbations, all the conflicts, all the revolts of the modern world.”7

In 1941, in the thick of this persecution, Irène feverishly began working on Suite Francaise. She envisioned the project as a five part novel of a thousand pages in length, and she started to write notes while simultaneously writing the book, notes that indicate how she no longer had any illusions about the French, loathsome in their defeat and collaboration, and about her own doomed fate.

But characteristic of Némirovsky, even when she decides to portray the French living under German occupation in an uncompromising light, she still conveys a sense of empathy in Suite Francaise when describing the torment of a young French woman, Lucile, who falls in love with an attractive and cultivated German soldier billeted in her home. Némirovsky is always able to see the other side and this sensitivity and acuity of vision is what elevates her writing. Némirovsky laments in her journal, in June of 1941, when the German soldiers, whom she and her husband have grown to know and like, leave their village to fight the Russians: “I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, errors. I feel sorry for these poor children. But I cannot forgive certain individuals, those who reject me, those who coldly abandon us, those who are prepared to stab you in the back. Those people…if I could just get my hands on them…”8 It makes sense how “coldly abandoned” she felt at the end of her life, how rejected and cast out she was made to feel by her desired native land given her intense attachment to the idea she maintained of herself as being fully and solely French. This is why, when, in March of 1940, for an interview with the literary magazine Les Nouvelles litteraires, when asked who she was: a French author or a Russian author writing in French, her response is so poignant given what we know of her fate:

I hope and I believe I am more a French than a Russian author. I spoke French
before speaking Russian. I have spent half of my childhood and all of my young
adulthood and married years in this country. I have never written anything in
Russian except for my schoolwork. I think and I even dream in French. All is so
totally amalgamated into what remains within me of my race and my native land,
that even with the best will in the world, I would be incapable of knowing where
one ends and the other begins.

Alexis Landau recently completed her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at USC, where she currently teaches writing. The Empire of the Senses is her first novel. Originally from Los Angeles, she lives there with her husband and two children.

1. Angela Kershaw, “Finding Irene Nemirovsky,” French Cultural Studies 18 (2007): 61.

2. Suleiman, “Jewish Question in Interwar France” 29.

3. Suleiman, “Jewish Question in Interwar France” 30.

4. Weiss 139.

5. Nemirovsky quoted in Weiss 153

6. Myriam Anissimov, preface to French edition, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, trans. Sandra Smith (New York: Vintage International, 2006) 426.

7. Weiss 143.

8. Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise 374.

9. Nemirovsky quoted in Weiss 173.

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