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 Némirovskys 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Alex­is Lan­dau is a grad­u­ate of Vas­sar Col­lege and received an MFA from Emer­son Col­lege and a PhD in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is the author of The Empire of the Sens­es and lives with her hus­band and two chil­dren in Los Angeles.