venerdì 30 aprile 2010

Irène Némirovsky's fine-weather friends

From The Times Literary Supplement April 28, 2010

Irène Némirovsky's fine-weather friends
As the anatomist of smart pre-war French society, she saw men on the make, women on the prowl – and the fear that would lead to her murder
Frederic Raphael

Nathalie Sarraute’s novel Les Fruits d’or (1963) was a satire, largely in dialogue, about the reception of a novel, greeted as a masterpiece and then shredded to mereness by the literary judiciary. Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française was written in 1941 and 1942; but the manuscript was not discovered, and published, until 2006. Since then, it has gone through a belittling mill similar to that of Sarraute’s fictional fiction. Hailed at first as a posthumous chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, it was talked down into a sort of documentary which did not – as prim critics so often say – “work” as a novel. It works fine, however, as a reminder of how, in May 1940, sauve qui peut became the French order of the day.

Recollected in nothing like tranquillity in the early years of the Occupation, Suite française was composed by an author in increasing danger of deportation to – as her smart erstwhile friends pretended to believe – “work in the East”; in fact, to Auschwitz. While living in suspended animation in rural Issy-l’Évêque, in Saône-et-Loire, Némirovsky had time to recall, with implacable objectivity, the disintegration of Parisian society in flight from the advancing “Boches”. Fearful for her family, she drew with a steady hand a warty profile of the France which had become – in a phrase which Picasso applied to modern art – “a sum of destructions”.

After her arrest in 1942, the sole manuscript copy of Suite française lay, for more than sixty years, in a suitcase in the keeping of her daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, to whom it was given by their father, Michel Epstein, as he too was led away to prison before being dispatched to the gas chambers. His and Némirovsky’s capital crime was that, despite persistent efforts to become naturalized, they were still classed as stateless Jews. If that was the last thing he or she wanted (or considered themselves) to be, it was certainly the last thing they were, despite the family’s recent conversion to Catholicism. Almost all of their social and literary connections were reeds that proved pliant in the increasingly virulent anti-Semitic wind.

In October 1942, Némirovsky’s daughters were able to escape only because a German officer “took from his wallet a photograph of his little girl, who was as blonde as the thirteen-year-old Denise, and said to them: ‘I give you forty-eight hours to get away’”. Némirovsky had managed to send back brave words about her treatment, and the food, in the holding camp at Pithiviers. Michel’s hope was that Irène would return one day to finish (and, no doubt, revise) the contents of the suitcase which carried the initials of his wife’s dead father, Léon. The girls were hidden, until the Liberation, under the care of Julie Dumot, who had been Léon’s secretary. The publisher André Sabatier – the only one of Némirovsky’s fine-weather friends who remained loyal – contrived to keep Julie in (meagre) funds.

During the whole of the war, Némirovsky’s mother, Fanny, was lapped in discreet comfort, thanks to the remnants of her despised husband’s fortune. When the girls sought her help afterwards, she replied that she “had no grandchildren”. She saw them as nothing but evidence of old age, a blight of which motherhood itself had been the first symptom. Fanny died in 1972, at the age of ninety-seven. Denise would recall that she only ever called her grandmother “Madame” and never received so much as a kiss on the forehead from her. Fanny lives on, and on, as Gloria, clamped in the pillory of her only child Irène’s breakthrough novel David Golder.

Its author (self-portrayed, in the same pages, as the amoral playgirl Joyce) was born in the Ukraine, but her first language was French. Both she and Nathalie Sarraute were of Jewish origin, emigrated to France and became important French writers. Sarraute lived out the war in prudent clandestinity and, as old as the century, did not die until 1999. Némirovsky was thirty-nine when she was taken away and murdered. In an interview in 1934, she had quoted an old Ukrainian (Yiddish?) saying, “One ounce of good luck in a man’s life is enough; but without that ounce, he is nothing”. Since she was, at that time, a precocious, bestselling and critically acclaimed novelist, she had reason to observe “I’ve had my ounce” and to believe that it would carry her to secure eminence in her stepmother country.

The applause lavished on the incomplete Suite française (we have only two sections of a planned five) has led to a resurrection of interest in its author. As Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt’s biography proves, Némirovsky was a prolific prodigy in her own lifetime. When La Proie was published in 1938, Jean-Pierre Maxence, in Gringoire (later a savagely pro-Nazi publication in occupied Paris), “rated it a hundred times superior to the ‘overelaborate, artificial, heavy, even lumbering style of La Nausée’”, which the authors describe as “the first philosophical novel by a certain Jean-Paul Sartre”. The archness of the gloss is typical of the obiter dicta with which the authors spruce their diligence.

Anyone who reads La Proie today is likely to second Maxence’s judgement. Its account of political and social mutability between the wars has lost none of its edge. The rise and fall of Jean-Luc Daguergne is that of Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le Noir, transposed to the Third Republic; but less schematic and more trenchantly observed. Némirovsky displays an ability to inhabit male and female sexuality with equal conviction; she illustrates how close desire is to heartlessness, how gratitude spawns treachery and ambition self-destruction. There is often a leaven of comedy. She greatly admired Chekhov (and wrote a biography of him); she also admired Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and Noël Coward’s Cavalcade. “Deep down”, she noted, “acceptance of life is a sense of humour.” The last words were noted in English.

Némirovsky’s father Léon (Leonid) had Khazar origins and the toughness to endure life on his own from the age of ten. He too would be portrayed, with bestselling cruelty (and some sympathy), in David Golder, the novel which enabled twenty-seven-year-old Irène to wake up and find herself famous in 1930. The young Léon wheeled and dealt “from Moscow to the Pacific” (with alcohol the only medicine for his ailing lungs), until he had enough money to marry and head for France, where he prospered until he was brought down, somewhat, in the crash precipitated by Ivar Kreuger in 1932. Le Vin de solitude (1935) contains a dispassionate account of Léon’s financial humiliation and imminent death.

While Irène lampooned her mother’s vanity and social climbing in Le Bal (a novella first published, pseudonymously, in 1929), she never accused her father, however mercenary he could be, of the “resigned mediocrity” which she ascribed, in other places, to the “sagging ghetto Jew”. The world of the shtetl held no charm for the Némirovskys. Yiddishkeit represented everything they wanted to leave behind. Money alone could procure a way out of Russia and into the society about which, even as a girl, Irène had read so much in Stendhal, Maupassant and Balzac.

As The Courilov Affair (1933) shows, Irène’s tense childhood left her with a cruel sense of the glittering fragility of the tsarist regime in which “the Jews” were repeatedly the scapegoats of choice. The name Némirovsky means “one who knows no peace”; it derives from the city of Nemirov, in Galicia, where in 1648, the Cossacks slit the throats of 6,000 Jews. In the pogroms of 1905, the Tsar was an honorary member of the Black Hundreds, whose slogan was “Lynch the Jews, save Russia”. As thousands of Jews were slaughtered yet again, the baby Irène is said to have been hidden behind a bed by the Némirovskys’ cook, Macha, with an Orthodox cross around her neck, “praying that fate would spare her”.

A few years later she starred in a schoolgirl troupe reciting Rostand in Kiev. Congratulated on her French by the governor-general, General Sukhomlinov, she “was excited to find myself face to face with the symbol of terror, tyranny and cruelty. I saw a charming man . . . who had the gentlest eyes imaginable”. After she told him that she went to France every year, he said, “Ah my child, how I envy you . . . ! I wish I could go back and live my whole life quietly there”. When Irène told her nanny that she longed to be French, “Zézelle” said, “You’re right. It’s the most beautiful country in the world”. Why is France the one country that never loses its looks?

In 1917, as revolutionary convulsions shook St Petersburg, Zézelle would drown herself in the icy waters of the Moika, thus supplying a donnée for Les Mouches d’automne and a clutch of other stories. The bad mother and the good servant feature regularly in Némirovsky’s work, and life. Her abiding, and fertile, hatred was directed against the narcissistic Fanny, who milked and betrayed her husband and left her to be raised (as it happened, kindly) by hired hands.

David Golder – in which an ageing financier is portrayed lurching towards a lonely death, on the ship which is taking him from Bolshevik Russia towards Constantinople – has been read as the work of a “self-hating Jew” who “did no favours to her own people”. It also shows how keenly Irène had read Balzac’s Le Père Goriot whose daughters – like King Lear’s Goneril and Regan – are no nicer than the wanton and grasping Joyce Golder.

Did Némirovsky satirize Jews simply in order to ingratiate herself with an alien audience? Anti-Semitism was a stylish conceit in the Parisian circles to which she so diligently sought entry, but the émigrés’ world of conspicuous insecurity was also the one she knew best; it was her life-class. Memory kept it vivid, as it did the scene, from the early days of the Bolshevik revolution, of a mock execution which, in Irène’s view, presaged the horrors to come.

Like Proust, only more so, she at once acknowledged and derided the Jewishness she could never shuck (although females are never quite “Jews”, even to themselves, to the degree to which the anti-Semite takes males to be). Literary “self-hatred” can combine self-advertisement with a play for exemption. Karl Marx’s early polemic against the “huckster race” is an example; Harold Pinter’s bully boy Goldstein, in The Birthday Party, just might be another. Self-criticism is, however, fundamental to Judaism: it metastasized into both Communist and psychoanalytic confessional modes.

Némirovsky said later that she would never have written David Golder (and other stories) in so scathing a tone, if she had known that Hitler was imminent. In fact, the dormant bacilli of the Dreyfus affair, and its vocabulary, were always, like shingles, ripe for resuscitation in the Right as it itched for revenge. Meanwhile, the young Robert Brasillach, although already an acolyte of Charles Maurras’s right-wing Action française, stepped out of the ranks of Tuscany to cheer Irène’s early work: “this young woman of both Russian and Jewish origin . . . [grasps] the secrets of our race better than French writers”.

Only with the rise of Fascism, and then of Nazism, was Brasillach engorged by the prospect of power and happily perverted by the genocidal malice which, some say, has to be excused in Céline’s lethal frivolity. In the same spirit, after the defeat of 1940, Henri Béraud – a “friend” of Némirovsky who had won the Prix Goncourt in 1922 – chose to associate Jews with the English and with Freemasons and conclude, “In all conscience, yes, one should be anti-Semitic”. Anti-Semitism is often less a recondite sentiment than a social contagion; opportunism in its Sunday best. Under the Occupation, it could be worn, with profit, all week. Brasillach then advocated giving “serious thought to the deportation of little Jewish children”.

For all their industry, Philipponnat and Lienhardt lack the critical acuity to deal worthily with Némirovsky’s life and times. The publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 1920s is said, straight-facedly it seems, to “give a meaning to the absurdity of the war years”. Later, we read of “the Jewish dread of death, and the panic it instils in its victims”, quite as if Gentiles were immune to any such dread. Then again, the moral of Snow in Autumn and The Courilov Affair is alleged to be that “all effort is pointless and that the individual may not even exist”. After this vacuous philosophizing, the death of Léon Némirovsky in Nice in the autumn of 1932 is ticketed with a sentence that reads “Poor old dad”.

Similarly, when the Epsteins ignored advice to leave for the US, the authors comment, with glib irony, “Where is one safer than in the bosom of one’s family? And Irène Némirovsky’s family, more than ever, was France”. After Némirovsky remarks, in La Proie, “Youth is a precious wine that is usually drunk in a dirty glass”, the authors seek to cap it with “Daguergne wanted crystal, the wine had gone off”. They specialize in caps that don’t fit. When Pétain institutes measures to “squeeze Jews out of society”, they remark, “One cannot really pretend that Vichy encouraged philanthropy”. We are told, further down, that when Denise wore her yellow star to the village school in Issy, no child made any comment. “Yet”, we are then asked, “who at Issy would have criticised her for not wearing it?” As if there were no corbeaux in douce France! A few pages later, the authors explain that Laval, “to satisfy the quotas” (which he had proposed, of candidates for extermination) “would merely suggest that children, even naturalised ones, should not be separated from their parents during this distressing odyssey”.

Suite française occupies a place in Némirovsky’s oeuvre not unlike that of the last section of À la Recherche du temps perdu, in which Proust’s narrator perceives that the gratin to which he has deferred so sedulously, and so long, is a decadent crust. Redemption is recovered personality. Némirovsky’s last work mentions the word Jew only twice. All the vices which had seemed specific to Jews she now realized to be pandemic: her fastidious Parisian aesthete, Langelet, in his flight, cares more for his porcelain collection than for France itself. He scorns the Jewish fugitives hoping to reach Portugal or South America, but all his refinement cannot save him from being run over in the common panic. In the margin of her manuscript, describing his end, Némirovsky scribbled “the end of the liberal bourgeoisie”. Similarly, Hugo Grayer, in the short story “Le Spectateur”, presumes himself too fine for the doomed Europe which he abandons, only to find that he has taken flight on a literally sinking ship.

The Némirovskys’ failure to get further away from danger than Issy-l’Évêque remains puzzling. Their nanny, Cécile, was sure that they could all have crossed into the adjacent “Free Zone” and thence to Switzerland. Irène chose to depend for salvation on the two-faced Paul Morand (whose 1934 satire France la doulce had denounced Jewish movie people as “Parasites”) and his wife Hélène (a salonnière for collabos). Fame was the snare that disposed her to put her faith in men such as Jacques Benoist-Mechin (a priggish Vichy minister and a historian, like the late Alan Clark, half in love with the Wehrmacht) and the schizoid Bernard Grasset, who had made a fortune from publishing David Golder (as well as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and was soon the dear friend of Otto Abetz, the German “ambassador” in Paris.

Until 1940, Irène’s knowledge of France had been limited to Paris, Biarritz (where her mother went for her annual intake of lovers) and the Riviera. In Issy-l’Évêque she discovered “the marvellously effective malice” of peasant life. In an appended passage of Suite française, aware at last that she was on her own, she wrote: “Hatred+contempt=March 1942 . . . . What is this country doing to me? . . . let us consider it dispassionately, let us watch it lose its honour and its life blood . . . . Everything that is done in France within a certain social class has only one motive: fear. Pierre Laval and the stench of carrion”. Sewing the yellow star on Denise’s school clothes (two months after the child’s First Communion) was Némirovsky’s first experience of needlework.

In those months of rural dread, Irène had time to discover that the Vichy myth of “la France profonde” was as fatuous as her trust in Parisian decency: “Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money and doesn’t give a thought to the rest of the world”. Having spent twenty years anatomizing men on the make (and women on the prowl) in the smart world, Némirovsky came abruptly to realize that there were selfish, callous operators everywhere.

One of the sour criticisms of Suite française has been that the main German character is depicted as a piano-playing charmer. He must be based on Lieutenant Franz Hohmann, commander of the “correct” soldiers who bounced dear little “Elissabeth” Epstein on their grey-green knees. Michel Epstein, a fluent linguist, acted as interpreter and received an amiable reference from Hohmann when the latter left for Russia in 1941. Soon afterwards, the bad Germans flew in and licensed René Bousquet (President Mitterrand’s backdoor friend) and his police to do their worst with the “Youpins”.

This is a biography which flows level to its sources. Its thoroughness and its shallowness derive, I suspect, from dual authorship. It lacks any incisive analysis of Némirovsky’s work or of her character. The family’s conversion to Catholicism is treated, altogether too tactfully, as if possibly inspired by some kind of spiritual revelation, of which there is no hint in Irène’s temperament nor trace in her last work. Heine, Mahler, Karl Kraus and Schoenberg (who later reverted to Judaism) all embraced Christianity under social duress. Understandable as Irène’s baptism may have been, it supplied no salvation this side of the grave. The French Catholic Church largely shared Charles Maurras’s view that the defeat of the Third Republic was a “divine surprise”. The Church retrieved its honour, if it did, only in October 1942, when Archbishop Jules Salièges of Toulouse, alone of all his episcopal colleagues, denounced the rafles of Jews from the pulpit.

As for Némirovsky’s “self-hatred”, a single intelligence might have guessed that the mercilessness directed at “her own people” concealed a much wider scorn. Her underlying topic was the interplay of emotion and callousness, the alternations of vanity and despair, in all the players of the world’s game. Imaginative impersonation is the mark of the natural novelist; fiction is where the truth can be found; documentary is too often where it is confected. Némirovsky could play male or female, be villain or dupe, candid or duplicitous. She moved the black and the white pieces with equal versatility. The insolence of her impostures was a function of an isolation from which neither success nor marriage dispensed her.

Melodrama became realism in stories such as The Courilov Affair, set with precisely recalled decor in the top echelon of tsarist Russia. Stored in the writer’s memory, the saccharine Sukhomlinov became the all- too-human Courilov. The conceit – a revolutionary assassin infatuated with the man he has been deputed to kill – was used, more schematically, by Jean-Paul Sartre in Les Mains sales, where Hugo and Hoederer double for Léon M. and Courilov. Léon, the professional terrorist, tells us, early on, that his mother never loved him. The double agent disowns his father and his mother: the mission is paramount, as writing was to Irène Némirovsky.

Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
Translated by Euan Cameron
466pp. Chatto and Windus. £25.
978 0 701 18288 5

Frederic Raphael’s most recent novel, Final Demands, the concluding volume of the Glittering Prizes trilogy, was reviewed in the TLS on April 23.

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