History with a Capital H

Before Auschwitz: Irène Némirovsky and the Cultural Landscape of Inter-war France

by Angela Kershaw

New York and London: Routledge, 2009, 233pp., $95.00, hardcover.


The Life of Irène Némirovsky, author of Suite Française, 1903-1942

by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated by Euan Cameron

New York: Knopf, 2010, 448 pp., $35.00, hardcover


Reviewed by Susan Rubin Suleiman


The huge difference in price between these two books indicates the relative marketability of literary theory and criticism versus biography in today’s publishing world.  Angela Kershaw’s closely argued study of Némirovsky’s fiction and Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt’s narrative biography, both of them well-researched and well-documented, provide a comprehensive account of their subject within the richly textured historical context in which her brief life and career unfolded.

Although she had been a prolific and well-known novelist in the 1930s, one of the rare women writers at the time who actually earned a handsome living from her work, Némirovsky had been dead for over half a century and was almost wholly forgotten when her posthumous novel Suite Française burst on the scene in the fall of 2004.  It won a major literary prize in France—the only such prize ever to have been awarded posthumously—and soon became a global bestseller, translated into dozens of languages.  In the United States, it remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years.

The outstanding fact about Suite Française, which fascinated readers, is that even though it recounts a historical event—the defeat of France by the German army in June 1940 and the occupation that followed—it is not a historical novel in the usual sense, for it was written at the very time the history it recounted was unfolding.  Tolstoy, one of Némirovsky’s heroes and models, wrote War and Peace half a century after the national history that he narrated in fictional form; but Némirovsky wrote her novel when the German occupation of France had hardly begun—and she didn’t have a chance to finish the story.  She had been born in Kiev in 1903 into a wealthy Jewish family who fled Russia after the Revolution, and although she had been living in France since she was a teenager, she never obtained French citizenship. She was deported as a “foreign Jew” to Auschwitz in July 1942 and died there in August of typhus.  Her husband Michel Epstein, also a Russian immigrant to France, suffered a similar fate a few months later.  The manuscript of Suite Française survived and was eventually published thanks to their two daughters, Denise Epstein-Dauplé and Elisabeth Gille, who as children were hidden during the war and who as adults devoted a great deal of effort to bringing their mother’s work back into public view.

As a result of Némirovsky’s posthumous fame, her works are now almost all back in print in France and are being translated into English at a brisk pace.  A major exhibit was devoted to her at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City in 2009, and a similar one will open at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris in October. She has become a phenomenon—and the fact that some critics accuse her of “trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes” (as one reviewer put it) in her fiction only adds to her notoriety.

What is Némirovsky’s appeal to contemporary readers?  Both of these books suggest answers to that question, albeit in different ways.   Philipponnat and Lienhardt (freelance journalists whose book appeared in France in 2007 and has been ably translated by Euan Cameron) present Némirovsky’s life story in a fast-paced account that starts and ends with her arrest and deportation; in their version, she is a phenomenon because she was a talented writer who died young, a victim of the Nazi genocide.  She was a victim of her faith in France as well, for her greatest desire—which she was on her way to achieving when History with a capital H brutally intervened—was to become an establishment French writer.  She was an assimilated Jew who sought above all to be French—and she believed so strongly in France’s proclaimed ideals of equality and justice that she never dreamed Jews would be betrayed by Vichy.  By the end, she realized she had been wrong and expressed bitter disillusionment in her journals as well as in her sarcastic treatment of the French bourgeoisie in Suite Française. But that knowledge came too late to save her.  It was French police who arrested her, in the village in Occupied France where she and her family had taken refuge—and where they walked around in 1942 wearing the yellow star.

Angela Kershaw, a senior lecturer in French at the University of Birmingham (England) and the author of a previous study on left-wing French women writers of the 1930s, takes a more hard-nosed approach to the Némirovsky phenomenon.  The success of Suite Française, she argues, was due above all to strategic marketing, an essential aspect of the “literary field.”  By presenting the novel (which never mentions Jews, a fact that some critics have found a cause for reproach) as a “work of testimony” by a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, Némirovsky’s publishers rode the wave of the memory obsession that had begun in the 1980s and was still a powerful presence in France in 2004.  Kershaw analyzes the “paratexts” that surrounded the novel and oriented its reading:  the preface by Myriam Anissimov (a Jewish writer known for her biograpies of Primo Levi and Romain Gary), which emphasized Némirovsky’s Jewishness, and the appendix consisting of selected entries from Némirovsky’s wartime writing journal and correspondence.  The latter, heartbreaking to read, included her husband’s frantic letters to her publisher, pleading for help after her arrest.  In Kershaw’s view, despite the literary virtues of Suite Française—she recognizes it as Némirovsky’s crowning achievement as a novelist—its success and the posthumous fame that followed must be explained in terms not of aesthetic quality or of Némirovsky’s function as a witness to the Holocaust, but in terms of what the influential cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu called the “structure of the literary field.”

Bourdieu, who died in 2002, provides the chief theoretical pillar for Kershaw’s book.  In her introduction, Kershaw explains that Bourdieu’s methodology “seeks to understand ‘literature’ not just in terms of texts [nor of authors, she will add] but as a social field which is...inhabited by agents who constantly struggle for dominance.” Bourdieu’s insistence on the primary role of competition and strategic struggle in artistic or intellectual domains arouses suspicion, if not outright hostility, among some critics.  But his method has the advantage—as well as the drawback—of depersonalizing writers’ choices by locating them on a “map” of the field rather than in the individual psyche; this is especially useful in the case of writers whose work is seen as controversial, since it allows for a more dispassionate view.

The great strength of Kershaw’s book is that she covers the whole range of Némirovsky’s fiction, from her various youthful works to works focusing on Jews, on Russians, and finally on French society after World War I.  In each instance, Kershaw argues, Némirovsky’s choice of subject was dictated as much, or more, by the demands of the market (in some years “the Russian soul” was in vogue, in others “the Jewish soul”) as by her personal interests or passions.  This argument sometimes leads to overly schematic results, as when Kershaw claims that Némirovsky had not much interest in “dramati[zing] the psychological itineraries of the exile” but instead “exploited” her Russian background “in order to capture the interest of French readers with a taste for novels about exotic locations and foreign identities.” Why couldn’t she do both?  However, this approach yields some highly perceptive analyses of Némirovsky’s relation to the literary field.  Kershaw shows, in particular, that Némirovsky often began with conventional stereotypes (whether concerning Jews, Russians, or women) that readers found familiar and therefore reassuring, but then subtly deviated from them to produce a complicated and “destabilizing” result.  That is what made her an original writer, even as she remained within the boundaries of the establishment.

Occasionally, Kershaw errs. For example, she doesn’t realize that Le vin de solitude (1935), Némirovsky’s most autobiographical novel, is set, in its early Russian episodes, almost wholly in a Jewish milieu, as surnames like Grossmann and Manassé indicate; nor does she  recognize that the married couple in Le Bal (1930), Némirovsky's  best-known work before Suite Française, are not “newly wealthy Jewish émigrés.” Only the husband is that; the wife is French, lower class, and non-Jewish, so that the story suggests a somewhat comical mismatch of sought-after assimilations, as the husband aspires to non-Jewish Frenchness and the wife to (Jewish) wealth.  The term “livre-testament,” which Kershaw rejects in her discussion of Suite Française, does not mean “work of testimony,” as she translates it, but “testamentary work,” as in last will and testament—which Suite Française definitely is.  Robert Le Diable was not the real name of a person but rather the pseudonym of Robert Brasillach (later notorious for his anti-Semitism) in his early reviews for Action Française.  These are minor errors, however, in an otherwise scrupulously researched study.

By studying Némirovsky’s oeuvre in the context of interwar literary production and reception, Kershaw seeks to avoid the pitfalls of those critics who read Némirovsky exclusively from today’s perspective, “after Auschwitz.”  These are the critics who reproach her for not including any Jewish characters and not alluding to the fate of Jews in Suite Française, or who tar her with the label of “self-hating Jew” because they consider her portrayals of Jews in some of her novels as anti-Semitic.  Kershaw contends that such accusations are the result of reading Némirovsky out of context.  As the title of her book makes clear, her own attempt is to read Némirovsky “before Auschwitz,” bracketing the knowledge that we have now but that Némirovsky couldn’t possibly have had when she made her literary choices. The other important theoretical influence here is Michael André Bernstein’s concept (in his book Foregone Conclusions, 1994) of “backshadowing,” the name he gives to the mistaken process of backward projection.  In place of backshadowing, Bernstein proposes “sideshadowing”—attempting to perceive, from a historical vantage point, the alternative possibilities that may have presented themselves to individuals in a past situation but that they either did not see or did not choose.

Némirovsky’s biographers share Kershaw’s view (minus her theoretical apparatus) that only a sympathetic contextual examination allows us to understand the author’s more problematic choices—for example, her decision to continue publishing in Gringoire, the political and cultural weekly that had the largest circulation (and paid the highest fees to its authors) in the years before the war, but whose ideological positions became more and more anti-Semitic as the 1930s wore on.   Philipponnat and Lienhardt explain that Némirovsky was apolitical, that she needed money (her husband worked in a bank, but they had two children and a lifestyle that required a large income), and that Gringoire’s front pages—where the political articles appeared—were quite separate from the literary back pages.  This is not entirely correct, for some of the literary pages contained clearly anti-Semitic material as well:  on the same day in 1937 when one of Némirovsky’s stories appeared, the next page featured a “historical narrative” titled “A Communist Experiment.  Kon, aka Bela Kun.”  This “literary” story purports to show how the Jews had planned to take over Hungary: an illustration shows Kun, with thick lips, dominating the Hungarian Parliament in 1919.

On this same question, Kershaw also states that Némirovsky was apolitical, which is true; but more strongly, she argues that once Némirovsky had established her position in the literary field—among the commercially successful but esteemed writers, conservative in their literary practice and in their cultural views who could aspire to become, eventually, members of the French Academy—there was no turning back.  “[T]he structure of the literary field does not allow an author simply to change her literary allegiances at will,” Kershaw writes, to explain why Némirovsky did not join the intellectual opposition to Vichy in 1940 – 1942 and why she did not stop publishing in Gringoire when some other Jewish writers (notably Joseph Kessel, another Russian émigré) did.

This, to my mind, is where the drawback of Bourdieu’s powerful methodology, strictly applied, appears.  To say that “the structure of the literary field does not allow an author” to change allegiances suggests a determinism that does away precisely with alternative possibilities:  it negates those “enormous changes at the last minute” that Grace Paley so beautifully explored in her fiction.  And along with change, it does away with the idea of responsibility for the choices one makes.  To say that Némirovsky was responsible for her choices is not to condemn her for them; and even less is it to suggest that she was responsible for the fate that befell her.  That responsibility lies with the collaborationist Vichy regime and the Nazi occupiers of France, and it would be unconscionable to suggest that Némirovsky’s arrest and deportation were in some way her fault.  But ascribing responsibility to Némirovsky for her career choices is the only way, I think, to fully recognize her as a human subject.  Her choices may have turned out to be wrong ones in retrospect, but she made them, the way we all make choices, not knowing what their consequences will be and hoping for the best.


Susan Rubin Suleiman, the C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, is the author of Crises of Memory and the Second World War (2006) among other books.  The volume she co-edited with Christie McDonald, French Global: A New Approach to Literary History, will be out in August 2010 from Columbia University Press; it contains an essay by Suleiman on Némirovsky and Samuel Beckett as “foreigners” in French literature.

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