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anti-semitism and Irene Nemirovsky's writing

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message 1: by K (last edited Feb 12, 2008 04:24AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

K A goodreads reviewer named aarthi reviewed this book and included a link to a revealing and provocative article in "New Republic" about Irene Nemirovsky. Ironically, while Nemirovsky is now celebrated as a famous Holocaust martyr, her earlier books are actually decidedly anti-semitic and make use of the same stereotypes employed by Nazi propagandists. The article criticized Nemirovsky not only for her anti-semitic writing, but for her lack of three-dimensionality in depicting wholly unsympathetic Jewish characters who were not only stereotypical but extremely simplistic. Suite Francaise itself has no Jews in it, and there could be a variety of possible explanations for that.

I think the link to this article is (but if not, you can just check out aarthi's review of Suite Francaise). I had a lot of thoughts about this article and also found some of it slanted and speculative. I'm interested in hearing other reactions!

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Thank you for posting this information and link to the review of Suite Francaise. It answered so many of my questions and has give me clear insight into the author and the book.

message 3: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K We really have aarthi to thank for this link and information. I have a completely different view of the book now, especially the afterword. It was an interesting experience for me to have this total 180 shift in perspective.

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

After i wrote my comment I thought more about what I read and I too think now in 180 shift. I am glad that I read this after the book because I don't know how I would have felt reading it knowing what I now know.

message 5: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K I'm also glad I read the article after I read the book. However, although the article did have a powerful influence on my perspective on the book, I think there were some problems with the article as well. If you read it carefully, some of it is a bit speculative but is written in a way that makes it seem factual. I still think there's a lot of validity to the article, but I also think it should be read with an open mind and a willingness to critique, just like the book itself.

message 6: by Seth (last edited Mar 03, 2008 08:28PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Seth T. Hm, I actually found the article to be interesting though entirely uncompelling. I had read several statements that Némirovsky was anti-Semitic and so kind of just presumed that such was probably the case while I read Suite Française, but reading the linked article, I wonder that perhaps the judgment was a trifle presumptive.

Némirovsky may very well have been anti-Semitic, but it certainly doesn't come out in the article.

The instances of distasteful portrayals of Jewish characters cited either come from the mouths of distasteful characters (and so must be suspect) or are par for the course when considering how the author treats the majority of her characters, Jewish or not. Némirovsky may be an anti-Semite but the article does little to demonstrate that it is there that her prejudices lie. It may be more sensible to see her as a classist (bitter at both the upper and lower classes) or a flat out misanthrope who occasionally makes exceptions.

The portion of the article detailing her correspondence with Vichy France was utterly unconvincing in portraying her as a racist as it seems sensible that in her selfishness, she would try to promote herself as a patriot and her talent as a boon to France - in opposition to those who had immigrated yet were not actively working for the quote-unquote glory of France.

Personally, I view this as a lesson in not presuming against one's character until one sees the evidence. If this article is the extent of the argument's case, I feel as though I've been had.

message 7: by Deanne (last edited Jul 21, 2008 10:20PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Deanne Have to say if you were living in occupied territory during the second world war what would you do?
I'm not jewish but I can imagine it would be frightening to live in an era where you could be killed not only for your religious beliefs, but hiding someone the nazis were determined to kill.
If you had children it must be even worse.
As for the book I think Nemikovsky is also trying to show what was going on in France, it's only recently that it has come to light that there was a lot more collaboration going on than previously believed.
Also it's very easy to criticise someone who is dead and unable to defend themselves. Would be interesting to know if the person who wrote the article had any personal experience of the war.

Meghan Thank you, Seth, for your well-conceived comment. For one I think no ethnic group, nationality, or class is left unscathed by Némirovsky, except perhaps for the Michauds. After reading the notes in the apppendix carefully, it is clear that while Némirovsky may have made last ditch efforts to appeal to French authorities to spare her by highlighting some of the patriotic aspects of her writing, it is not clear that she was genuinely anti-Semitic. Rather, it seems from her descriptions of the Michauds-- and, at one point in the notes, she seems to want to reflect her own opinions through them-- nationality and ethnicity were essentially, in the long duree, meaningless, and what was important was to try to do the best you can in the brief and chaotic time you were given. It is not hard to imagine that someone who had spent most of her adolescence fleeing from one part of Europe to the other due to war had little taste for nationalist fervor. The paradox is that she truly loved France and felt accepted there, yet it is clear, that in her heart, she knew she would in the end be rejected by the country that she loved and considered her adopted home. In Suite française she uncovers the fact that the majority of people are essentially selfish and would sell each other down the river at the right time, regardless of nationality. Perhaps this is too unsettling for Americans to think about in a time of patriotic fervor... but perhaps there is something essentially human in the desire to preserve one's life with one's family no matter what.

Georgie Meghan wrote: "Thank you, Seth, for your well-conceived comment. For one I think no ethnic group, nationality, or class is left unscathed by Némirovsky, except perhaps for the Michauds. After reading the notes in..."

Well said Meghan - I agree with your comments entirely.

message 10: by Cateline (new) - added it

Cateline I've only read two other of her books, David Golder and Fire in the Blood. I found David Golder to be rather hostile, and anti-Semitic - using many, at the least hostile, stereotypes in her writing.

Marks54 I had heard these claims prior to reading SF. They made no difference to me in reading the book - which I greatly enjoyed. The book moved me greatly and was a great accomplishment. That she was a complex person changes nothing about the book for me. That someone wants to make a splash at her expense a half century later may be understandable but is hardly compelling.

message 12: by CD (new) - rated it 3 stars

CD The link from the OP no longer appears to be valid.

I am quite familiar with this school of criticism of many writers of the same era. Much of this criticism (formal or offhand) is rooted in the flawed concept that to write about a sensitive topic is to promote or engage in that topic itself. This is an especially difficult area to separate fact from fantasy on the part of the reviewer unless they are extremely vigilant in researching author/topic/etc.

What today we see as having an undertone of antisemitism wasn't even on the horizon for much of the world's intellectual leadership contemporary to the time of the work being written. Those who were aware of the problems coming still used the same language as they had to be able to communicate their concern and growing outrage. Thus the problem. In order to speak about antisemitism, one had to use language that today we find problematic and context of its use is everything.

Currently I'm awaiting a Euro version in the original language to avoid some obvious translation errors that popped up in my first reading. The words are right but it does read well in places. Friends who recommend this book to me (they being French) just assumed that I'd be able to run out a get the same version they had!

Not so easy mon ami!.

Barbara Berendt CD wrote: "The link from the OP no longer appears to be valid.

I am quite familiar with this school of criticism of many writers of the same era. Much of this criticism (formal or offhand) is rooted in the f..."

I completely agree ! I did find the article, and it appears that opinions are drawn from other opinions. For me the fact that the author was Jewish, lived her narrative, and ultimately died in a camp qualifies her to write what she did and I found it very compelling. I am even more drawn to her now that I know she is complex and not some crayon figure who says and thinks everything in black or white. I do not believe this was ever her intent as a writer. And as noted, there is the issue of context.

message 14: by Marina (new) - added it

Marina First, let me say I did not quite finish this book, but managed to read most of it. It is totally persuasive in its depiction of France and the French in the late 1930's and early 40's--persuasive and simultaneously unsatisfying, since there is no politics or ideology at a time when some people must have had thoughts other than saving their china or, in the countryside, being envious or hoarding staples. None of them (and there are many characters)seems remotely aware that there are enormous issues at stake. Only one young man seems to resist the passivity and blindness around him, and most of the time he resists simply for patriotism of a shallow kind. The result is that we see French society in sociological terms, city dwellers avidly getting out of Paris to escape the Germans, wrapping their valuables, and in the second part we see village life, conservative, catholic, petty,as German troops are lodged in their midst. Nemirovsky is a good writer, in the realist vein, but something in her is censored,even from herself, or perhaps she is trying too hard to be a "good" "French" writer. There is no mention in these two sections (city, provincial France profonde) of laws or actions against Jews. And yet the reason why this novel is unfinished (three more parts were planned) is that Nemirovsky, herself a Russian Jew converted to Catholicism and stateless, was sent to Auschwitz and there died. It is difficult for me to evaluate her total silence about antisemitim: should I admire such an ascetic conduct or bemoan the blindness of "literature"? Or should I consider that perhaps Nemirowsky's plan for her novel would become more aware of what facism, French and of course German, meant if she had been able to finish her work?

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