Authors: Irene Nemirovsky
Tags: #Irene Nemirovsky
“Each of us has his weaknesses. Human nature is incomprehensible,” muses the mysterious Leon M., narrator of Irene Nemirovsky’s 1933 novel,
The Courilof Affair.
“One cannot even say with certainty whether a man is good or evil, stupid or intelligent. There does not exist a good man who has not at some time in his life committed a cruel act, nor an evil man who has not done good….” The complicated, often murky ironies of human interaction are the stuff of Nemirovsky’s fictions: no matter what her subject—and her range was considerable—her work is unified in its unsparing examination of the desires and feelings that lie behind the most apparently clear-cut scenarios.
The Courilof Affair,
Leon M., in his retirement in Nice, pens his memories of his revolutionary days in Russia in the early years of the century and, in particular, of his assignment to assassinate the Tsar’s Minister of Education, Valerian Alex-androvitch Courilof, known as “the Killer Whale,” in 1903 (incidentally, the year of the author’s birth). In preparation for the attack, Leon takes on the identity of Marcel Legrand, a Swiss doctor, and becomes the personal physician to Courilof. Over the course of their time together, he is moved by a growing understanding not simply of Courilof, but of human frailty. Compassion and revolutionary terrorism are not easily compatible, and his new knowledge threatens Leon’s mission. As he recalls of Courilof and his politically problematic French wife (and former mistress), Margot, “It remains impossible for me to explain, even to myself, how I could… understand these two people…. For the first time, I saw human beings: unhappy people, with ambitions, faults, foolishness.”
This capacity genuinely and fully to
human beings, to acknowledge the tender humanity of their flaws, is one of the supreme gifts of fiction, both for the writer and for the reader. Nobody knew this better than Irene Nemirovsky, whose novels are fiercely preoccupied with the unveiling of her characters’ foibles but who, through that unveiling, provides her readers with a bracing, unnerving, and often moving vision of ourselves as we really are. This is nowhere more true than in her unfinished masterpiece,
the relatively recent discovery and publication of which have brought Nemirovsky to the attention of a new generation of readers. Set in France under German occupation and written, extraordinarily, under the circumstances it describes,
moves between chilling satire of the petty selfishness of the bourgeoisie and a poignant evocation of the realities of village life under occupation—realities much like those of Leon M., in which to recognize the enemy’s humanity is to compromise, or disable, a warrior’s hatred. In reading that novel—or, more properly, those two novellas, since the remaining three segments that would have completed the masterpiece were never written— this reader, for one, gained an understanding of what it meant to live in France during the Second World War that I had not had before, steeped though I was in books and films on the subject.
Consistently through her work, Nemirovsky’s vision is neither easy nor comfortable; nor was her own life untainted by the moral complexities she captured so keenly in fiction. In its broadest outlines, of course, the tragic story of Irene Nemirovsky’s life is by now widely known: she was a refugee from the Russian Revolution who made France her home; she enjoyed literary acclaim and considerable privilege there during the ‘20s and ‘30s; and she mistakenly thought that privilege would protect her from the Nazis, an error that cost her her life. She was taken by the Germans in 1942 and died in Auschwitz of typhus not long after her arrival there. Her husband, Michel, left her final manuscript in the care of her two small daughters, who managed to salvage it in spite of their own tribulations during the war. They kept her notebook without reading it, for decades, and only in the 1990s did her older, surviving daughter, Denise Epstein, realize that these pages constituted not a diary but the fragments of a novel. It was published in France in 2004 and subsequently translated into English. The book has been an international best seller.
It may have seemed, to most English-language readers, that Nemirovsky sprang into literary existence, fully formed, with the writing
of Suite Francaise.
In fact, however, she was in France a prolific, critically acclaimed, and popularly successful author, whose reputation long survived her. Her third novel,
(the two first,
were released in a monthly magazine,
Les OEuvres Libres),
was published when she was twenty-six, in 1929. The book made her name (and was made into a film and a play, both starring Harry Baur), and she was hailed by the
New York Times,
upon its 1930 translation into English, as a successor to Dostoevsky. In its wake she published a book almost every year until the Second World War. Her captivity and death, in this light, are all the more shocking: it is painful to think of the literary legacy that was lost.
Irene Nemirovsky’s ability to grasp life’s contradictions was at least in part the result of the deeply contradictory facts of her own brief life. She was born in Kiev on February 11, 1903, the only child of Leon and Fanny (Margoulis) Nemirovsky. Her father was a prosperous banker, allied with the Tsar’s court, and as such the family enjoyed privileges rarely available to Jewish families. As for many White Russians, French was the lingua franca of their household. According to a recent biography by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, “she spoke a bookish Russian; so to speak, Russian was not her mother tongue,” and possibly Nemirovsky’s closest early relationship was with her French governess, Marie, whom she called “Zezelle.” But the political allegiances of the Nemirov-skys would cost them dearly, and the family fled their home, penniless, at the time of the Revolution, inJanuary 1918, coming to France only after many peregrinations and a nearly yearlong stint in a village in Finland, just behind the Russian frontier. Once settled in Paris, Leon Nemirovsky set about restoring the family fortunes, and as she reached adulthood, Irene moved in elite circles: largely politically conservative, generally Catholic (although she also contributed to left-wing journals such as
Her family was fully assimilated, and while she never denied her Jewishness (tellingly, she chose to marry a fellow Russian Jewish exile, Michel Epstein, whose history mirrored her own; and she asserted, in a 1935 interview, that “I never dreamed of hiding my origins. Whenever I had the occasion, I protested that I was Jewish, I even proclaimed it!”), she also did not fully embrace it. In 1939, Nemirovsky converted to Catholicism, a decision that has caused controversy in recent discussions of her life, work, and relation to her Jewish heritage. It has been asserted that she was herself anti-Semitic—her novel
in particular, has been held up as an example of this fact, as has her religious conversion—a claim that has threatened to cast a shadow upon her reputation.
The reality is, inevitably, more complicated. Certainly questions of social class play powerfully in Nemirovsky’s identity: in Russia, her family was set apart from other Jews not only by her father’s occupation but by their situation in Kiev, where they lived among the wealthy in the hills high above the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto of the inner city. Her unquestionably unsavory depictionsofJews (for example: “Golder looked with a kind of hatred at Fischl, as if at a cruel caricature. Fat little Jew … He calmly held in his killer’s hands a porcelain bowl of fresh caviar against his chest.”) reflect both some measure of self-loathing and a willed detachment from the Jew as “Other.” As Irene Nemirovsky puts it herself in her veiled autobiography,
The Wine of Solitude
(1935), “I spent my life fighting an odious blood, but it is inside of me.” That these two positions seem initially paradoxical is, in truth, but an illusion, one of the many that we all harbor in the hope of parsing life more clearly, of making orderly sense of the world. Nemirovsky—allied from birth with White Russians and hence against her own people, the Jews, and consequently most naturally affiliated, in France, with political conservatives, who were often anti-Semitic—did not have the luxury of such illusions; and she does not grant them to her characters. What she sees may not be attractive, but she is resolute in seeing clearly and has the courage to record her truths, however unappealing they may be. Therein lies her courage as a writer.
(It is worth noting, indeed, that while many of her supposed literary friends in Paris abandoned her at the outset of the war, it was Horace de Carbuccia, editor of the notably right-wing and often anti-Semitic journal
who arranged to publish her work pseudonymously during the occupation and who thereby guaranteed Nemirovsky’s family some desperately needed income. This apparent irony would not have surprised her.)
is the remarkable, compelling, and at times painfully unsympathetic portrait of an aging Russian Jewish businessman and his entourage in 1920s France. It opens, significantly, with the word “No,” as Golder denies his business partner, Simon Marcus, support in a venture pertaining to Russian oil wells. Golder’s denial prompts Marcus’s suicide and encourages others, including the reader, to see Golder as a ruthless, even heartless, entrepreneur. As the novel unfolds, however, our sympathies cleave to this brutal ruin of a man, preyed upon and exploited by his grasping wife, Gloria; her lover, Hoyos; and their friends; and by his beautiful, spoiled, and adored daughter, Joyce. Golder rages that “I’m just expected to pay, pay, and keep on paying… That’s why I’ve been put on this earth”; and it seems he isn’t wrong in this assessment. Joyce is his passion—”Every time he came back from a trip, he looked for her in the crowd, in spite of himself. She was never there, and yet he continued to expect her with the same humiliating, tenacious, and vain sense of hope”— and his Achilles’ heel. To the last, in spite of all he learns about her, he can deny her nothing—even his life.
Central to our ultimate understanding of David Golder is the portrait of his old acquaintance and cardpartner, Soifer, of whom we are told that “his meanness bordered on madness…. For several years now, since he had lost all his teeth, he ate only cereal and pureed vegetables to avoid having to buy dentures.” Soifer is, regrettably, a grotesque caricature of the greedy Jew; and surely he provided fine fodder for the growing number of anti-Semites in 1930s France. By 1935, Nemirovsky said of the book, “If there had been Hitler [at the time], I would have greatly toned down
and I wouldn’t have written it in the same fashion”; and again, three years later, “How could I write such a thing? If I were to write
now, I would do it quite differently…. The climate is quite changed.” But there is, nevertheless, in Nemirovsky’s portrayal, a strange tenderness even for Soifer: she writes of him, in a searing passage, “Much later, Soifer would die all alone, like a dog, without a friend, without a single wreath on his grave, buried in the cheapest cemetery in Paris by his family who hated him, and whom he had hated, but to whom he nevertheless left a fortune of some thirty million francs, thus fulfilling till the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.”
This is an appalling indictment, not of Soifer himself but of the warping force of the society around him. If it is an anti-Semitic portrait, and crudely drawn, it is also a portrait of the potential horror of any immigrant’s life: if one were to substitute the word “immigrant” for “Jew,” Nemirovsky’s depiction would carry the same force, with considerably less offense. How many immigrants have been emotionally deformed by their travails, have given everything for their families only to be hopelessly misunderstood and even abandoned by their kin? Is it not the fate of many in diasporas of different kinds, not simply of Jews? Agonizing isolation—to be unknown, unacknowledged, unloved—is mercifully not every immigrant’s fate; but it is certainly a fate of immigrants, of the displaced, more surely than of the rooted. As Nemirovsky wrote in 1934, “I continue to depict the society I know best, that is composed of misfits, those who have been expelled from their milieu, the place where they would normally have lived, and who do not adapt to their new lives without clashes or suffering.”
Unlike for Soifer, there is, for David Golder himself, a measure of grace. The novel concludes with his death, but not before he has returned to his native Russia and embarked from the port he knew as a youth, rendered by Nemirovsky without a hint of sentimentality: “The port. He recognized it as clearly as if he had left the day before. The little customs building, half in ruins. Beached boats buried in the black sand, which was littered with bits of coal and rubbish; watermelon rind and dead animals bobbing in the deep, muddy green water, just as in the past.” Golder is, at the last, relieved, at least somewhat, of his lifelong deracination. Nor is he condemned to die alone: he is accompanied, in his final voyage, by a young Jew leaving Russia for the first time, to seek his fortune in the West. To him, at the end, David Golder speaks, for the first time in years, in his native Yiddish; and in the wake of their communication, in his last moments Golder is granted a vision of his own boyhood, and he hears the sound of his mother’s voice.