A recent article by Ruth Franklin of The New Republic seeks to shed light on the anti-Semitic controversy surrounding Suite Française author Irène Némirovsky, who died at Auschwitz 60 years before the English translation of her novel hit the New York Times bestseller list. Upon its U.S. release, Suite Française drew comparisons to The Diary of Anne Frank as another great Jewish literary work that was able to survive the trauma of the Holocaust.
Franklin sees this as a false media spin considering Némirovsky’s anti-Semitic past, despite her Russian-Jewish lineage. Franklin cites Jonathan Weiss’s biography Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works (2006) to reinforce this argument, referencing its examples of the author’s closeness with right-wing political circles and publishers. Némirovsky was able to establish a profitable career through writings that depicted Jews in ugly racial stereotypes. When the threat of arrest and deportation became clearer, Némirovsky appealed to her right-wing contacts, contending that she was not one of “the undesirable foreigners” of France. Her husband even championed her anti-Semitic writings in the hopes of gaining protection. Franklin says, “As Weiss’s important and prodigiously researched biography makes clear, Némirovsky was the very definition of a self-hating Jew.”
Franklin analyzes the anti-Semitism found in new, recent translations of Némirovsky’s other works, including David Golder and The Ball, and challenges some critics’ argument that Némirovsky’s characters were representations of how she saw Jews. “…She seems to not have wondered whether there was more to Jewish life than what she saw, or whether what she saw was any different from what the racists and the anti-Semites were seeing.”
It is undeniable that Némirovsky’s death—which occurred not long after her arrest in 1942—was tragic. This fact, coupled with her literary displays of anti-Semitism, brings up questions of how to now approach Suite Française and its uncertain position amongst other literary works born out of the Holocaust. Examining her personal history, as Weiss has done in his thorough biography, may be the first step in answering those questions.