In 2006 my novel THE TEXICANS was published. The Texas Monitor judged it one of the two best novels of the year. THE TEXICANS was written in my home office in sunny California, absolutely no threat of death hanging over me while I was writing it. The other novel, SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky, was written in Nazi-occupied France and followed the most tragic trajectory to publication imaginable.
Nemirovsky was born to a Jewish family in Russia in 1903. Her father, a prominent banker in St. Petersburg, fled Russia after the revolution of 1917 and settled his family in Paris. Nemirovsky eventually married and began her writing career. In the 1930's a stream of anti-Semitism ran like gutter water through all levels of French society. By the time Hitler came to power in 1940 anti-Semitism was a roaring putrescent sewer. Nemirovsky and her family converted to Roman Catholicism. They also attempted unsuccessfully to acquire French citizenship. It was too late. Nemirovsky died of typhus in Auschwitz in 1942; her husband was gassed there four months later. Their orphaned children, hidden by friends until the end of the war, were left with a battered suitcase that they lugged from place to place, the manuscript pages of SUITE FRANCAISE locked inside with other notebooks and papers and not discovered and published until sixty years later. It became an instant classic, and deservedly so.
I'm not going to critique the book except to say that for me the novel's origins and its author's obscene death stain its pages with grief. But I would like to discuss the charges of anti-Semitism that have been leveled at Nemirovsky since the book's publication.
During Nemirovsky's career she published in anti-Semitic journals and wrote DAVID GOLDER, a best-selling novel about French society in which the protagonist was a stereotypically rapacious Jew. Her writings and political leanings sixty years after her murder by the Nazis have put her and her book in the cross hairs. There have been articles accusing her of being a fascist as well as a self-hating Jew, and SUITE FRANCAISE has been criticized for concerning itself with the fall of France without mentioning the plight of the French Jews. I wonder what she might say if she were here to defend herself. Perhaps she would say that she thought by accommodating herself to the Jew haters she might buy herself and her family an opportunity to escape. Perhaps she would say she regretted having written for fascist journals, sorry she wrote DAVID GOLDER, which ironized the excesses and pretensions of French society as much as it reinforced anti-Semitic caricature. There is no prism through which we can disperse a beam of light, illuminate the past and evaluate her intentions or her heart. All we really know is that she was an artist in a Gehenna not of her making who devoted the last two precarious years of her life to writing a great novel.
On a summer night when I was eight years old I awoke to the sound of sobbing in the kitchen. I got out of bed and walked down the dark hallway to the kitchen. A man with black curly hair, his body like a wire hanger in its shabby suit, was sitting at the kitchen table talking to my mother in Yiddish, tears furrowing his cheeks. A young boy in an oversized jacket and too-short trousers stood at the sink eating a banana, rolling it between his fingers as though it were an ear of corn. They were an uncle and cousin from Poland, my mother told me later. To escape Hitler, my uncle had left his wife and younger son in Poland, and he and his 14-year-old son somehow made it to Mexico.
They were gone when I woke up the next morning. Back to Mexico, my mother said. I saw them once again at an aunt's seder. By that time they spoke a polyglot of Spanish and Yiddish and seemed happy in their new lives.
They were the mystery of my childhood. When I grew older and would ask my mother how the uncle had gotten himself and his son out of Poland, what he had had to do to manage it, and how he could have left his wife and other child behind, she wouldn't answer me.
Maybe questions like that shouldn't be asked. Maybe Irene Nemirovsky should be left in peace.
Nina Vida copyright 2009
(This entry was originally posted on my Nina Vida on Writing blog on May 22nd, 2009.)