The author Irene Némirovsky was born to a banker father in Kiev in 1903, a city repeatedly ravaged by pogroms she never forgot, she spent her early childhood in St Petersburg before fleeing the Russian Revolution for Sweden, then Finland, and finally settling in Paris. Her first language was French. A student in literature at the Sorbonne, she was high-spirited and rebellious. She married Michel Epstein, another banker. They had two daughters. In 1929 Bernard Grasset published her first book, David Golder, to popular acclaim. The ten novels and many short stories that followed made her, at just twenty-six, a member of the largely male French literary establishment.
Both Jewish, she and her husband converted to Catholicism in 1939.
When war broke out, she and her husband moved with their daughters to a village in central France. On July 13 1942 she was arrested. Four days later she was on a transport to Auschwitz. According to camp records, she died on August 19. She was thirty-nine. Her husband followed soon after. The girls, hidden by friends, survived.
Suite française, the lost manuscript by Némirovsky, was published in 2004. It depicted the moment of French exodus when 6 million French people took to the roads, in a long river of cars, bicycles, horse-drawn carts, prams, lorries fleeing before the German advance.
But, while we are to accept art for what it is or what we see, not so the artist who must be subject to immense--and usually speculative--analysis. Her portrait of a greedy and heartless Jewish banker in David Golder led to accusations of her being a “self-hating Jew.” Ruth Franklin, a senior editor on the New Republic, suggested that she had trafficked “in the most sordid anti-semitic stereotypes.” Némirovsky, it was pointed out, had continued writing, De Man-like, for the French magazine Gringoire long after its extreme anti-Semitism had become plain.
To interviewers who asked her why she wrote so unflatteringly about the Jews she would say that she focused only on the “rich, cosmopolitan Jews . . . for whom the love of money has taken the place of all other feelings”. She wrote, she said, only what she saw.
One can sympathize with the agonizing French as they look back on this part of their history; it seems to have driven many philosophically mad. But there is no reason for outsiders to collaborate on their scapegoating.