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Irène Némirovsky and the Death of the Critic

Tadzio Koelb

Tadzio Koelb  |  Autumn 2008  -  Number 211

  
  
 

‘We know that to give writing its future, we must overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.’
Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

Roland Barthes first called for the ‘death of the author’ in 1968. Although it sounded revolutionary, the idea that an author’s work is separate from his identity was an established one, held in esteem by many modernist writers (indeed, in France it arguably goes back at least as far as Théophile Gautier’s preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin; he complained specifically that the press were more interested in the author than in his work). Through circumstances she herself could never have foreseen, a writer who had rejected modernism in its heyday would once again highlight the issue of the author’s ability to affect the reading of a text through biography when her novel, Suite Française, was awarded the Prix Renaudot, one of France’s top literary prizes in 2004.

The brief scandal that followed the award had nothing to do with the author’s Jewish or Russian origins, nor with the anti-Semitism of which she would later be accused. It occurred because the lauréate, Irène Némirovsky, was dead, and had died not since the publication of the work in question, but sixty-two years earlier, at Auschwitz.

The Renaudot had never before been granted posthumously. There is a reasonable suspicion surrounding honours awarded to the dead — especially those long dead — that they are intended to reflect on the giver more than on the awardee. In this case, the giver was the French literary establishment. Despite never acquiring French citizenship, Irène Némirovsky was completely assimilated, a popular journalist and best-selling novelist whose books were made into films. It was the French police who arrested her for being ‘stateless’ (in this case, a legal euphemism for Jewish, although the pretext was holding a passport from a long-evaporated pre-Soviet Russia), and handed her over to the German authorities. Amid these circumstances, Barthes’ question of the author’s separateness from her work inevitably arose: had the French literary establishment, as embodied by the Renaudot committee, responded, more than half a century later, to art or to historical injustice?

Prizes aside, posthumous publications are always problematic. How judgemental can we be of a work that remains unrevised? Biographical details can often interfere with the critical assessment of art; in Némirovsky’s case, many readers will be disarmed by the knowledge that she was a camp victim. In 1994, New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce famously raised the issue of ‘victim art’, of judgement being held hostage by an artist’s extra-artistic experience. It is hard not to consider the suffering of the maker when contemplating what he has made, especially if that suffering is highlighted by marketing and other functions of the art-delivery apparatus.

The scope of Suite Française, had it been finished, would certainly have been remarkable, taking in the whole of the occupation, with dozens of characters, both French and German, and a storyline featuring violent murders, daring escapes, forbidden loves and more. It is not finished, however, and lasting art requires more than broad scope. Several French novels about the war have been celebrated by francophone readers but met with indifference in the English-speaking world, for example The Last of the Just by André Shwartz-Bart, a magisterial work of art and probably the best work of fiction ever written about the Shoah. Given the relative differences in popular response, we must wonder whether Suite Française would have been so favourably received in the UK had it not been for the incredible circumstances of the book’s composition, and the horrors that left it unfinished.

The English release of Suite Française benefited from a good deal of free publicity, and there is no doubt that the story of its author was central to this. Early stories were about the large advance paid after a high-profile bidding war at the Frankfurt Book Fair, exceptional for many reasons: the writer was dead, foreign and previously unpublished in English; the amount paid was unusually high for translation rights; and the acquiring editor was one of the few people involved in the process who could read the work in the original — the marketing department, increasingly the centre of power in publishing, had to take a back seat.

Unsurprisingly, however, the focus quickly became the tale of a ‘lost’ novel carried for half a century in a suitcase by the daughter of a woman who died in the camps. Newsnight produced a short film about Némirovsky for Holocaust Remembrance Day while the book itself had yet to be translated. In other words, the author’s life — and, above all, her death — displaced her fiction as a matter of interest long before the book itself was ready to print.

The publishers naturally chose to highlight this copy-generating aspect of the publication. The book  includes a long appendix in which are reproduced Némirovsky’s notes and diary entries from her time in Vichy; there follow harrowing letters written by her husband, Michael Epstein, which document his attempts to save her. (Meanwhile, the preface to the original French edition, which raised the question of the author’s anti-Semitism, was binned, acquiring editor Rebecca Carter said in an interview, so that it ‘wouldn’t prejudice readers’ about this ‘very subtle issue’).

The publishers of Suite Française take little credit for its market success, but some details of the marketing campaign suggest this is false modesty. It would be an understatement to suggest that Suite Française enjoyed a much larger marketing budget than most foreign work; it was, in fact, Chatto & Windus’s second largest budget for that year; posters were displayed in the London tube, a series of major trade promotions were pursued with large booksellers, including Waterstone’s, Borders, Books Etc. and Amazon, and advertisements were placed in all the catalogues to target independent booksellers. Much of this expensive marketing focused on Némirovsky’s own fate; the press release that accompanied review copies, for example, devotes around one hundred words to the two novels, their content and themes, and over 340 words to what it calls ‘The story behind the book’.

Most journalists seemingly took their cue from this, and certainly the great majority of reviews and other articles which appeared soon after publication embraced the ‘lost book by a dead author’ angle: ‘The novel in the suitcase’ (The Guardian); ‘History in a suitcase’ (The Herald); ‘War epic trapped in a suitcase’ (Sunday Express); ‘Hidden Treasure’ (Financial Times); ‘Lost and found’ (New Statesman); and so on. Some used the darker aspects of the author’s life to raise the stakes when looking for headlines: ‘Doomed to brilliance’, said The Scotsman. A week later, the Daily Mail offered its review under the title ‘She died in Auschwitz but her legend lives’. The Mail on Sunday topped this with ‘Genius with a tragic ending’. The content of these articles tended to match their headlines for focus. Six paragraphs out of twelve are biographical in The Times; six out of ten in the Financial Times; seven out of eleven in the Saturday Guardian. The pattern, once established, became more pronounced as critics began to respond to the other reviews. The Daily Mail, for example, uses only eight of eighteen paragraphs to discuss the work itself; the rest is biographical. Although I will not discuss ‘round-ups’, it is salutary to include one piece — about books suitable to give as gifts for Christmas — that offers a sense of the general approach:

One book I have already given as a present is Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (£16.99, Chatto & Windus). Written in occupied France, it remained undiscovered till a couple of years ago, because she died in Auschwitz. (‘The joy of text’, Harper’s Bazaar, December 2006)

Here critique has devolved completely to notation of context. The novel itself could be about anything; only biographical detail is given or, apparently, needed. The final comma makes the tone strangely light.

The media’s other approach was to put Némirovsky, victim of one of history’s most murderous experiments in ethnic cleansing, to work on behalf of tribal enmity, i.e., to use her fiction as evidence in Britain’s permanent trial of the French. The Times crowed, ‘Auschwitz novelist stirs French guilt’; ‘The shame of La Belle France’, tutted the Evening Standard. The Spectator headline trumpeted ‘The grim face of defeat’, with which the Sunday Herald Magazine laboured to keep up: ‘The emotional struggle beneath Vichy’s calm waters’, it finally announced — as if until now Scottish readers had thought the Second World War a relaxed affair and lebensraum as a kind of holiday package. By the time other commentators fired back (‘We would have done the same under Nazi occupation’, The Guardian), Suite Française was clearly no longer the matter at hand.

In such an atmosphere of escalation, it was only a matter of time before Némirovsky’s biographical details themselves would become ‘heightened’.When Auschwitz is involved it seems that only a certain kind of death will do, so despite the fact that the available evidence suggests Némirovsky died of typhus, Seven magazine, previewing the BBC’s Book at Bedtime broadcast, features a single pull-quote (in bold capitals) stating that ‘Nemirovsky’s novel was written shortly before she was gassed in 1942’.

Even if the mistake were based on assumption, it is telling that neither the writer nor his editors felt the need to check this fact before highlighting it. Disease can strike anyone, but the gas chamber guarantees a satisfyingly innocent and gruesome death. This is surely what Croce had in mind when she bemoaned ‘the pornography of suffering’. It is also what Barthes had in mind when he worried about a ‘culture … tyrannically centred on the author, his life, his person…’, for even a falsified means of the writer’s death cannot affect the quality of the work, or effect any part of it. Here indeed Némirovsky’s life completely overshadows and defines our reading of the ostensible subject: her text. The reception of this posthumous novel implies more than anything that Barthes’ author is alive and well; it is rather the critic who has died, buried beneath an avalanche of biographical fact.

Whichever approach reviewers of Suite Française took — whether they followed the ‘lost book by dead writer’ angle, or played the French guilt card — they all used the limited space left after biography to indulge in fulsome but often strangely detached praise. In a perfect example of the abdication of critical responsibility in exchange for the more sensational copy to be had from Némirovsky’s biography, many reviewers used the language of the marketing material (e.g., ‘… hailed as a masterpiece …’, Financial Times; ‘hailed as a lost masterpiece’, The Times; ‘… hailed …as “a masterpiece…”’, The Scotsman). Some reviewers compared Némirovsky to great writers (to Tolstoy in the Saturday Guardian; to Chekhov in the New Statesman). Others, however, preferred to note that Némirovsky herself mentioned Tolstoy in her journals (see reviews in the London Review of Books, for example, or the Telegraph Magazine) or wrote a biography of Chekhov (as in the Evening Standard or the New Statesman) and let the implication sink in.

Worse, still, are those who suggest only that other (unnamed) readers have made such comparisons: ‘Suite Française has been described as Némirovsky’s War and Peace — Balzac and Flaubert are also mentioned’, The Times; ‘[s]ome have likened the book to a “French War and Peace”’, says the Sunday Times (before noting that the work was called a ‘masterpiece’ by no less impartial an authority than its French editor). The word ‘acclaimed’ is also much in evidence, albeit with few specifically named acclaimers. Placing their praise in the mouths of others, these critics renounce accountability and become ventriloquists. The most notable exception to the pattern was the Times Literary Supplement, whose reviewer devoted four and a half of six paragraphs to the book itself, neither quoting nor paraphrasing the opinions of others, and admitted finding Némirovsky’s writing no match for her own life story. Yet a reading of the British critical response as a whole would seem to imply that it was precisely the life, the context, that lent value to the work. Have the appendix and the content of Suite Française been reversed? It is after all Némirovsky’s murder to which most reviewers respond. To ward off such accusations of morbidity, Némirovsky’s defenders recall that David Golder sold well in its day — another biographical crutch, and one that confuses commerce with quality. Great books are not the same as great bookkeeping, and many an erstwhile best-seller sleeps forgotten by the reading public. But David Golder is also problematic in other ways. Most notably, it is the work that led many readers, then as now, to raise the difficult question of Némirovsky’s possible anti-Semitism. The book’s characters are one-dimensional variations on the greedy Jew, soulless and despised.

It is unfair to take one book as representative, of course, so we should welcome the appearance of Némirovsky’s other novels in English. Unfortunately, Fire in the Blood, another of her works to be translated, is also a posthumous publication, and leaves us facing similar issues to those raised by Suite Française: that we cannot know if this is its ‘finished’ form. Like David Golder and Suite Francaise, it is peopled by flat stereotypes with no inner life. Even if it was less distastefully cynical, Fire in the Blood is a deeply flawed book; the tone is melodramatic, the dialogue contrived, and it suffers from grave structural defects. Fire in the Blood is about infidelity and, in case the theme should prove elusive, every major character is adulterous. A symphony in F, Whistler once pointed out, should not consist of just that one note.

In peace as in war, Némirovsky’s world lacks humanity and is peopled by promiscuous, gold-digging women and vain, rich men. Further down the social ladder the poor, far from offering an idealized contrast to the vile rich, are narrow-minded and bitter, moving in animal-like herds (in the opening pages of Suite Française she compares them to sheep) and given to unprovoked violence; artists are pretentious, scheming hungrily for honours, pimping their lovers and trumpeting their own greatness. If Suite Française is Némirovsky’s best book, it is because, among the usual characters — the vicious poor, the selfish rich, the spiritless clergy, the uninspired artists (‘the detestable masses’, as she called them) — she has included the Michauds, who are kind, thoughtful, without malice. While their simple goodness rings false in contrast with the charlatanism that surrounds them, it is undoubtedly the Michaud family, and the spark of sympathy to which they attest, that make Suite Française more engaging than either David Golder or Fire in the Blood. There is no way of knowing what Némirovsky would have done with the Michauds had she lived to finish her last novel; as it stands, however, they remain flat, markers representing a type.

Némirovsky has been championed as a chronicler of the changes wrought by occupation, but her static social views expose this as a myth. She has not responded to upheaval by re-shaping her idea of man to suit the times. Rather she appears as a writer of severely limited register, a reductivist lacking the drive to delve deeper into precisely the characters she thought she knew best, whose times, sadly, came to suit her.

For an author whose reception has been built so much on context, Némirovsky has been seriously decontextualised. Very little of her work is available to English readers, for example, and she is rarely if ever discussed in the context of the authors who were her contemporaries. If Némirovsky had been branded a mid-list author, this would not seem so shocking; but with the rumour of her ‘masterpiece’ communicated — if not specifically endorsed — throughout the British press, the question is valid: is it possible that what we don’t know is as important as what we do? Would familiarity with Némirovsky’s other work affect our reading of Suite Française?

In the contextual vacuum surrounding the publication of Suite Française in English, many mistook Némirovsky’s for a satirical — and therefore moralist — approach; in fact, viewed across several works, what at first appears to be satire is exposed as a crippling artistic failure. A characteristic is easier to manipulate than a character, and Némirovsky rarely managed to move beyond the one to the other. The result is not just facile misanthropy: it is repetitive. Compare her big book with that of an almost exact contemporary, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or to that of fellow Jewish immigrant Schwartz-Bart, and it is instantly clear how poor, how thin her writing is. Némirovsky and William Faulkner both began publishing in the mid-1920s; David Golder and The Sound and the Fury both appeared in 1929. Compare Némirovsky’s static oeuvre with Faulkner’s radically evolving portrait of the American south, and note just how little she progresses. Faulkner demonstrates across subsequent works a constant unease with his own assumptions, fighting his way to an ever-deeper understanding. His greatest works reveal, indeed, a complete reversal of attitude: whereas his earliest novels treat blacks as child-like figures of fun, black characters emerge in his later books as some of the most fully-rounded in modern literature, a triumph both of humanity and of creative greatness. Némirovsky makes no such grand strides; instead, she inches forward, and while the Michauds are a step in the right direction, they lack the fullness of compassion that illuminates Steinbeck’s Joads, Schwartz-Bart’s Levys of Zemyock or Faulkner’s Compsons.

Sadly, though, one need not look that far to find writing that puts Némirovsky’s in the shade: the letters written by her husband, Michael Epstein,  desperately trying to secure her freedom, go far beyond anything achieved in the fiction to which they are appended.

Ultimately, Némirovsky’s critical reception in the UK vindicates Barthes: the complex circumstances of the author’s life and times — the political turmoil, the personal history, the long and difficult relationships to Judaism, Russia, France, wealth — make it almost impossible to establish the facts that her critical reception has ear-marked for importance: whether Nemirovsky was an anti-Semite or an anti-Communist; whether she died of typhus or in the gas chambers; whether the book we read was finished a week or a month or a day before her arrest; just how long it lived in a suitcase. Her writing does not establish any of these facts, all that remain are the texts, from which we must draw our own conclusions. The author, in this case, really is dead. The circumstances of that death have certainly played an enormous factor in the sales of the book. That they should have played such a large role in the book’s critical reception, however, seems an abdication of responsibility, which should be, above all, to the work itself.

Némirovsky’s circumstances were incredible, but we do not read circumstances, we read books. It remains to be seen if, without the crutch of the author’s tragic life, her books can stand tall among the works of the 20th century. To find out, we will have to resurrect the critic.

Tadzio Koelb recently completed the Creative Writing MA programme at the University of East Anglia. He reviews regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman.

 

  
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