The Glory Days of The New Republic were never especially glorious, but at least it was respectable. Now that the magazine has devolved into a forum where it is repeatedly proven that niggers are stupid, Arabs are violent, and everyone secretly hates the Jews, including most of the Jews who don't work at The New Republic, it's really one of the trashiest, most meritricious rags out there, and I include The National Review and the NAMBLA newsletter and all the printed material from the Mitt Romney campaign in that assessment. Its arts coverage is particularly sad, dedicated to sniffing out Jew Hatery. Ruth Franklin is currently informing us that Irène Nemirovsky, the now-famous French-Russian author of Suite Française, was an anti-Semite . . . and an especially evil, vicious one for her posthumous elevation to Holocaust martyrdom, an event treated as if the executed author were herself responsible.
It is certainly fair to say that Nemirovsky came up with some ugly Jewish characters. It is also true that James Baldwin came up with some pretty grotesque Negroes and Graham Greene some pretty awful Catholics. It's fairly clear that Nemirovksy, an aristocrat by birth from an irreligious family, shared many of the cosmopolitan prejudices of her time. It is also clear that as the war loomed and the Nazis rose in power, she came to deeply regret many of her former literary creations as unfortunate caricatures. Franklin notes this and dismisses it out of hand. Once a self-hating Jew, always a self-hating Jew.
There's actually the seed of a legitimate critique in Franklin's essay. The circumstances of Nemirovsky's death, the late discovery of her manuscript for Suite Française, and the poise and surety of a novel incredibly written even as its own terrible context was coming into being--these have contributed to the overestimation of an otherwise less skilled, less compelling, and less immediate oeuvre. Other critics have made exactly that point, although most of them--rightly--note that one great work is all it takes. Franklin even cites such a writer in unfavorably comparing Nemirovsky to Ford Maddox Ford, whose only truly good book was The Good Soldier, and even that one not so good as your Modernist Lit professor wanted you to believe.
But Franklin isn't interested in constructing real criticism. She's interested in calling Nemirovsky who did, you know, die at Auschwitz, some kind of crypto-Nazi using the crudest means available.
David Golder appeared in 1929. Would it be too much to say that such a book published in such a year was complicit, as many similar books were complicit, in the moral degradation of culture that became one of the causes of the imminent genocide?Yes, it would be too much.
Némirovsky returned often in her work to her image of the Jew who cannot escape his past. Le Vin de solitude (The Wine of Solitude) is a semi autobiographical novel still untranslated, in which the protagonist . . . bemoans her ethnic surname--"Oh to be called Jeanne Fournier, Loulou Massard, or Henriette Durand, a name that is easy to understand, easy to remember!"--and reproaches her father for his materialism and his Jewishness. Among his friends are Boris, a "little Jew who has come from nothing," and Slivker, "a Jew with jet black eyes, whose arm shakes when he speaks, in a jerky motion, as though he still carried the stack of carpets he must once have sold in outside cafes." This work appeared in 1935, the year of the Nuremberg laws.And:
The following year, Nemirovsky earned 64,000 francs, or $23,000, from Gringoire, and Hitler invaded Austria.I think we can be sure that Nemirovsky was not looking to do a simultaneous product roll-out with Wilhelm Stuckart, and that third extract is pure trash: the laziest, crassest, cheapest kind of guilt-by-association. It's as embarrassing as Jonah Goldberg's latest. "Nemirovsky had a right-wing publisher, and Hitler was [sorry, Jonah] right-wing, ergo Nemirovsky profitted from Hitler." Or something. It isn't quite clear what Franklin intends by this crude juxtaposition, and the lack of clarity reflects badly on Franklin's intentions in putting it to paper. She makes a maddening effort to transform a pleading letter from Nemirovsky to Maréchal Pétain into a brief for collaborationism, and again, it is the reaching that reveals the poverty and shallowness of Franklin's critique. Nemirovsky did not act bravely in this regard, but nor was she quite the oddity that Franklin wants you to believe. Many of the wealthy, secular Jews of the French cosmopole behaved similarly in the early years of the war and Occupation; there's ample evidence of it in literature and in histories of the period. It may not be the most commendable or honorable behavior in retrospect, but these were people on the brink of the greatest human catastrophe in history, and we would do well to recuse ourselves from niggling judgmentalism and the self-flattering conviction that we, surely, would have done differently--damn the lives of our families, our communities, the thousand messy considerations of actual life.
Note that of the merits or demerits of Suite Française, the novel that made Nemirovsky the subject of current fame, Ruth Franklin has almost nothing to say, except to point out that it doesn't contain any Jewish characters--a troubling omission for critic out to prove that her subject hated Jews. The greedy, hypocritical characters that Franklin found so troubling as Jewish caricatures do actually appear in Suite, however, in the form of the bourgeoise, falsely pious, Christian Madame Péricand. Franklin laments that the German soldiers in the second half of the book are treated as something other than monsters, an odd complaint, since Nemirovsky was there, and knew them. If Nemirovsky treated some of the Germans with relative sympathy in her portrayals, it is all the more remarkable because even were it not for the fact of the Holocaust, she was neverthelss writing about the occupying power that had just conquered her home. This is an authorial act worthy of praise and wonder, not a cudgel to bash her person or reputation. Suite is not exactly a literary masterwork, but it is an assured, engrossing, terrifying, and terribly sad book written under extraordinary circumstances, a work that offers a valuable contemporary account of life in Occupied France without any of the critical, historiographical, and ideological junk that we've since heaped on the period of that war. Its recovery from loss was a boon to literature. For Ruth Franklin to drag it through the mud in order to make a tendentious argument about Irène Nemirovsky's insufficient Jewishness is for Ruth Franklin to make herself into a moral clown.