Societies of Misfits
David Golder; The Ball; Snow in Autumn; The Courilof Affair by Irene Nemirovsky (translated from French by Sandra Smith) Everyman's Library, 408 pages, $25
Irene Nemirovsky's "Suite Francaise" - discovered some years ago by her daughters, and first published in French in 2004, six decades after the writer's murder at Auschwitz - has been a chartbuster. The book has been translated into some 30 other languages (its English publication was in 2006), and sales have surpassed the one million mark globally. More importantly, "Suite Francaise" is an extraordinary artistic achievement: a work of fiction written under extreme duress, at virtually no distance from the history it narrates, but which nevertheless captures with luminosity and empathy the panic of the French in flight from Paris ahead of the German Wehrmacht, as well as the quotidian routine and quiet desperation of life in the Occupied Zone of France.
The success of "Suite Francaise" has led to the reissuing and translation of several of Nemirovsky's other books, including the one-volume edition of four novellas reviewed here. Here is an opportunity to see the growth of the author's talent, from the fledgling coarseness of "David Golder: (1929) through the more fully realized "The Courilof Affair" (1933), a book that gives some indication of the genius readers encountered in "Suite Francaise."
"The Courilof Affair" is told through a terrorist's memoir, found among his effects at his death, in 1932. In the pages of his notebook, Leon M. reflects on his days as a revolutionary in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Leon's father, who disappeared into exile during the boy's early childhood, had been an anti-czarist terrorist, and his mother, who died when her son was barely 10, had already introduced him to the cause of revolutionary violence. It almost seems that Leon was destined to become part of what he called "a revolutionary dynastic tradition." In any case, he admits, unsurprisingly, to the strong "desire for a certain kind of human affection," and a longing to "belong." This, and his confessed "love of power," he says, are what attracted him to the Bolshevik party. And he stayed, Leon says, because power, or at least its illusion, is "as intoxicating as ... wine."
He focuses in particular on his most important assigned task: the assassination of the czar's minister of education, the fictive Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, in 1903. Leon poses as a doctor, and in a series of less than credible episodes, resembling events in Jerzy Kosinki's "Being There," he becomes the ailing Courilof's personal in-house physician.
It is worth the reader's effort to suspend disbelief about this part of the story in order to read Nemirovsky's rendition of the developing relationship between Leon and Courilof. The "doctor" comes to understand the minister, with all his human frailties and foibles. And despite Courilof's ruthlessness in crushing peaceful demonstrations, and the blood of many innocents on his hands, he earns the compassion of Leon, who in observing the complexities of the Courilof household, "[f]or the first time... saw human beings: unhappy people, with ambition, faults, foolishness." Leon discovers that sensitivity in the face of human weakness and error is not easily compatible with revolutionary terrorism. This is the heart of the book.
There is no musing here, either by Leon or Nemirovsky, about the niceties of ideology, or about social change, or justice, or even community. Unlike Pyotr Verhovensky in Dostoyevsky's "Demons," Leon is no fanatic ready to die for an action he's not sure he understands. And unlike the hysterical and even farcical Fanny, Leon's mentor and partner in crime (straight out of Malraux's "Man's Fate" and Conrad's "Under Western Eyes"), he is less attracted to the "mystique of action" than he is aware of the human waste and defeat in all historical effort. At times he even feels "an extraordinary hunger for an insignificant, bourgeois, peaceful life, far from the rest of the world."
Courilof's assassination is planned as a spectacular piece of political theater, a public display to be seen by Russian ministers and foreign dignitaries as they leave a show at one of St. Petersburg's great performance halls. After a series of astonishing events, Fanny ends up in prison and Leon is condemned to be hanged. Both eventually escape and Leon goes on to become a major actor in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, rising to a position of power in the Cheka, the Bolshevik predecessor to the KGB. Here, despite the hesitations he had experienced more than a decade earlier, he is responsible for dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of executions. Yet, once again, Leon has his occasional moment of "lucidity," in which he recognizes his victims as fellow human beings. "A revolution is such a slaughterhouse!" he cries, "Is it really worth it?" No. But all the same, Leon claims, "we have to play the game." It is Courilof who concludes that "there does not exist a good man who has not at some time in his life committed a cruel act, nor an evil man who has not done some good...." But it might as well have been Leon (or even Irene Nemirovsky herself, with her likable bunch of German soldiers in "Suite Francaise") who calmed himself with the same rationalization.
It won't fly, however. Nemirovsky's protagonists not only fail to make the important distinction between cruelty and evil; they barely mask the incredible brutality of revolutionary terrorists and the reactionary aristocratic establishment, each of which mirrored the other in believing that their respective victims "deserve no more pity than mad dogs." "The Courilof Affair" is a wonderful example of Nemirovsky's untiring (she published almost one novel a year from 1926 until the start of World War II) dedication to examining, with sympathy, the complex ironies of human interaction and to unveiling the hidden desires and emotions of her protagonists.
Other side of the coin
Compared to "Courilof," "Snow in Autumn" (1931) is a slender story, but with its short chapters (some with dramatic endings), and thanks to Nemirovsky's psychological acuity, it is also a forceful tale. Here, in what might be called the other side of the coin of Leon M.'s adventures, we see the flight from revolutionary Russia to France of an aristocratic family, the Karines, through the eyes of Tatiana, their loyal old nanny. None of the formerly wealthy White Russians seem to be able to adjust well, as they lose their money and their self-respect. It is Tatiana, however, who, having fled the blind, mean-spirited violence of the local Bolsheviks, and having made an incredible journey from the village of Soukharevo to Paris to find the family, has the most difficult time. The Karines move "back and forth... between their four walls, silently, like flies in Autumn [the book's title in French] barely able to fly, weary and angry, buzzing... trailing their broken wings behind them."
Tatiana serves the family, but she longs and prays for the snow of her native land and sinks deeper and deeper into sadness as fall approaches early winter with no snow. One night, desperate for something of the old country to hang on to, she sees a white fog, which "looked like snow, the first snow of autumn." Tatiana ends up following the fog into a river, where she drowns. This is a dark, poignant tale, made even more so by our knowledge of Nemirovsky's own flight with her family from revolutionary Russia. The autobiographical element is real enough, but it is Nemirovsky's skill and genius in telling the story from the perspective of the nanny that gives the novel its power.
"The Ball" (1930) is the least accomplished of the novellas collected here. Antoinette Kampf, the awkward 14-year-old daughter of a nouveau-riche Parisian German-Jewish family (now Catholic) made wealthy by a "killing" in the stock market in 1926, is the center of this piece. She shrewdly observes and silently skewers her parents for their hypocrisies. She is especially petulant and mean-spirited about her monstrous, "crass and unsophisticated" mother, who worries about aging and the erosion of her good looks and who, in compensation, tries to accumulate status and goods, especially jewelry. Many of these selfish, middle-aged mothers appear in the novels of Nemirovsky, whose own mother was brutal to her - when she paid any attention to her at all.
The story is an implausible fairy tale, a "revenge fantasy" for the author, who no doubt identifies with Antoinette. The teenager is forbidden to attend the ball her parents are preparing as part of their plan to ingratiate themselves with other somewhat more successful arrivistes, nearly 200 of them. Antoinette, who is sent to the post office with the invitations by her English governess, posts only one of them and destroys all the others. The Kampfs have spent a small fortune on food and drink and musicians, and as the appointed evening arrives, Antoinette, in a chilling yet funny scene, watches from behind a couch as her parents sweat out the passing time. The only guest is the universally disliked cousin Isabelle, an angry, poor piano teacher who secretly gloats as she watches Madame Kampf fall apart. Shamed by her apparent social failure, Madame Kampf turns to her despised daughter for comfort. In the last line of the story lies a puzzle: Does Antoinette sincerely accept her mother's hugs and kisses? Is she caught by her need for this rare embrace (she is after all still a child) or is she relishing her revenge and the beginning of a new role as the dominant female in the household? This ending, with its implication that "human nature is incomprehensible" (a mantra of Nemirovsky's) raises the novella beyond simple melodrama.
The book for which Irene Nemirovsky remained most famous in France before the posthumous publication of "Suite Francaise" is "David Golder." Written in 1923 and published in 1929, when the author was only 26, the novella received immediate critical and popular acclaim, though it was also at the center of some controversy, especially after it was made into a film in 1930. Here again we have a thoroughly despicable mother, Gloria, who is also an adulterous wife. There are several other unredeemable characters, including Gloria's lover and the Golders' flighty, hedonistic daughter. And, of course, there is David Golder, who from his beginnings in Ukraine as a rag peddler, ruthlessly made his way up to great wealth as a businessman and speculator living in Paris and summering at Biarritz in the 1920s.
The novella, the first word of which is "no," opens on a dark note, with Golder refusing to help Simon Marcus, his partner and "friend" of many years. Bankrupt, Marcus commits suicide, and there are hints that he is not the only casualty of Golder's unflinching career in finance. Obsessed with his work, Golder is left isolated and friendless. He is possessed, however, by his love for Joyce, his 18-year-old daughter, who like Gloria, shows Golder no affection or concern except as a "cash-cow"; both daughter and wife continue to milk him for furs, cars, jewelry and money for their lovers.
Even after Golder has a life-threatening heart attack, Gloria and Joyce continue to pressure him. He has a hard time denying his daughter anything, even after he learns she may not even be his; but finally he is fed up and brings financial ruin upon himself (along with dozens of others), the only way to cut off wife and daughter. Joyce, however, in a not entirely credible scene, wheedles her way back into her father's favor and convinces him to reenter the financial fray. Golder travels to the Soviet Union to negotiate a potentially lucrative oil deal. But it proves too much for him. He has given his daughter everything, apparently even his life. In facing his inevitable death, Golder, like Leon M. in "Courilof," despite his very different life path, wonders whether it was all worth it. He begins to measure the costs of his ambition, and spurred in part by his trip to the old country, where he even has an opportunity to speak Yiddish, he compares with real regret his opulent life to the simple life he left behind.
"David Golder" has its flaws. Only the title character has any complexity. But there is Soifer, Golder's old acquaintance and card-playing partner, who is introduced near the end of the book; though harshly caricatured as a greedy Jew, he is ultimately portrayed with tender poignancy. Nemirovsky writes of him, as she could have with minor changes, written of Golder himself: "Soifer would die all alone, like a dog, without a friend, without a single wreath on his grave, buried in the cheapest cemetery in Paris by his family who hated him, and whom he hated, but to whom he nevertheless left a fortune of some thirty million francs, thus fulfilling till the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth."
As Claire Messud writes, in an insightful introduction to the volume: "This is an appalling indictment, not of Soifer himself but of the warping force of the society around him." The crudely drawn anti-Semitic portrait, she says, is also "a portrait of the potential horror of any immigrant life."
If one were to substitute the word "immigrant" for the word "Jew," as Messud suggests, Nemirovsky's depiction would carry the same force, with considerably less offense. After all, Nemirovsky herself wrote in 1934: "I continue to depict the society I know best, that is composed of misfits, those who have been expelled from their milieu, the place where they would normally have lived, and who do not adapt to their new lives without clashes or suffering."
Still, the questions sit like two gorillas on the dining room table: Is Nemirovsky's writing anti-Semitic?; was Nemirovsky an anti-Semite? Perhaps, as with Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," we have in "David Golder" an anti-Semitic work, but not an anti-Semite. Maybe. But the reality is terribly complex. When the word "Jew" appears in "David Golder," it is never without a disparaging adjective, like "little Jew" or "fat little Jew." Caricatures abound. Marcus has a "swarthy face" and "hooded eyes" with "Oriental languor," and his gold-capped teeth glow "eerily" in the darkness. Marcus' secretary, Braun, is a "little Jew with fiery eyes," and his wife sports "a beaklike nose." Golder, according to Gloria, had a nose that was "enormous, hooked like the nose of an old Jewish moneylender."
Darling of the anti-Semites
In Russia, the Nemirovskys had moved in gentile social circles, high above the Jewish shtetlakh, and Irene appears to have developed a distaste for unacculturated Jews, with whom she feared to be identified. Her writing, however, suggests she had no love for acculturated, "grasping," bourgeois Jews either. She also seems to have blamed Jews for the revolution her family was forced to flee. She thought Trotsky was a "sort of eternal Jew, always in revolt... a traitor, a... bum."
In France, where her family rebuilt its fortune, Irene again associated mainly with the gentile upper middle class. And "David Golder" (book and film), made Nemirovsky a darling of the French anti-Semitic right. Her books were serialized in Gringoire, and her stories appeared in Candide, two newspapers whose editorials attacked Jews and immigrants. Among her closest friends were reactionary Frenchmen who became infamous as Nazi collaborators and supporters of Vichy France. She herself believed that the Resistance was out to "take everything" from the wealthy; and in 1939 she, like the Kampfs in "The Ball," converted to Catholicism, an act apparently as much motivated by authentic persuasion as by fear of persecution (which in any case would not, under French law, have saved her).
In Nemirovsky's defense, it is necessary to point out that while she never embraced her Jewish identity, she never dreamed of hiding her origins either, even during the occupation. She also chose to marry Michel Epstein, a fellow Jewish exile. And by in 1935, when it became clearer that the caricatures of Golder, Soifer and Marcus provided ammunition to the growing number of anti-Semites in France, Nemirovsky said, "If there had been Hitler [in 1929] I would have greatly toned down 'David Golder,' and I wouldn't have written it in the same fashion"; and again three years later: "How could I write such a thing? If I were to write 'David Golder' now, I would do it quite differently.... The climate is quite changed."
Quite. And later the fall of France, the Nazi occupation, and the Vichy regime's enthusiastic anti-Semitism made a mockery of Nemirovsky's assimilation. She and her family, who had retreated from Paris to Issy-l'Eveque, were forced to wear the yellow star. During this time, Nemirovsky published short stories (under various pseudonyms) in Gringoire. If it is troubling that Nemirovsky was still willing to be published in the pages of a fascist journal, she did provide her family some desperately needed income. And that the paper's editor was willing to help Nemirovsky get published is no more ironic that what often happens in her fiction.
No other literary associates, however, nor any of Nemirovsky's right-wing friends, many with Vichy connections, could or would help her; and her husband's tragically desperate efforts to rescue her went ignored. Epstein himself was deported soon after his several attempts. There is, of course, no justice in Irene Nemirovsky's fate. At Auschwitz she died horribly and in vain. It is sobering to think that so brilliant and insightful a writer, one who saw the flaws of others with such brutal clarity, could not see the reality of her own situation. Less than a willful blindness, however, perhaps we have here an inability to imagine so radical an evil as genocide, to understand that in addition to people like herself who were uncomfortable with Jews and with their own Jewish identity, there were those who hated Jews with a violent, eliminationist intensity.
Gerald Sorin, distinguished professor of Jewish and American studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz. Among his many books is "Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent," which won the National Jewish Book Award in History in 2003.