Refracted identities, mirrored lives.

Author:Schwartz, Amy E.


Susan Rubin Suleiman

Yale University Press 2016, 367 pp., $35

Susan Rubin Suleiman can tell you a lot about the politics of identity. Not the simple kind pandered to by politicians and pollsters, or chanted in slogans on college campuses. Rather, Suleiman, a Hungarian Jewish emigre who became a pioneering feminist and an eminent scholar of French literature, has spent a much-laureled lifetime exploring just how complicated it really is to figure out who you are.

It's almost inevitable that she would have been drawn to the story of Irene Nemirovsky, the controversial, once-forgotten French novelist who perished at Auschwitz and whose Jewish identity--and her tortured relationship with that identity--has occasioned fierce controversy since her masterwork, Suite Francaise, was discovered in a suitcase and published in 2004.

Suleiman's new book, The Nemirovsky Question: The Life, Death and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in 20th-century France, explores Nemirovsky's tragic career and the deteriorating civil society of pre-World War II France that first nurtured the writer and then ultimately turned on her. Drawing on parallels to her own life, Suleiman makes of the story a meditation on allegiance, foreignness and assimilation--one with uncanny echoes for today's politics.

Born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Suleiman hid from the Nazis as a small child and fled the Communists with her family in 1949, sneaking on foot across the border to Czechoslovakia and from there to Vienna, Haiti and finally New York. She ended up as an American citizen, an influential feminist literary critic, the first woman ever hired to teach full-time at Columbia College and, eventually, a prestigious Professor of the Civilization of France (now emerita) at Harvard University. Her many books include Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature (1994) and the memoir Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook (1993).

Nemirovsky's story of displacement had no such happy ending. A Russian Jew who fled the Revolution as a teenager, Nemirovsky broke into the inner circle of elite best-selling French novelists almost at once, writing haunting and sometimes harsh portraits of Jewish emigres like herself struggling to find a place in French society. Her first novel, David Golder, published in 1929, portrayed the sometimes unsavory rise of a Russian Jewish businessman and became a popular film. Her exotic characters, Jewish and otherwise, attracted avid attention from French readers.

Some Jewish readers, even in those prewar years, expressed unease at the cold eye Nemirovsky cast on Jewish social climbers such as Golder and on the tensions that simmered between Jews of differing social status. The French Jewish press criticized her in terms that read like the attacks later leveled by American Jews at Philip Roth in the 1950s. Like Roth, Nemirovsky responded in interviews that she was merely portraying the people she knew best and that the writer must write what she sees.

In Nemirovsky's case, though, the subsequent fate of French Jewry haunts the argument. With the rise of Vichy, her fame, her assimilation and even her conversion to Catholicism failed the author, and she fled with her husband and two young...

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