Colin Nettelbeck reviews 'The Némirovsky Question: The life, death and legacy of a Jewish writer in 20th century France' by Susan Rubin Suleiman

When Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française appeared in 2004, it was a huge success, in France and throughout the English-speaking world as well. Its account of France’s collapse at the beginning of World War II, and its portrayal of the early part of the German Occupation, are now acknowledged as profoundly insightful and of an epic scope matched by few other writers. In addition, the story of the quasi-miraculous survival of the uncompleted manuscript, purportedly kept for fifty years in a suitcase by the daughter of the author who had perished in Auschwitz, provided an almost mythical aura to the Némirovsky phenomenon.

The enthusiasm generated by what appeared to be the discovery of a ‘new’ major author was soon to be tempered by other revelations. Némirovsky, between the wars, had been not just a recognised novelist, but a commercially successful and critically fêted star. The problems were that many of the author’s closest literary associates were later tarnished by collaborationist activities or tendencies, and that much of her work, including her most famous novel, David Golder (1929), was intensely critical of Jews and Jewishness. This provoked a still-heated debate about whether Némirovsky – a Russian Jewish immigrant in France, and a Shoah victim – was anti-Semitic, a Jew-hating Jew.

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Published in May 2017, no. 391

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