The Némirovsky Question

The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France

Susan Rubin Suleiman

View Inside Price: $35.00


November 22, 2016
376 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
25 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300171969
Hardcover

A fascinating look into the life and work of controversial French novelist Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky succeeded in creating a brilliant career as a novelist in the 1930s, only to have her life cut short: a “foreign Jew” in France, she was deported in 1942 and died in Auschwitz. But her two young daughters survived, and as adults they brought their mother back to life. In 2004, Suite française, Némirovsky’s posthumous novel, became an international best seller; some critics, however, condemned her as a “self-hating Jew” whose earlier works were rife with anti-Semitic stereotypes. Informed by personal interviews with Némirovsky’s descendants and others, as well as by extensive archival research, this wide-ranging intellectual biography situates Némirovsky in the literary and political climate of interwar France and recounts, for the first time, the postwar lives of her daughters. Némirovsky's Jewish works, Suleiman argues, should be read as explorations of the conflicted identities that shaped the lives of secular Jews in twentieth-century Europe and beyond.

Susan Rubin Suleiman is the C. Douglas Dillon Research Professor of the Civilization of France and research professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She lives in Belmont, MA.

The Némirovsky Question traces the fascinating and complicated saga of the writer Irène Némirovsky against the rich backdrop of French literary culture, émigré culture, and secular Jewish culture. Suleiman enters brilliantly into the debate over Némirovsky’s suppposed 'self-hatred,' adding nuance, complexity, context.  She not only complicates the way we view Némirovsky but also expands our understanding of the lives, choices, and cultures of secular and secularizing Jews in Europe and North America in the twentieth century. é is a keenly intelligent book—clear, moving, and at moments, passionate. It should fly off the shelves.”—Sara R. Horowitz, York University


“The Némirovsky Question is a rare kind of book that combines history, biography and literary commentary to illuminate a controversial figure. It comes full circle with Suleiman’s very first book on the ideological novel and shares qualities that mark all of her works: a gift for clear argument, convincing reading, and wisdom—about life and literature. What a gripping and intelligent book! I learned a great deal about subjects and texts I have been studying for many years.”—Alice Kaplan, Yale University

"In this brilliant and moving book, Susan Rubin Suleiman examines the troubling charge that Irène Némirovksy, the acclaimed author of Suite Française, was a “self-hating Jew.” Her conclusion is that Némirovsky became a leading French novelist in the inter-war years despite mounting anti-Semitism, yet it was a Russian-born Jew that she died in Auschwitz in 1942."—Alan Riding, author of “And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris”

“Novelist Irène Némirovsky acknowledged how she sought out ‘cruelly tirelessly, the secrets beneath sad faces and dark skies’ with particular attention to the grimmer side of pre-World War French Jewish life. Susan Rubin Suleiman sees this as a prolegomenon to Némirovsky’s long forgotten, now rediscovered, still-controversial fictional universe in this impassioned, keenly intelligent book.”—Steven J. Zipperstein, Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, Stanford University     

 "An intimate, perceptive portrait of a complex woman and her times. A useful biographical portrait of an intriguing writer."—Kirkus Reviews

"Suleiman offers a personal, poignant, and perceptive account of what she rightly calls the lingering 'Némirovsky question.' By this, Suleiman means the many questions which revolve around the dark star of Némirovsky’s relationship to Judaism, other Jews, and her own Jewish background. The author handles this complicated subject . . . with lightly worn erudition and deeply felt compassion . . . With her own knack for nuance, Suleiman captures the quality that sets Némirovsky apart, despite or perhaps because of her flaws: as a writer, she is attachant. We read and treasure her—we are attached to her—because, at her best, she brilliantly conveys the entangled state of our ties with others and with our own selves."—Robert Zaretsky, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Stimulated by her deep and subtle understanding of the French cultural landscape between the world wars and as stubbornly determined as a detective, [Suleiman] applied herself, through a close reading of Némirovsky’s work, to examining the experience of this Jewish novelist, Russian-born but French-speaking, on the eve of World War II. . . . Suleiman’s exceptional understanding of both the work and the time led her to echo Primo Levi’s refusal to pass peremptory judgment on people who find themselves in exceptionally difficult situations: 'We should beware of the error of judging eras and places according to the prevailing standards of the here and now.'"—Anka Muhlstein, New York Review of Books

"[A] measured, compelling new book. . . . Rather than bluntly judge, Ms. Suleiman makes us see Némirovsky as a gifted woman situated in a particular historical epoch, carefully analyzing her writings as a product of those times, and clarifying, without excusing, Némirovsky’s most discomforting passages."—Diane Cole, Wall Street Journal