La Zone Grise

La Zone Grise

Five books explore the sorrows and moral complexity of Irène Némirovsky and others who suffered Nazi persecution in France.


By now, many of the French people who lived through the massive deportations of Jews from France during World War II are gone, but the French literary preoccupation with that national tragedy is still renewed almost annually. The novelists from the first generation of survivors have given way to what Susan Suleiman has called the “1.5 generation”–children born during the war but too young to have understood what was happening around them. A second generation, born after the war but marked by their parents’ experience, by now has produced a significant body of literature as well. It has always been difficult to read books by Holocaust survivors with a critical eye: as we know, a tragic family legacy is no guarantee of literary success, and this difficulty has endured with generation 2.0.

Memory, the translation of a recent novel by Philippe Grimbert, takes on an important sociological issue: the experience of Jewish children born just after the war to parents whose lives had been drastically altered by their war experience but who preferred to keep their wartime suffering hidden from their offspring. The French 1950s, for Jewish families especially, was a time of frightful quietude. From 1945 to 1957, several thousand French Jews changed their names; many others converted to Catholicism. It is difficult today to understand that this strong desire to assimilate was grounded in fear. For some French Jews, bearing a Jewish-sounding name was the equivalent of wearing a yellow star–it marked them as outsiders, prey to a possible return of anti-Semitic politics. Children of survivors and children of those who perished in the camps alike were doomed to contend with this zeal for assimilation, which led in many cases to the repression of wartime losses and family secrets. Nadine Fresco, who studied a group of these children in adulthood, has described their predicament with a memorable phrase: “a diaspora of ashes.”

Grimbert’s novel might be understood as a textbook demonstration of Fresco’s “diaspora.” Published in France in 2006 as Un Secret, then translated in England as Secret, it has been renamed Memory by its American publisher. The title is a misnomer, since what Grimbert intends is a war story that his narrator, born after the war, can’t possibly remember but must come to understand for his own psychological survival. The skewed American title is only one of the problems with a book (and a translation) that manages to be both fascinating and irritating, formulaic and excessive, playing to the reader’s expectations almost too knowingly.

The story begins in ordinary childhood anguish. A scrawny, insecure boy is obsessed with the imaginary brother who has the strength and agility he lacks–qualities he wishes he had inherited from his athletic parents. He follows his mother into the attic, where he finds a toy dog whose existence sends her into a panic. He grabs it and brings it downstairs, to the great discomfort of his parents. He doesn’t yet know that this toy animal is the only surviving clue to a family secret he will learn several years later: he did have a brother–actually a half brother, who was deported along with his father’s first wife.

The task of the narrator of Memory will be to reconstruct the guilt-laden family story that has been kept from him. His father, Maxime, was married to a woman named Hannah but lusted after Hannah’s sister-in-law, Tania. Only after Hannah was deported with their son Simon, and Tania’s husband died in captivity, was he able to marry Tania. Out of guilt or lack of courage, Maxime and Tania decided to keep their former lives hidden from their son, who nonetheless bears the burden of their repression.

The secretive parents in Memory are far from likable: Maxime, the narrator’s narcissistic father, obsessed with physical fitness and ashamed of his Jewish family, is almost too silly to be odious. But Hannah, Maxime’s first wife, is beautifully vulnerable in her jealousy; and Louise, the family friend who finally breaks the spell of silence to the suffering boy, has a lonely solidity that is perfect for her role.

Grimbert, a psychoanalyst, has acknowledged that Memory is based on his own family story. He uses his own name for the family in his novel, portrays his grown narrator as a psychoanalyst and tells his story in an intimate first-person voice, as though it were a memoir. He has an acute sense of the symbolic, so that everything from Louise’s orthopedic shoe to a dog cemetery on the grounds of Pierre Laval’s daughter’s estate–the counterpart to the narrator’s stuffed toy dog–is shot through with meaning. This works passably well in French, a language well-known for its friendly embrace of abstraction. In English, Polly McLean’s often too literal English translation results in some truly terrible sentences, of which I’m quoting two of the worst: “What to do with this adjective, inseparable from my emaciated body so reminiscent of those I had seen floating in too-big pajama uniforms?” and “The yellow stain distinguished them to others but also allowed them to recognize one another, binding together a community that, because it was hiding itself, had sometimes not realized its own existence.” This can be wearying.

Memory is, finally, a conversion narrative about the psychological health that emerges once family secrets are uncovered, yet the narrator’s transition from gawky boy to knowing analyst is a bit too magical. But what is most successful in Memory–so successful, in fact, that one races through the book, almost unaware of what’s going on from sentence to sentence–is its cleverly unfolding structure and the terrific sense of satisfaction for the reader when the narrator’s imaginary sibling turns out to be his intuition of the very real sibling whose existence and death have been hidden from him. It’s up to the narrator to do the heroic work of excavating the real from the clues of his imagination, without any help from his childlike parents. Memory won the French literary prize given by high school students to their favorite book–a fitting reward for this story of an adolescent’s psychological and intellectual triumph over his flawed parents.

Grimbert’s book was, as his US publisher puts it, “a colossal bestseller” when it appeared in France, but its success didn’t approach the excitement that had greeted the publication in 2004 of Suite Française, a devastating portrait of French society written during the early years of the occupation. The novel was celebrated for its irony, its brilliant construction and its flair–part Edith Wharton, part Chekhov. But even more astonishing to readers was the fact that while the novel’s author, Irène Némirovsky, had died of typhus in Auschwitz in 1942, her manuscript somehow survived the war and was being brought to life sixty-two years after it was drafted.

Perhaps what Grimbert had to contend with in imagining his parents’ complex lives before the war is something like the situation faced by those American readers who first fell in love with Némirovsky when a translation of Suite Française was published in 2006, making it one of the few French novels in translation to reach the New York Times bestseller list in several decades. (The paperback edition has been on the Times‘s trade fiction bestseller list for nearly thirty weeks.) Now, with the US publication of a volume of Némirovsky’s early novels in Sandra Smith’s clearheaded translation, those same readers must contend with her troubling life and work leading up to the war. Whereas Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, Némirovsky’s French biographers, manage to describe her ambivalent relationship to Judaism and to French society without any finger-wagging, the same isn’t true for American critics, who seem to be gearing up for a fight. Ruth Franklin has announced “the nasty truth” about Némirovksy in The New Republic, while Allen Barra in Salon, with more curiosity, has asked how we can separate her talent from the ugliness of her views. It’s proving tempting to take Némirovsky as an occasion for moral sparing, to treat her circumstances in black and white and reduce her work to a symptom of its time. Her conflicts, her struggles, her changes of heart are silenced by this prosecutorial zeal. The crux of the matter in all these debates is the representation of Jewish characters in her early fiction and the company she kept. No wonder there’s a defensive undercurrent to Claire Messud’s substantial preface to the Everyman’s Library edition of the four early works.

David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn and The Courilof Affair were published between 1929 and 1933, when Némirovsky was an ingénue. They consolidated her literary reputation as a Russian Jewish émigré who wrote in perfect French and cast a cynical, disparaging eye on the world around her. In an American context, the decision to include these works in the Everyman’s Library edition marks the strong desire to place Némirovsky’s fiction on a select shelf of the classics alongside the works of Ford Madox Ford and Cormac McCarthy. Snow in Autumn (“autumn flies” in French, which has a more desperate resonance) is told from the perspective of a senile servant to a White Russian family condemned to a shabby Paris exile. The Ball, a short story Némirovsky tossed off while she was writing David Golder, recounts an adolescent girl’s vengeance against her social-climbing mother: she throws her mother’s party invitations into the river and watches, with glee, when nobody shows up to the ball. In The Courilof Affair, a world-weary terrorist recounts in slow motion his most difficult assignment: the murder of a highly placed government minister in the days preceding the October Revolution. The Courilof Affair poses the same existential problem as Camus’s The Just Assassins: how can you kill a man once you’ve looked him in the eye? What unites all these stories, whether the point of view is that of an aristocratic White Russian, an immigrant Jewish financier or a revolutionary terrorist, is a technique that is as visual as it is psychological: an excruciating close-up on an extreme state of mind.

This quality is most vivid in David Golder, the longest novella in the collection. One of Némirovsky’s earliest books, made into a movie and a play, it was hotly debated on the French literary scene of 1929-30 and propelled her to fame while she was still in her 20s. Because of the controversy surrounding its original publication, David Golder is an essential work for understanding Némirovsky’s literary career and her legacy.

We meet financier David Golder as he is driving his business partner Simon Marcus to suicide over a financial betrayal. Soon the tables turn on Golder and he succumbs to despair. Surrounded by the signs of his financial empire–a spoiled wife living in a marble mansion in Biarritz; a beautiful daughter he adores, who approaches him only for money–he suffers a sudden heart attack, and for the rest of the novel he is, in the most vivid and literal sense, dying of a broken heart. In the depth of despair, he decides to liquidate his entire fortune, to consolidate and live out the abandonment he feels. Hiding out in an empty Paris apartment with his old friend Soifer as his only companion, he launches one last plot for financial vengeance. In the end, the whole book amounts to a bitter cry of pain: over his life, his loveless marriage, a family who drains him of every penny and the emptiness of his financial success. A steamship takes him back to the Russian port town of his youth, where he experiences a brief and intense stab of tenderness at the sight of all he had left: his cousin’s shoemaker shop, the old dark alleyways, the houses made of rickety wood. Throughout the novel are close-ups of Golder’s face, more and more grotesque with illness, and a host of references to the Jewish “race.”

Soon after David Golder was published in 1929, there appeared in the French press a sustained polemic about whether the book was anti-Semitic–even though Némirovsky was Jewish. Golder and his world corresponded too well to French fears about corrupting Jewish capital. Philipponnat and Lienhardt describe the bemused response of a journalist for L’Univers Israélite, the newspaper of liberal, assimilated French Judaism, who concluded after interviewing her that Némirovsky wasn’t an anti-Semite–though she didn’t identify as a Jew, either, and couldn’t actually be counted as a Jewish writer.

Némirovsky’s portrait of David Golder struck me in the end as far more poignant than grotesque, for there is something noble and completely disinterested about his progressive renunciation of a wasted life. The spare language of his death scene, with its appeal to the senses, is Némirovsky at her best:

He could feel snowflakes on his lips, which melted with the taste of ice and water so familiar to him from the past. And he could hear someone calling: “David, David…” A voice hushed by the snow, the low, dark sky…. A small voice that suddenly grew fainter and faded away, as if heading in a different direction. It was the last sound he was to hear on this earth.

Given the delicacy of this passage, it is extremely discomforting to know that right-wing French critics who prided themselves on their anti-Semitism–including Robert Brasillach and Jean-Pierre Maxence and Paul Morand–may well have read David Golder with relish, not because of its poignancy but because it corresponded to their prejudices. The question remains: does their response preclude any other reading?

In David Golder, Némirovsky was drawing on specific stereotypes associated with Jewish immigration from the East and Jewish wealth. In The Ball, those clichés reappear in a lighter vein: Monsieur Kampf is “a dry little Jew”; the guest list for Madame Kampf’s party includes Abraham and Rebecca Birbaum, who have purchased a title and become the Count and Countess Poirier. Making fun of Jewish names and a Jewish “infiltration” of the French aristocracy is standard in every anti-Semitic text of the period, from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to Céline’s Bagatelles pour un massacre. The theme is also central to Proust. There is no question that Némirovsky had a gift for starting with the raw material of stock characters–Catholic spinsters, nouveaux riches Jews, society hostesses–and breathing life into them. Writers who mock their own social or ethnic milieu have always been attacked as traitors. In the French context, Proust remains the best example. There’s endless debate about whether he was a self-hating Jew (despite his early support for the cause of Captain Dreyfus) or a particularly lucid analyst of an aspiring Jewish bourgeoisie–or both. The young Némirovsky, like Proust, liked to skewer literary versions of the people she knew best: her mother and her mother’s friends, many of whom she hated. Does she hate Jews or does she hate her mother? Are her Jewish stock characters tinged with racism? There’s a lot of gray area to explore.

Perspective plays an unavoidable role in this debate. It’s impossible today not to read Némirovsky’s life and work backward from the 1940s, from the disaster of her deportation. What the young writer couldn’t have known when she portrayed the decadent world of rich Jews in Biarritz is that four years later, in December 1933, a financial scandal in the neighboring town of Bayonne involving a Russian-Jewish financier named Alexandre Stavisky would give way to an unprecedented wave of anti-Semitic hatred in France that, in turn, would set off the nationalist riots of February 6, 1934, which nearly toppled the government, marking the beginning of a reign of hatred that would send Némirovsky to the death camps in 1942.

Némirovsky was not a political writer, but she understood the importance of context for literary reception, and she was as tough and lucid about herself as she was about her characters. As time passed she felt more and more remorse, not over her novel but over what she had come to understand about its readers. A year after the February 1934 riots, she wrote in her diary, “If there had been Hitler, I would have greatly toned down David Golder, and I wouldn’t have written it in the same fashion.” Three years later, her regret turned to horror: “How could I write such a thing?” She is not the first writer to have grappled with the terrible sense of losing control of the reception of what she had written. In her case, issues of reception were dwarfed by much more serious political and legal disenfranchisement, then by her murder, in the most grotesque series of events imaginable. And if there had been no posthumous Némirovsky, David Golder would be the work for which she’d still be remembered–ambivalently.

By the time France fell to the Germans, Némirovsky had converted to Catholicism in hopes of obtaining French citizenship, and by targeting French Catholics in her fiction, she was once again zeroing in on her own intimate world, sparing no one. Suite Française has no Jewish characters, but it bitterly indicts the French conservatives, the Pétainists, who emerge from her pen every bit as self-interested and venal as David Golder and his associates. Némirovsky herself spent the last years of her life struggling to make ends meet with her husband and two daughters in Issy-l’Evêque, a village in the occupied zone, where she worked on Suite Française until her arrest. She had left the fold of Bernard Grasset, the publisher of David Golder, in 1933. He was now publishing Fascist pamphlets and, like every other editor in Paris, had been ordered by the Nazis to shred his stock of books by Jewish authors (though he did not include Némirovsky among them). Her second publisher, Robert Esménard, was a steady source of financial support to her and later to her surviving children. Horace de Carbuccia, the editor of one of the most violently racist collaborationist newspapers of the occupation years, helped her make ends meet by publishing her last stories. From December 1940 to February 1942 (five months before her arrest), Némirovsky published seven short stories for Carbuccia’s Gringoire under the pseudonyms Pierre Nérey and Charles Blancat, and sometimes with just the phrase “a short story written by a young woman.” Yet this same Carbuccia published articles ridiculing the Jews who had fled to the unoccupied zone and changed their names. As Némirovsky’s French biographers point out, Carbuccia was fond of Némirovsky–and, they remind us, there’s no logic to “great affection.”

Gringoire wasn’t always synonymous with French Fascism. Némirovsky had been brought into the fold of Carbuccia’s newspaper in the 1930s by the Jewish immigrant writer Joseph Kessel, who became a hero of the French Resistance in London and wrote the great Resistance anthem “Le Chant des Partisans.” Kessel had been in charge of Gringoire‘s literary pages but left the paper angrily in 1937 when it turned racist.

With France’s defeat in 1940 and the passage of anti-Semitic legislation by Vichy, Gringoire‘s racism only grew. In July 1941, a cartoon on page one targeted Jews, Freemasons, Communists and bankers. On February 27, 1942, a front-page article made fun of Léon Blum’s “Jewish defense” at his trial in Riom (Pétain tried the members of the Popular Front government for responsibility in the fall of France); Irène Némirovsky published her story “L’Incendie” (The Fire) as Pierre Nérey in the same issue. In every wartime issue of Gringoire, de Gaulle is the traitor, Pétain the savior; the Jews and the Communists are the enemies. The copious literary pages of the newspaper offered distraction from current events.

It’s worth underlining the fact that Némirovsky wasn’t the only respectable writer who was publishing in Gringoire during the occupation. A figure as beloved as Colette, who was, at the time, hiding her Jewish husband to protect him from arrest, also appeared in its literary pages, and her personal situation was nearly as removed from Gringoire‘s politics as Némirovsky’s. How closely did the two writers read the headlines? What regret did they have to swallow? Did either of them imagine that their affiliation with Gringoire offered some form of protection? Both cases are painful to imagine, especially when you turn to the political pages of Gringoire. On August 21, 1942, nearly six weeks after Némirovsky’s arrest by French police and deportation to Auschwitz, the paper announced in its news column: “Towards a happy solution to the Jewish question: we have learned that the Germans have decided to park the Jews in Poland.”

In the face of such painful truths, there is a book still not translated from the French that can help readers of Suite Française and David Golder approach the ambiguity in Némirovsky’s life and work in a profound and empathetic way. Elisabeth Gille’s Le Mirador (The Watchtower), published in 1992, introduces us to Irène Némirovsky as she was imagined by the daughter who never knew her beyond age 5. Gille, who grew up to be one of the most respected literary editors in Paris, is not interested in defending her mother’s reputation. Instead, she sets out to live in her mother’s head. Gille portrays Irène Némirovsky on the eve of deportation, trying to imagine how her two young daughters would remember her in ten or twenty years: “What will they be able to reproach me…when they are grown women?” Every word in quotation marks in Le Mirador is an actual phrase of Némirovsky’s, gleaned by Gille from letters and from her mother’s copious work-in-progress notebooks–and these words help foster a powerful sense of her character. The daughter creates not only her mother’s subjectivity but her mother’s relationship to her–the relationship of which she was deprived. Gille intersperses Némirovsky’s imagined memoirs with passages in italics that represent her own fragmented memories of growing up in postwar France. In giving her mother a fictional consciousness, Gille had to contend not only with Némirovsky’s death at Auschwitz but with her mother’s literary legacy–the part she was proud of and the part she was ashamed of.

How to understand the figure of David Golder, with his “flabby arms and legs,” the “mottled bluish patches on his pale skin and the two folds sunk into the thick flesh around his mouth like the drooping jowls on an old dog”? Gille imagines Némirovsky responding to press reports of the anti-Jewish exhibit held at the Palais Berlitz in 1941, wondering angrily if her first publisher thought she was one of the Jewish writers skewered at the exhibit: “Jewish writers,” a poster at the exhibit proclaimed, “transmit above all in their works their social anxiety and sexual perversions. They are temperamentally destructive of all the ideals, of the old French customs, of the honest values of the provinces, of respect for their country and its beliefs.” Gille imagines her mother contemplating the description of Jews by George Montandon, the infamous pseudo-ethnologist who made a fortune under Vichy giving “Aryan” certificates to desperate French Jews. The Jewish subject, Montandon proclaimed, had a “strongly convex nose, thick lips, eyes deep in their sockets…frizzy hair, big ears that stick out, shoulders slightly bowed, thick or fat hips, flat feet…” Gille doesn’t give any verdict; she doesn’t accuse. She doesn’t compare Montandon’s description to the descriptions in David Golder. She gives us the language that was circulating in Irène Némirovsky’s world. Neither forgiving nor condemning, she lets us draw our own conclusions.

And then she creates a Némirovsky who has trouble forgiving herself. At 20, her fictional Irène muses, had she been “too busy partying to notice what was going on around her”? Why hadn’t she noticed the students from the Action Française disrupting the lectures given by Jewish professors at the Sorbonne? “Hadn’t [she] been reading the papers?” Gille has Némirovsky scrutinizing her own actions in the third person with the same caustic drive that characterizes her fiction. It’s an extraordinary tribute–a reflection on Némirovsky’s personality and style as powerful as Suite Française.

It has been a longstanding cliché that France needs to “come to terms” with the occupation, to overcome the tremendous burden of Vichy’s complicity in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to the death camps. Books like Grimbert’s Memory seem to want to enact a revelation and a cure–a successful “coming to terms” with repressed losses, whereas Gille’s Le Mirador, written in a very different key, expresses the longing for a relationship the author could never have, with its equal parts of love and conflict. There is no cure here, no resolution, only the signs of incompleteness.

Still, it is tempting to tell the story of Elisabeth Gille as a triumph over a cruel beginning. She discovered her literary talent at the culmination of her career as a translator and literary editor. After Le Mirador and a subsequent book about her bout with cancer, in 1998 she published Shadows of a Childhood, the fictionalized chronicle of her years in hiding and her coming of age in postwar France. Shadows first appeared in English six years before the excavation of Suite Française, when Némirovsky was unknown. Its reissue this spring will give Gille a new and deserved readership.

Like Grimbert’s Memory, Gille’s Shadows of a Childhood is grounded in the author’s past. Eschewing the intimate first person, Gille establishes a distance from her main character, Léa, telling her story largely from the point of view of the people who care for her after she is orphaned: first a nun, whom she calls Sister Saint-Gabriel, then a couple in the Resistance whose daughter becomes her best friend and her only link to happiness and normality. In one horrifying scene, Sister Saint-Gabriel takes the child to the Parisian apartment building where her parents had lived before the war. The concierge has moved all her parents’ antique furniture and silver into her own flat and assures the nun that the repatriated Jews are all living in luxury at the Hotel Lutetia. Sister Saint-Gabriel and Léa go next to the Hotel Lutetia, the headquarters for people in search of camp survivors. Here is where the novel leaves its realist foundations and moves into the realm of nightmare. (Gille translated J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun a decade before writing Shadows of a Childhood, and her rendering of the hotel has the feel of Ballard’s surreal landscape.) A concentration camp survivor, reduced to a skeletal grimace, explains to Léa her parents’ fate, hissing at her: “Gassed. Poisoned like rats. Burned in an oven. Turned into black smoke. Poof, your parents. Poof.” The curse of this truth sends her into a spiral of secret obsession with the war and a greater and greater indifference to life. A novel that begins much like Louis Malle’s gentle tragedy Au revoir les enfants ends in a much darker mode.

Gille made a crucial literary decision by letting us see the disturbed child Léa–the literary version of her childhood self–through the eyes of adults who were not only baffled by her obsessions but who found her almost impossible to love. This distance from her past self allows Gille to convey the postwar reality of a French nation hellbent on reconstruction, for whom Léa’s anger was simply beyond comprehension. The power of Shadows of a Childhood, its historical truth, depends on the disjunction between a young girl’s death grip on the past and the upbeat world in which she lives. By the end of the novel, Léa is so disturbed that if she had been its narrator, Shadows of a Childhood might have descended into an intolerable pathos.

There are different ways to remember, different ways to commemorate and different ways to write. When the subject matter seems to call for automatic consecration, it’s all the more important to read, and write, critically. Elisabeth Gille’s life experiences might have led her to her subject, but in the end it was her literary art, not her family history, that enabled Irène Némirovsky’s daughter to find a voice and a style commensurate with her shattering subject.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy