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Disputations: "Scandale Francaise," Continued

Ruth Franklin responds.
Scandale Française.hereherehere

Sandra Smith asserts that Némirovsky was “sympathetic to the Jews she portrayed,” yet she gives no examples of such sympathy (unless she means to suggest that describing Soifer as dying “all alone, like a dog” suffices). Smith is correct that Némirovsky’s work was highly critical of Catholics, as anyone can see from Suite Française. But the hypocritical and cruel Catholics in this novel are not caricatures; they are fully developed characters drawn from diverse parts of society. Moreover, unlike the Jews in David Golder, they are balanced by admirable counterparts. Némirovsky’s portrayals of Catholics were three-dimensional. Her portrayals of Jews--whether motivated by ideology or simple insensitivity--were not.

I am not the first to point out that there are no Jewish characters in Suite Française. It is ludicrous to suggest, as Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt do, that the fact that Langelet at one point thinks of Jewish friends contradicts this statement. These are the lines to which they refer: “[Langelet] thought with amazement of the wave of panic that had swept through him when he had wanted to leave France to go and live in Portugal or South America. Some of his friends had gone, but he was neither Jewish nor a Mason, thank God, he thought with a scornful smile.”

If Jonathan Weiss’s biography is indeed “flawed”--perhaps it was not published in the late 1990s because there was no general interest in Némirovsky before Suite Française?--then I look forward to Philipponnat and Lienhardt’s corrections of his errors. From what they have written here, the errors do not appear to be significant. It is not important whether Némirovsky was married in a synagogue or personally knew Jacques Chardonne. What is important is not in dispute: that Némirovsky “had no sympathy,” in the words of her husband, “for Judaism” (that Michel Epstein may have written these words out of political expedience does not make them untrue); and that this lack of sympathy, expressed in repugnant novels such as David Golder, had dangerous ramifications in France between the wars.

Lexy Bloom urges readers to “turn to Némirovsky’s own words” rather than relying on my interpretation. I, too, hope that those who admired Suite Française will read David Golder and draw their own conclusions. After they do so, perhaps they too will ask: Why did the editorial apparatus and publicity campaign for Suite Française focus almost exclusively on Némirovsky’s death rather than on the highly problematic works with which she had made her name during her lifetime? Why was her letter to Pétain not included in that book’s lengthy selection of her correspondence? And why, as other critics have pointed out, was the notorious anti-Semite Robert Brasillach’s praise for Némirovsky cut from the English-langage version of the preface to the book? Whatever the literary merits of Suite Française, it certainly appears that--as Lexy Bloom strangely does not deny--her publisher “spun her story.”

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at
The New Republic.