A Tale of Vichy France
Jonathan Weiss plumbs the life of the enigmatic Irène Némirovsky
By Neha Sud '05
Published October 7, 2005 | Issue: Fall 2005
Professor Jonathan Weiss, an expert in contemporary French history, has written a timely biography of French novelist Irene Nemirovsky who died in Auschwitz. A Jew, Nemirovsky aligned herself with right-wing elements but was turned over to the Nazis nonetheless.
A few miles up the road from the Sorbonne University, deep in the heart of Paris's Latin quarter, is a magnificent 18th-century basilica, the Panthéon. The former cathedral's side façade is engraved with names"a memorial to those who died for France during war. Among these names is Irène Némirovsky, an enigmatic author to whom Professor Jonathan Weiss has devoted the past nine years of his life.
Originally intending to write a five-volume epic, Némirovsky only completed the first two installments of her novel, Suite Française, before she was arrested by French officers and deported to Auschwitz in July of 1942. She died there a month later. Released for publication by her daughter in 2004, Suite Française, a fictional account of German occupation, has already sold more than 150,000 copies in France and publication rights have been sold for at least 18 countries.
Némirovsky was posthumously awarded the prestigious literary prize, the Prix Renaudot 2004, making her the most celebrated author in France at this time. "Yet, it was France that killed her," acknowledged Weiss, author of a 219-page biography of Némirovsky published this summer. "Irène didn't want to die for France; she wanted to live and write. She deserved a prize, but when she was alive."
An expert in contemporary French history, Weiss, the NEH/Class of 1940 Distinguished Professor of Humanities, became interested in Némirovsky when he read her critically acclaimed novel, David Golder, published in 1929. The daughter of a wealthy Russian-Jewish banker, Némirovsky fled to France during the Bolshevik Revolution. Educated at French-speaking schools, she effortlessly settled into her new homeland. In 1926 she married Michel Epstein, an émigré Russian banker, with whom she had two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth. She wrote in the 1930s and even as late as 1940 for right-wing journals, and years earlier had taken the plunge into fiction with David Golder, the story of a ruthless, ill-fated Jewish businessman.
"[In the novel,] Irène associated Judaism with materialism. She was more attracted to a selfless, family-oriented life of Christian ideals," Weiss said. In 1939, Némirovsky converted to Roman Catholicism. To the collaborationist French government though, she remained a Jew. By 1941 Michel Epstein was barred from working for his bank, and Irène, once the darling of French literary society, was ostracized. The Epsteins fled to Issy-l'Evêque, a small village in Burgundy. There Némirovsky started writing Suite Française and desperately struggled to save her family from persecution.
"She thought that her friends on the extreme right would help her get through this," Weiss explained. Némirovsky wrote directly to Marshal Pétain, head of the Vichy government. Her letters argued that despite being Jewish by birth, she herself disliked the Jews, hence should be given special status. Weiss finds this conflict of identity most intriguing. "After reading David Golder, I went to talk to Irene's daughters about the ambiguity of her identity," he said. "That's where my fascination with her began."
Weiss spent the next five years trying to understand the mystifying Némirovsky. He shuttled between Maine and France to study Némirovsky's manuscripts, examine periodicals from the era, and interview her acquaintances. His research was both emotionally and academically difficult.
"As a professor at a small liberal arts college, students are your first priority. If a student calls and says, 'Can we meet tomorrow?' you can't say, 'I'm sorry, tomorrow's my writing day,'" he said.
In 2000-01 Weiss spent a year-long sabbatical in France, focusing solely on finishing his book. When he visited Issy-l'Eveque, Weiss noticed that there was no visible trace of Némirovsky having lived there"no plaque on her house, no street named for her. "There was a certain amount of shame involved," he said. "Here was an extremely well-known author. She got arrested by local village police, and no one did anything to protect her."
Then he was faced with hoax calls from people pretending to know Némirovsky. "As a biographer," Weiss said, "you have to be judicious. When you can't verify what someone's telling you, then you are lost."
He resolved the gap between speculation and fact by focusing on concrete evidence. "When you look at this period in black and white terms, it doesn't make sense," he said. "The collaborators weren't all demons and the resistance weren't all angels. Some collaborators actually saved Jews, but little has been documented." He cited the example of Carbuccia, the notoriously anti-Semitic editor of the right-wing journal Gringoire. Carbuccia secretly sent Némirovsky money and continued to publish her work, even after she was shunned by society. Weiss concluded, "The ambiguity of the period doesn't allow assumptions about intentions or beliefs. You can only go by actions."
In 2001, when Weiss finally finished his manuscript and sent it to publishers, he was bitterly disappointed. French publishers rejected his manuscript, saying that Némirovsky was too unknown, and that his book would not sell.
His fate changed in April 2004 when Denise Epstein released her mother's manuscript. Since Weiss's book was the only biography of Némirovsky, publishers fought to get the rights. In North America the biography will be translated by Weiss's wife, Dace (assistant professor of French, emerita), and published by Stanford University Press in 2006. In France the biography was published in the summer of 2005 by Éditions du Félin.
"Weiss paints a very detailed portrait, nourished by facts and texts," said a review in 24 heures, a Swiss newspaper. The Parisian magazine Psychologies called it "a clear and intelligent book that illuminates the emotional conflicts of the author concerning her Judaism." La Libre Belgique Lire, a Belgian newspaper, reported, "Jonathan Weiss offers an insightful, penetrating portrait of a particularly complex personality."
Overwhelming as the praise is, the book has raised some controversy, too. Some critics have disapproved of Weiss's assessment of Némirovsky, saying he makes her seem too harsh towards Jews. Weiss, however, maintains that Némirovsky's wealthy Russian background distanced her from the poor Jews in ghetto communities. By converting, she didn't reject her Jewish heritage, but affirmed that she never had a Jewish identity, except by lineage. Yet even Denise Epstein believes that her mother remained Jewish at heart and converted only to escape persecution.
Weiss has taken the criticism in stride. "The critics may disagree with me," he said, "but none of them attacked the writing quality and research. When I did interviews in France, I was surprised at how many people read the book and liked it."
Asked about his newfound celebrity status in France, Weiss modestly replies that he's the "same old guy." He does, however, recall one particularly proud memory. "The best feeling was going to the publisher, and he handed me this 'Fiche Auteur' [author's form]. I sank back into my chair, smiled, and thought, 'Finally!'"