The 2004 publication of Irène Nemirovky’s Suite Française, a projected cycle of five novellas about France during the German Occupation, left unfinished when their author was deported to Auschwitz, seems to have inspired a new round of rediscovering “lost” novels, the glory unjustly denied them by the forces of history and the ignorance of editors restored. The success of Suite Française inspired the reissue of a number of novels by Nemirovsky, some of which were popular in her lifetime, but long since out of print, some of which hadn’t been published. But was this because of their lesser quality, as some critics suggested when they were finally brought out? Do we lose our ability to critically assess when dealing with work from the archive?
Nemirovsky’s case is an unusual one. Almost as soon as Suite Française became an international sensation, a controversy broke out concerning Nemirovsky’s alleged anti-Semitism. In her introduction to the French edition, Primo Levi’s biographer Miriam Anissimov accused Nemirovsky of having been a self-hating Jew who subscribed to the idea that “Jews belong to a different, less worthy ‘race,’ and that their exterior signs are easily recognizable: frizzy hair, hooked noses, moist palms, swarthy complexions, thick black ringlets, crooked teeth (…) not to mention their love of making money, their pugnacity, their hysteria.” Those lines were cut from the English edition of the book, and critics in the US and the UK quickly leapt in to develop this point; in The New Republic Ruth Franklin claimed that in the 1930s Nemirovsky used her literary success “to pander to the forces of reaction, to the fascist right,” by appearing in far-right newspapers that published screeds demonizing Jews, and garnering praise for her novels from Robert Brasillach, a notorious Nazi collaborator and strident anti-Semite who was executed after the Liberation. Tadzio Koelb, in The Jewish Quarterly, accused the literary establishment of sensationalizing Nemirovsky’s biography at the expense of doing their jobs; they had “abdicat[ed]” their critical responsibility and rewarded not the work, but the injustice.