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Forthcoming from Yale University Press, Fall 2016. Link to Yale University Press Catalogue

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 supposed ‘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…A keenly intelligent book—clear, moving, and at moments, passionate. It should fly off the shelves.” —Sara R. Horowitz, York University

 For Release: Publication date November 22, 2016

In Irène Némirovsky’s Tragic Life and Controversial Work, Author Finds Rich Insight and Contemporary Relevance

In 1930s Paris, Russian émigré Irène Némirovsky built a brilliant career as a novelist, breaking into a world dominated by men to achieve both critical success and financial stability. In 1942, while she was working on her most important book, the 39-year-old Némirovsky was arrested as a “foreign Jew” and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. Her husband was arrested soon afterwards and also died at Auschwitz, leaving their two young daughters orphaned.  Her life cut short and her masterwork unpublished, Némirovsky faded from public consciousness.

But Némirovsky’s daughters Denise and Elisabeth survived, and as adults they brought their mother back to life. Elisabeth wrote a well-received novel/memoir about Némirovsky, and Denise shepherded her mother’s unpublished manuscript, Suite Française, into print. In 2004, Suite Française won France’s prestigious Renaudot Prize and became an international best seller. Since that time, Némirovsky has been enveloped in controversy, with some critics condemning her as anti-Semitic—a “self-hating Jew” whose work is full of harmful stereotypes.

In The Némirovsky Question, to be published November 22 by Yale University Press, Susan Suleiman draws on extensive archival research, newly available documents, and interviews with Némirovsky’s descendants to make room for a more generous view of this complicated writer. Providing thoughtful and detailed analysis of Némirovsky’s treatment of Jewish characters, Suleiman offers new insight into the issues of anti-Semitism, assimilation, immigration, and Jewish identity in Europe between the wars.

In The Némirovsky Question, Suleiman tells for the first time the postwar stories of Némirovsky’s daughters, who wrestled individually and together with their profound personal loss and with their mother’s legacy. She reveals new information about Némirovsky’s choices and decisions, including her conversion to Catholicism, her efforts to save herself from deportation, her decision to publish under a pseudonym in occupied France, and her hopes for Suite Française.  Finally, she shows Némirovsky grappling in her work with the challenges of modern Jewishness, not as an anti-Semitic outsider sitting apart in judgment, but as a vulnerable insider who could observe with both irony and empathy.

Suleiman’s wide-ranging intellectual biography provides context for reading Némirovsky’s Jewish works, in the process shedding light on French interwar culture, Jewish identity, and human nature. The tensions Némirovsky faced in her life and explored in her work—tensions between assimilation and difference, between established immigrants and newer ones, between the secular and the religious—continue today in France, throughout Europe, and around the world. Writing with clarity and openness, Suleiman invites readers to consider Némirovsky’s sometimes troubling actions and writings with complexity and compassion, and to appreciate her best works both for their literary value and continued relevance.


Advance Praise:

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 Némirovsky, 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 as 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, Stanford University

Publication Details

The Némirovsky Question by Susan Rubin Suleiman

Publication date November 22, 2016

392 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 ¼, 25 b/w illus.

ISBN: 9780300171969

Hardcover: $35.00

For more information or to arrange an interview or excerpt, please contact, 203-464-3810.

About the Author

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. Her many books include Crises of Memory and the Second World War, Risking Who One is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature, and the memoir Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook.