Yale University Press, 2016. Link to Yale University Press Catalogue
French translation: La Question Némirovsky. Paris: Albin Michel, 2017
For more information or to arrange an interview or excerpt, please contact Elizabeth.Pelton@yale.edu, 203-464-3810.
FROM THE PRESS RELEASE:
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 Her life cut short and her masterwork unpublished, Némirovsky faded from public consciousness.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 Elisabeth wrote a well-received novel/memoir about Némirovsky, and Denise shepherded her mother’s unpublished manuscript, Suite Française, into print.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, 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. She tells for the first time th
e 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.
Advance Praise for The Némirovsky Question:
“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
“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
“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
WHAT CRITICS HAVE SAID:
“Susan Rubin Suleiman offers a personal, poignant, and perceptive account of what she rightly calls the lingering “Némirovsky question.” By this, Suleiman means the many questions which revolve around the dark star of Némirovsky’s relationship to Judaism, other Jews, and her own Jewish background. The author handles this complicated subject…with lightly worn erudition and deeply felt compassion. […] With her own knack for nuance, Suleiman captures the quality that sets Némirovsky apart, despite or perhaps because of her flaws: as a writer, she is attachant. We read and treasure her—we are attached to her—because, at her best, she brilliantly conveys the entangled state of our ties with others and with our own selves.” Robert Zaretsky, Los Angeles Review of Book
“Ms. Suleiman is the first to focus solely on this issue [of Jewish identity] in her measured, compelling new book, “The Némirovsky Question.” Rather than bluntly judge, Ms. Suleiman makes us see Némirovsky as a gifted woman situated in a particular historical epoch, carefully analyzing her writings as a product of those times, and clarifying, without excusing, Némirovsky’s most discomforting passages. … There is a reason that her book’s title deliberately echoes what the Nazis referred to as the Jewish question: Ms. Suleiman helpfully places her subject within the context of a Europe hostile to Jews.”” Diane Cole, Wall Street Journal
“Stimulated by her deep and subtle understanding of the French cultural landscape between the world wars and as stubbornly determined as a detective, [Suleiman] applied herself, through a close reading of Némirovsky’s work, to examining the experience of this Jewish novelist, Russian-born but French-speaking, on the eve of World War II. […] Suleiman resolutely took Némirovsky’s side against critics …who saw Némirovsky as “the very definition of a self-hating Jew.” “One had to be more generous,” says Suleiman, “in reading [her] works. Ultimately, it came down to how to read Némirovsky, both as a person and as a novelist.” Anka Muhlstein, New York Review of Book
“Susan} Suleiman’s new book, The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in 20th-Century France, explores Némirovsky’s tragic career and the deteriorating civil society of pre-World War II France that first nurtured the writer and then ultimately turned on her. Drawing on parallels to her own life, Suleiman makes of the story a meditation on allegiance, foreignness and assimilation—one with uncanny echoes for today’s politics.” Amy Schwartz, Moment Magazine
“Suleiman sets out to investigate with care and compassion the “Jewish Question” in Némirovsky’s life and work. Broken into three sections focusing on Némirovsky’s life, work, and two surviving daughters, Suleiman’s work employs historical, cultural, political, and psychological context to examine Némirovsky’s Jewish identity, the choices she made, and the fiction she wrote. Suleiman’s writing is smart and without jargon—this is no dry academic text.”” Stefanie Hollmichel, Library Journal
“Besides research in published and archival sources and close readings of the writer’s works, Suleiman draws on interviews with Némirovsky’s surviving family members to offer an intimate, perceptive portrait of a complex woman and her times. Kirkus Review
“Rather than contribute (another) biography of Irene Némirovsky, Suleiman takes on the more difficult task of assessing her work, particularly the so-called “Némirovsky question,” of whether the writer was a self-hating Jew or an antisemite. … Suleiman’s very nuanced discussions of “how to read” stereotypes offer insights into the complexities of identity politics in literature, which take us beyond this one writer’s story. The last section of the book explores the stories of Némirovsky’s daughters and their descendants, based on Suleiman’s personal interviews. This material not only brings the saga into the modern era, it reminds us that the Nazis murdered Némirovsky, but did not wipe out her legacy.” Bettina Berch, Jewish Book Council
“The benefit of hindsight yields nothing if its beneficiaries use their knowledge to judge rather than to understand. Suleiman’s study preeminently offers an opportunity for understanding Némirovsky in a variety of literary, historical, and familial contexts, and this is its great, exemplary strength. Marc Kaplan, H-France Review
“”Nobody could be more qualified to bring balanced understanding to this debate than Susan Rubin Suleiman. … Suleiman harnesses all her expertise and experience to reflect on what she calls the ‘Némirovsky question’. This is an authoritative work, beautifully written, though not without its moments of uncertainty. For the Némirovsky question, far from being a single one, turns out to be a multitude of interlocking enigmas, puzzles, and complexities, few of which make for easy resolution.” Colin Nettelbeck, Australian Book Review
“Suleiman has produced a work that is a model of painstaking research, historical expertise, nuanced analysis and humane intelligence…. Patiently revealing that things are more ambiguous and many-sided than has been thought is her forte.” Peter Kemp, Sunday Times, London
“Némirovsky’s life, as Suleiman observes, poses questions that are impossible to answer. Why did she not leave France when she could, as her friends advised? Why did she and her husband convert to Catholicism in 1939? … Suleiman’s broader picture encompasses not just the cross-currents of French intellectual life during the 1920s and 30s, with its increasingly violent anti-Semitism, but the later lives of Némirovsky’s daughters, and the many steps that led to the retrieval of Suite française from a box long believed to contain only diaries.” Caroline Moorehead, Times Literary Supplement