An Unfinished Writer

The Life of Irene Némirovsky, 1903-1942

By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt

Translated from the French by Euan Cameron

Alfred A. Knopf

New York, 2010, pp. 448

Published in Moment Magazine (Nov.-Dec 2010) 

Is it possible that one of the most talented Jewish writers of the twentieth century, a victim of the Holocaust no less, was also an anti-Semite? Could it be that such a writer was somehow in league with the forces that would single her out and eventually kill her, that she would share their demeaning images of Jews and lean on their personal support, even as her livelihood, her freedom, her very life hung in the balance? Critics have argued that this was precisely the case with Irene Némirovsky, whose background was Russian and Jewish but who published prolifically in France between the wars before being deported to Auschwitz in 1942.

Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903. Her mother, the vain and selfish Anna, was from an affluent, cultivated Jewish family. Her father Leonid’s background was humble, but he made his fortune as an industrialist, an international deal-maker, and finally a banker. This fortune was large enough to support his wife’s appetite for luxury, including jewelry and furs, a French nanny for Irene, and annual visits to fashionable French watering holes like Nice and Biarritz. French became Irne’s first language, as France was the country of her dreams. As their wealth grew, the family moved to St. Petersburg when Irne was ten, then fled the country during the Russian revolution, first to Finland, then to Sweden and France when life in Russia became impossible for bankers.

In the Paris of the 1920s, Irene lived the high times of a flapper before settling down to study literature. She married another Russian Jew, Michel Epstein, a banker’s son, in 1926, and took up writing, for which she showed an early, fluent gift. Her first published works were satirical sketches but she also worked for four years on a serious novel, David Golder, that channeled a nightmare version of her family triangle. Set in the wealthy émigré world of Biarritz and Paris, it centered on a narcissistic, promiscuous mother; a father, the title character, who lives to make money; and their grasping daughter, the apple of her father’s eye, who turns out to be the daughter of one of her mother’s lovers. Though Golder eventually discovers this, he works himself to death to insure the girl an inheritance. Focusing on the mother’s vanity, the father’s materialism, and the daughter’s ingratitude, David Golder could serve as a melodrama for the Yiddish stage, yet its Dostoevskyan intensity makes it difficult to put down. When it came out in 1929 it made Némirovsky famous. The book was translated into several languages, adapted as a play, and turned into a successful film.Continue reading →

From Gatsby to Gatz

The hottest ticket in New York this month, surprisingly, is not a musical or comedy on Broadway but an adaptation of a thoroughly familiar eighty-five-year-old novel at the Public Theater. It is an idiosyncratic piece of theater, not so much an adaptation as an illustrated reading of the whole text of The Great Gatsby – more than six and a half hours of theater spread over some eight hours. Gatz has been performed around the world for five years, and the whole New York run has long been sold out.

At a recent performance the audience seemed riveted by this spectacle. A man in a ramshackle office, rather bored, with time on his hands, reads aloud from a battered paperback, with some of his coworkers gradually chiming in as they take up roles in the book he is reading. With its antiquated computers, the office looks like a scene from the 1980s, yet, as the book kicks in, this venue shifts effortlessly to the settings in the novel – a commuter train from Long Island, Myrtle Wilson’s love nest, Gatsby’s garish parties. As he grows more engaged, the speaker morphs from a contemporary bond trader into Fitzgerald’s rueful and eloquent narrator, Nick Carraway, through whom all the shadowy turns of the story are filtered, along with its central figure, Gatsby himself.Continue reading →

Philip Roth’s New Novel – NEMESIS

Published in The Daily Beast, October 3, 2010.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives,” a point confounded by his own best work during the Depression decade. But in our time the great exception has been Philip Roth, who has creatively reinvented himself in every decade. As he entered his sixties in the 1990s, at a time when most writers would be slowing down, he produced half a dozen of his most ambitious books, from the affecting memoir Patrimony (1991) and the outrageously brilliant Sabbath’s Theater (1995) to the history-minded trilogy that began with American Pastoral (1997). In the past decade his career took yet another unexpected turn with half a dozen short novels from The Dying Animal (2001), which could stand as the title of the whole series, to the current Nemesis, his fifth novel in five years. These books are unfailingly dark and grim yet they pull you right in. The rolling periods of his long, sinuous sentences, the uncanny sense of actually being there – in a world of real people , or simply in the knotty mind of the protagonist – can be amazing.Continue reading →

War, Economy, History: Politics by Other Media

Published in Dissent, Summer 2010.

When Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker, swept the Academy Awards, it was a signal triumph for a plucky independent movie on a grave topical subject. Directed by a woman and made in Jordan without the usual cooperation from the Department of Defense, the movie was not released during awards rush at the end of the year but in the summer, ordinarily a time for mindless comedies and action films. Very much an action film itself, it reached out to a mass audience but did not find it, despite a sheaf of excellent reviews. In no way polemical, set in 2004 at a low point in the war, it was full of gripping life-and-death scenes that neither glorified the war as a scene of heroism nor condemned it for the political deception, wretched planning, and wanton loss of life that made those years so disastrous. Instead, like the best World War II movies, it focused on the tensions within a small group of men doing a dangerous but essential job.

Most popular films trying to engage weighty matters like war or politics inevitably personalize the conflicts but also resort to conventional thriller devices that trivialize the subject or dispose of it superficially. Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, built around a Tony Blair-like figure and his clueless aide, a ghost writer helping him with his memoirs, works beautifully for an hour and half, but then devolves into a far-fetched thriller hinging on the machinations of the CIA. Jim Sheridan’s Brothers, based on an earlier Danish film, recounts the absorbing story of a marine officer, presumed dead in Afghanistan, who returns home, haunted by something terrible he did as a captive there, only to find that his wastrel brother has gotten very close to his wife. Though sensitively directed and impressively acted by a first-rate cast, the movie is subverted by contrived turns of plot, a few lurid scenes, and the threadbare motif of the traumatized, emotionally unhinged war veteran.Continue reading →

Besieged: The 1950s at War and at Home

Then other week I took in two engrossing films from the 1950s that reminded me, if I needed reminding, of the enduring fascination and complexity of an era in American life that is still not well understood. Not surprisingly, these movies were made by directors who seemed marginal at the time, solid professionals who worked largely in genre films. Such work drew little cultural respect, yet by flying below the radar of positive thinking they managed to avoid the upbeat clich̩s of the period and the industry, clich̩s that in many ways still condition our outlook on that decade. As result they may reveal more about the mood of the times Рperhaps even its unconscious mind Рthan more upholstered feature productions.

The director Anthony Mann is now best known for the films noirs he made in the late 1940s, and especially the great series of Westerns he made with Jimmy Stewart in the 1950s. His work has long since been rediscovered, and it is currently enjoying a thirty-two-film retrospective at the Film Forum in New York. Men in War (1957), shown on TCM to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War, was his only war movie and surely one of the most grim and depressing combat films ever made in the United States. This little tale seems so numbing and pointless that it’s hard to believe that it dealt with the Korean conflict, not the Vietnam War, which it eerily seems to anticipate. It is set in early September 1950, at a low point in the war, when South Korea had largely been overrun and United Nations forces were reduced to a small perimeter around Pusan. For the soldiers fighting, who seem like little more than enemy targets, survival is the issue, not war aims, individual bravery, or thoughts of victory.Continue reading →

Ambassador Book Award for DANCING IN THE DARK

(My apologies for posting another speech, though presumably this will be the last one for some time. I made these remarks on June 10 in accepting the 2010 Ambassador Book Award in American Studies from the English-Speaking Union for Dancing in the Dark. an award honoring works “that contribute to the understanding and interpretation of American life and culture” and “providing people around the world with an important window on America’s past and present in the best contemporary English.” –MD)

I once jokingly congratulated a young reporter who made his reputation covering the financial meltdown that took New York to the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1970s. “You must be one of the few people who profited from the city’s financial crisis.” Needless to say, he took offense, as if I had accused him of exploiting the city’s problems for professional gain. Now, with this gratifying award, for which I warmly thank the judges and officers of the English-Speaking Union, I find myself in a like position. Through much of the time I was working on Dancing in the Dark, there was hardly a glimmer of public interest in the Great Depression. During the go-go years of the 1980s and 1990s, when so much of the regulatory machinery set in place by the New Deal was relaxed or dismantled, when the wizards of Wall Street found ingenious ways of getting around the rules that remained, it was confidently assumed that something like the Depression could never happen again. Despite its traumatic effect on our whole society, for many it seemed to be receding into ancient history.

Moreover, my own way into the inner world of the Great Depression was unusual – not through economics or politics but by way of the arts: the books people wrote and read then, the movies they loved, the songs they heard, sang, and danced to, the photographs that awakened their social conscience and brought them grim news about what was happening in their land. “You Have Seen Their Faces,” said the title of one book of photographs, pointing almost an accusing finger at the book’s readers. Yet few imagined the thirties to be a rich period for the arts, though artists and entertainers may have served to prick the nation’s conscience or distract folks from their own troubles. Invariably, the prosperous and ebullient 1920s were thought to be the peak years for the arts in the twentieth century.Continue reading →

The Ph.D., the Economy, and the Knowledge Environment

(I delivered the following remarks at the Commencement exercises of the CUNY Graduate Center at Avery Fisher Hall of Lincoln Center on June 2, 2010. It seemed impossible to address the graduates, most of them newly minted Ph.D.s, without also addressing the job crisis in the humanities, especially in college teaching positions. I hope I was able to do so without putting a damper on the happy occasion. MD)

Before I begin I’d like to thank President Bill Kelly for the inspired leadership that brought us here–and, more personally, for according me the honor of addressing you on this happy occasion. My thirty-five years of teaching at the Graduate Center, among stimulating colleagues and exceptional students, have given me some of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. During that time the school has grown from a local to a national institution, with students from all over the world, with increasing financial aid and a double-barreled commitment to access and excellence. In the name of my colleagues I’m delighted to extend congratulations to today’s graduates and their families, who no doubt shared many of the trials and joys of completing this work. We on the faculty know how exacting this was, since we’ve gone through similar rites of passage ourselves, which no doubt helped us guide you through them. But many of you now face daunting obstacles that we did not have to confront.

It’s no secret that the academic job market, which took a sharp downturn soon after I joined the faculty in the 1970s, has recently contracted even further, thanks to the recession that has curtailed employment throughout the economy. There have also been major structural shifts in universities as they deploy more part-time faculty, with few benefits and no job security. This dependence on adjunct teaching by doctoral students has seriously lengthened many students’ time to degree; they put in additional years with no assurance of later gaining full-time work. CUNY has fought these pressures with greatly enhanced fellowship support. But the attrition of tenure-track jobs has led some observers to suggest that graduate study in the humanities has become some kind of scam to entice cheap part-time labor. Some graduate students have taken comfort from the notion that they have, if not a secure career path, then at least a high number in the big academic lottery.Continue reading →

The Inner Nerd: Why Greenberg?


Thanks to the narcissism of its central character, who is at once insecure and aggressive, there could hardly be a more cringe-inducing current film than Noah Baumbach’s relentless Greenberg. Roger Greenberg’s only rival at saying gauche or obnoxious things to anyone in almost any situation is the character played by Larry David in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. But that program, once a refreshing dose of bile and misanthropy, degenerated into a formula after the first season or two, and now each episode seems entirely predictable. Greenberg, on the other hand, which locks us in with the point of view of its disagreeable protagonist, is guaranteed to set one’s teeth on edge. Played with furious intensity by a transformed Ben Stiller, he is plaintively vulnerable one moment, then strikes out furiously the next, especially when someone is being nice to him. He’s in from New York, staying at his brother’s home in L.A. while recovering from a breakdown. He tries with little luck to reconnect with close friends from a band he helped break up fifteen years earlier, when they were on the verge of a recording contract, but he spends much of his time writing letters of complaint to companies (like airlines) whose services have disappointed him. Afflicted with at least a mild form of O.C.D., he’s the Moses Herzog of consumerism, the spoiled idealist or perfectionist turned crank.

Roger’s brother and family are off in Vietnam, leaving behind only a dog, the one creature for whom he feels any spontaneous affection, and his brother’s “personal assistant,” played by Greta Gerwig, a gentle, slightly confused 25-year old, whose life since college has been going nowhere. Recovering from a series of relationships little more than sexual, she is drawn to Roger, though he is fifteen years older, in part because she is a natural caregiver and he seems far more wounded than she is. But Roger is incapable of letting anyone get close to him. He is caught up in himself in a way that prevents him from gauging the effect of his words or deeds on people around him. But no sooner does he repel her than he tries again to make contact, often in the most gauche ways imaginable. Yet Baumbach manages to make something of a May-September romance out of this seemingly intractable material. How does he manage to pull if off?Continue reading →