On the Bookshelf
Irène Némirovsky’s Paris
The discovery of Irène Némirovsky’s unfinished novel Suite Française in the late 1990s—or, more precisely, the impressive sales record the book subsequently racked up on both sides of the Atlantic—has spawned a brisk contemporary trade in Némirovskiana. A Kiev-born Jew who harbored intense ambivalences about her coreligionists and published commercial fiction in French between the world wars, Némirovsky was by no means a one-trick pony. Ten of her short fictions, newly translated, appear in Dimanche and Other Stories (Vintage, April): in them, husbands and wives betray each other and families bicker. In one case, a Frenchman named Christian Rabinovitch meets a recent Russian immigrant who shares his family name, and wonders, “What did he have in common with this poor Jew?”
Némirovsky’s death has commanded at least as much attention as her prose, and The Life of Irène Némirovsky (Knopf, May) follows 2006’s briefer Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works, drawing on letters, manuscripts, and archives to offer further insights into a complex and disturbing personality. Written by French biographers Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, and translated into English by Euan Cameron, the study offers up Némirovsky’s childhood, overnight success in the 1920s, fruitless wartime conversion to Catholicism, and murder at the hands of the Nazis, as well as more than three dozen photographs of the author and her circle.
That the Paris of the 1920s, where Némirovsky made her name, served as the incubator for international literary modernism is amply reflected by The Letters of Sylvia Beach (Columbia, April). Beach, of course, was the American in Paris who ran Shakespeare & Co. and published James Joyce’s Ulysses there after even the most daring Jewish book publishers in the U.S. blanched at the legal risks of doing so. (One American Jew, the eccentric Zionist poet, book pirate, and oft-convicted pornographer Samuel Roth, later printed an unauthorized Ulysses against which Beach initiated an international protest.) Beach’s correspondents included Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, Alfred Knopf, and Gertrude Stein, and her letters, edited and annotated by literary scholar Keri Walsh, illustrate one of the most fascinating and underappreciated aspects of the development of literary modernism: The publishers with the courage to print dangerous and radical books were the ones who had the least to lose, women and Jews.
The Nazi occupation of France called for a different sort of courage, which is the subject of Resistance (First Second, April, 12+). The first volume of a graphic novel for young adults, scripted by Carla Jablonski and drawn by Leland Purvis (known for his series Vox), the book gets started with the commandeering of a hotel belonging to the Levy family. As a result, the young Paul Tessier, his sisters, and the son of the hotel’s owners join up with the resistance.
Haya Leah Molnar’s memoir, likewise aimed at a young adult audience and dealing with the experiences of a child under harsh political conditions, focuses on the eastern European nation renowned for excelling equally in its Francophilism and anti-Semitism. Titling her tale Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania (FSG, April), and setting it in the late 1950s, Molnar reminiscences about the challenges faced by her Holocaust-surviving elders under a repressive regime, and the confusion she felt upon discovering she was Jewish, at the age of 8, when her parents applied for emigration to Israel.
Tough as life could be for a Jewish family, like Molnar’s, behind the Iron Curtain, the protagonists of Jennifer Gilmore’s second novel Something Red (Scribner, April) find that life in late-Cold War America has its problems, too. Struggling to claim some of the revolutionary spirit embodied by the family patriarch, a radical agitator whose immigration from Russia ironically started them down to the path to complacence and self-indulgence, the members of the Goldstein family fumble toward political or cultural engagements that will introduce meaning into their lives. Set in just about the same period as John Updike’s masterful Rabbit Is Rich—and, like that book, chronicling the descent into monied malaise of formerly scrappier folks—Something Red features characters entranced by bulimia, the Grateful Dead, or hollow New Age platitudes, all of whom are forced to question, as Gilmore says, “what it means to be a radical, to be a progressive person.”
Robert Alter’s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton, April), reviewed last week by Tablet’s Adam Kirsch, demonstrates how flexibly a particular set of aesthetic techniques can be appropriated and reapplied. Specifically, Alter tracks the influence of the rhythms, repetitions, and diction of the most influential translation of the Tanakh on American authors as varied in background and perspective as Herman Melville, Saul Bellow, and Marilynne Robinson. Jeremy Stolow’s Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution (California, April), meanwhile, suggests something similar: part of the success of ArtScroll within both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox community, Stolow argues, owes to the company’s unusual effectiveness in applying advanced principles and techniques of book design to Judaica, as in the lavish photo spreads that enliven Susie Fishbein’s kosher cookbooks.
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