The New Republic reviews two novels by, and a biography of, French Holocaust victim Irène Némirovsky. Not the usual paean, this review notes what others seem to have missed, that Némirovsky was perhaps the apex (or nadir) of the self-hating Jew – a phrase I never use, because it’s almost always wrong, but in this case actually does seem completely appropriate.
In David Golder, an appalling book by any standard, Némirovsky spins an entire novel from that stereotype…In the hands of Edith Wharton or Ford Madox Ford, these characters might have acquired some complexity–perhaps a redeeming quality, or just a kind word at some point to someone. But Némirovsky’s portrayals are relentlessly one- sided…”
It has been painful to watch Némirovsky’s contemporary defenders tying themselves into knots to explain this racist travesty of a novel. In his introduction to the British edition of David Golder, Patrick Marnham sets the context with his first sentence–“Irene Némirovskydied in Auschwitz in 1942”–and argues that “Men like Golder existed, and no doubt still exist. They had come a very long way, just how long we discover in the novel’s devastating climax.” He makes the book sound like merely a Continental version of William Dean Howells. And what does it mean to say that David Golder is true to life? To which part of life, exactly–the harshness of the arriviste’s lot, or the Jew’s love of money?
The Times Online offers this very funny summary of George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books. It didn’t make me want to read Steiner, but I did enjoy the review.
The one real surprise is a rapturous chapter entitled The Tongues of Eros, which is presumably intended as a serious, inquiring, lyrical and tender outline of a sexual autobiography, but induced uncontrollable fits of laughter in this reader. Steiner’s central argument is that making love “in German” is very different to making love “in Italian”, and that as a polyglot himself (a tetraglot, to be precise), he has had ample scope to confirm this personally….
The problem with recounting your numerous sexual conquests (assuming you have racked up as many notches on your bedpost as this esteemed chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur) is that it can sound a bit boastful. Then again, since Steiner tells us on several occasions here that, in 50 years of teaching, he has encountered only “four pupils, three men and a woman, abler, more original, more open to crisis and modernity, than I am,” perhaps sounding boastful isn’t his greatest anxiety…
In the final chapter, he insists vehemently on his love of privacy, his hatred of “the exposure of bodily intimacies in the mass media” and its “rampant vulgarities”, which is odd given the earlier stuff about watery lobelias and anal access. Perhaps it doesn’t count as vulgar if it appears in a book rather than on telly.
…Making sense of Steinerese may look difficult, but it’s quite simple once you get the hang of it. Just ignore three-quarters of the words, and translate the rest into plain English.
Steinerese: “The rhetoric of desire is a category of discourse in which the neurophysiological generation of speech-acts and that of love-making engage reciprocally.”
English translation: “Talking and making love are closely related.”
Finally, Yo, Yenta, raves about Geraldine Brooks People of the Book, a mystery about the origin of the Sarajevo Haggada, an illuminated manuscript written in Spain in 1350. The review is short and sweet, so no snippets, but there’s another, more thorough, review from Jonathan Yardley at the Post, here.