Thursday, June 14, 2007

It's the context, stupid

Just finished reading two novels by Irène Némirovsky, written (obviously) before her posthumously published and megasuccessful Suite Française. "Reading" is a bit of an understatement, actually, as I tore through the books in a couple of days.

Quite a few Némirovsky books have been reprinted over the past two years, and not knowing which I should go for, I picked La Proie (1938) and Le Maître des Âmes (1940) solely based on their being affordable paperbacks. They turned out to have similar narrative arcs that describe the rise and fall of ambitious men. In La Proie, poor Jean-Luc Daguerne impregnates his girlfriend, the daughter of a rich banker; their marriage marks the beginning of his climb to a still-unsatisfying top. The portrayal of affairiste France in the 1930s is appropriately acidic, confirming Némirovsky's status as a clear-eyed social portraitist.

More problematic in light of the accusations of antisemitism that have plagued Némirovsky's oeuvre recently, Le Maître des Âmes is about a crook of a doctor, Dario Asfar, who happens to be a "métèque" (a common word in the 1930s for dark-skinned people) from some unspecified Eastern European country. While Némirovsky is entitled to the novelist's license to create morally ambiguous characters, she showed singular lack of judgment by publishing the novel in serial form in Gringoire, an antisemitic, anticommunist, pro-Franco, pro-Mussolini weekly magazine. She contributed pseudonymously to Gringoire through the 1930s and early ’40s, which strikes me as odd since after the success of her novel David Golder in 1929, she should not have had problems finding outlets, and the politics of Gringoire weren't a secret to anybody with two eyes and half a brain.

In their introduction, Némirovsky biographers Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt contort themselves to explain away her choices, both in terms of publishers and in terms of her depicting Dr. Asfar in ways that would feed French xenophobia and antisemitism—two unsavory traits that really did not need to be encouraged, particularly in the early 1940s. I mean, it's easy to say that Le Maître des Âmes isn't xenophobic compared to Céline's Bagatelles pour un massacre: What could possibly be? I do think Némirovsky's book works because it is uncompromising fiction, written by a masterful stylist (the descent into Asfar's tortured psyche is detailed with equal parts elegance and harshness). What trips me is the context in which it was published: Its first readers would have taken it not as a piece of art but as something reinforcing their worst prejudices.

To stay in the mood, here are a few French tunes from the late ’30–early ’40s. Suzy Solidor was a bodacious blonde, famous for her sailor/sea songs and (among those in the know) her sapphic conquests. Alas, her attitude during WWII wasn't beyond reproach, and she was said to be the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi officer. Perhaps she shared Arletty's attitude: When the actress was accused of bedding a German during the war, she is said to have replied "My heart is French but my ass is international!"

MP3 Suzy Solidor "Sous tes doigts" (1936, cowritten by regular Piaf collaborator Marguerite Monnot)

Though the Nazis thought jazz was a decadent art, it was never officially banned in occuppied France and so Irène de Trébert, aka Mademoiselle Swing, was able to have a thriving career singing in big bands, notably that of Raymond Legrand (who happened to be her lover). When the war ended she got a slap on the hand and was forbidden to perform for ten months; she tried to resume her career in 1946, but with little success. Legrand, who regularly played the collaborationist Radio-Paris and toured Germany in 1942 (bad idea!) was blacklisted; he's now mostly remembered, if at all, as the father of composer Michel Legrand.

MP3 Irène de Trébert "Je t'aime" (1942; written by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli). Backed by the Marius Coste Orchestra.
MP3 Irène de Trébert "Swing Reverie" (another Reinhardt tune, recorded in 1942). Backed by the Raymond Legrand Orchestra.

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