Friday, May 22, 2009

Irene Nemirovsky

In 2006 my novel THE TEXICANS was published. The Texas Monitor judged it one of the two best novels of the year. THE TEXICANS was written in my home office in sunny California, absolutely no threat of death hanging over me while I was writing it. The other novel, SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky, was written in Nazi-occupied France and followed the most tragic trajectory to publication imaginable.

Nemirovsky was born to a Jewish family in Russia in 1903. Her father, a prominent banker in St. Petersburg, fled Russia after the revolution of 1917 and settled his family in Paris. Nemirovsky eventually married and began her writing career. In the 1930’s a stream of anti-Semitism ran like gutter water through all levels of French society. By the time Hitler came to power in 1940 anti-Semitism was a roaring putrescent sewer. Nemirovsky and her family converted to Roman Catholicism. They also attempted unsuccessfully to acquire French citizenship. It was too late. Nemirovsky died of typhus in Auschwitz in 1942; her husband was gassed there four months later. Their orphaned children, hidden by friends until the end of the war, were left with a battered suitcase that they lugged from place to place, the manuscript pages of SUITE FRANCAISE locked inside with other notebooks and papers and not discovered and published until sixty years later. It became an instant classic, and deservedly so.

I’m not going to critique the book except to say that for me the novel’s origins and its author’s obscene death stain its pages with grief. But I would like to discuss the charges of anti-Semitism that have been leveled at Nemirovsky since the book’s publication.

During Nemirovsky’s career she published in anti-Semitic journals and wrote DAVID GOLDER, a best-selling novel about French society in which the protagonist was a stereotypically rapacious Jew. Her writings and political leanings sixty years after her murder by the Nazis have put her and her book in the cross hairs. There have been articles accusing her of being a fascist as well as a self-hating Jew, and SUITE FRANCAISE has been criticized for concerning itself with the fall of France without mentioning the plight of the French Jews. I wonder what she might say if she were here to defend herself. Perhaps she would say that she thought by accommodating herself to the Jew haters she might buy herself and her family an opportunity to escape. Perhaps she would say she regretted having written for fascist journals, sorry she wrote DAVID GOLDER, which ironized the excesses and pretensions of French society as much as it reinforced anti-Semitic caricature. There is no prism through which we can disperse a beam of light, illuminate the past and evaluate her intentions or her heart. All we really know is that she was an artist in a Gehenna not of her making who devoted the last two precarious years of her life to writing a great novel.

On a summer night when I was eight years old I awoke to the sound of sobbing in the kitchen. I got out of bed and walked down the dark hallway to the kitchen. A man with black curly hair, his body like a wire hanger in its shabby suit, was sitting at the kitchen table talking to my mother in Yiddish, tears furrowing his cheeks. A young boy in an oversized jacket and too-short trousers stood at the sink eating a banana, rolling it between his fingers as though it were an ear of corn. They were an uncle and cousin from Poland, my mother told me later. To escape Hitler, my uncle had left his wife and younger son in Poland, and he and his 14-year-old son somehow made it to Mexico.

They were gone when I woke up the next morning. Back to Mexico, my mother said. I saw them once again at an aunt’s seder. By that time they spoke a polyglot of Spanish and Yiddish and seemed happy in their new lives.

They were the mystery of my childhood. When I grew older and would ask my mother how the uncle had gotten himself and his son out of Poland, what he had had to do to manage it, and how he could have left his wife and other child behind, she wouldn’t answer me.

Maybe questions like that shouldn’t be asked. Maybe Irene Nemirovsky should be left in peace.

Nina Vida copyright 2009
(I’ll be away from my desk for ten days and will reply to any comments sometime in June.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eric Forbes Interview of Nina Vida, May 21, 2009

Tomorrow I’ll post some thoughts about Irene Nemirovsky, author of “Suite Francaise.” Meanwhile, if you’d like to read an interview I gave to Eric Forbes for “Eric Forbes Talks to Nina Vida,” on May 21, 2009, go to

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Writing Muse

When my husband said he thought I ought to try my hand at writing a novel, it was as if he had shoved me into a dark room and asked me to describe the furniture. I had always been able to compose a pretty sentence, but had never, ever, for one single, solitary moment thought of writing a story or poem or essay without being required to for an English class. I thought of writers as magical beings who from the cradle were touched by the writing muse. Ordinary people weren’t writers. And, anyway, wouldn’t the urge to become a writer manifest itself as soon as you learned to scribble your name on a piece of paper?

My husband had been a war journalist, had even attempted a novel of his own when we were first married, typing away on an old Remington in a corner of our apartment’s small bedroom in the evenings, me tiptoeing around so as not to disturb him, him not allowing me even a peek at what he was writing.

“No good,” he said after a year of typing, and threw the coffee-stained, cigarette-bit sheets of paper in the garbage.

What did he see in my little essay about my sister’s heart attack and surgery that gave him the idea that I could write a novel?

I argued with him. Did he know what he was asking me to do? Did he understand that I was a contented person, happy in my domesticity? Didn’t he realize that we knew no one who had ever written a book and gotten it published?

“You need some excitement in your life,” he replied. “Anyway, I have nothing to read.”

“But what should I write?”

“About something you know.”

I had read a gazillion books, had no idea how to write one and didn’t really think I could do it. I was sure that it would turn out to be a failed venture, a “Look at me, I’m writing a book” hallucination.

I began my writing career in the summer of 1979. During the week I read Stenotype notes for a court reporter, plinking away at my brand-new Lanier word processor, turning out pages and pages of deposition testimony, sturdy words flipping across white paper beneath my fingers – vernacular, slang, idioms, imbroglios of confusion and obfuscation as attorneys sculpted questions in order to scalpel truth from lies, explosions of temper as witnesses fell into sentence traps, climbed over their own words, denied the obvious, everything stripped raw, nothing left but pure, unadorned drama. On weekends I sat out in the yard in a lounge chair, one of my husband’s yellow legal pads on my lap, and began to write what I thought was a mystery, although I didn’t read mysteries and didn’t know that there was a discrete, classical template for the genre. That was the first mistake, not writing about what I knew. The second mistake was that I had the notion that the depositions I had been typing all week had nothing to offer me, that ideas and inspiration came from somewhere else, that if I concentrated really hard, the heavens would open and story lines would skid down sunbeams and smack me in the head. The third mistake was that I was writing variations of what I had been reading all my life, and I was doing it without metaphor, imagery or beauty. I didn’t have the vaguest idea of what constituted voice or style. I just wanted to get something down that wouldn’t embarrass me when my husband read it.

Some more history: During World War II my father left his bookkeeping job and went to work at Todd Shipyard in Long Beach, which qualified us for a war worker’s house in a housing tract on land that interned Japanese farmers had raised beans on before the war. The house cost two thousand dollars: a stucco box with two bedrooms, one bathroom, the whole of it a chalked square sitting dumbly in a sea of weeds. There were no stores, no school, no churches, no synagogues. I took a bus to a grammar school that had been built in 1910 and was so overcrowded by war workers’ families that the local feed store was pressed into use for classrooms. I met my husband when I was eleven and he was thirteen. I was mad about him even then, but I was so shy I darted away if he so much as looked at me. He says now he always knew he would end up marrying me.

Nina Vida copyright 2009

Saturday, May 16, 2009

My First Blog

Two months ago an editor at a major publishing house asked my agent if I had finished “that book about the Jewish refugees in Shanghai,” that since she spoke to me about it last year on the phone, she had been thinking about it and wondered if I had made the revisions she suggested, and, if I had, she wanted to see the novel again

I had had seven novels published. This would be my eighth. I was up for an offer, but surprised to have an editor who had semi-rejected it make a second run on it. When we spoke last year she hadn’t said no, hadn’t said yes, hadn’t said if I revised she’d make an offer, but her suggestions made sense to me, so I had gone ahead and revised with her criticisms in mind. I had no sooner finished the revision than the semi-rejecting editor called to inquire about it. What a coincidence! The revised manuscript was in hand! It sang! It yodeled! It was deliciously ripe! My agent sent the editor the manuscript, she read it, said she loved it and wanted to buy it. The only thing left to do, she said, was present it to the editorial board.

The book business was once a cottage industry, a time when the editor Maxwell Perkins practically co-wrote Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling” so it was publishable, and also, without glory or attribution, hand-edited Tom Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” so it didn’t come in at 5,000 pages. There are still dedicated editors, but they’re now ruled by editorial boards and sales departments, all of whom are armed with vetoes. Which is to say despite the aforementioned editor’s love for my latest novel, it was rejected, which made the editor sad, my agent sad, and me sad. But it didn’t surprise me a bit. I had been through this before.

And since this is my first posting, and I’m feeling my way, let me go back and fill in some history on the beginning of my writing career.

I was a bride of the 1950’s. My husband was a veteran of the Korean War. I was brought up to be decorous and decorative, loving and kind. All of which I mastered quite easily. As a matter of fact, I was born to the role.

When our two children (the girl, now a partner in a major accounting firm, and the boy, now a partner in a law firm) went off to college, my husband said to me, “Now it’s your turn to go to college.”
Up to that time I had been a contented person. I was satisfied with my life. I thought I was smart enough. But being the yes girl I was brought up to be and not wanting to disappoint my husband, I went to college, and along the way, in some now forgotten English class, I wrote a paper about the effect on the family of my 38-year-old sister’s heart attack and subsequent bypass operation. My husband, who had been a Navy journalist, read it. “I think you ought to try your hand at a novel,” he said. Which I thought was the most preposterous idea I had ever heard, but which tickled me to contemplate. So I began to write. Seriously. Industriously. And what happened after that I’ll take up another time.

Nina Vida copyright 2009