Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Elisabeth Gille's The Mirador

Elisabeth Gille's book, The Mirador, is a beautiful alloy:  it's both a creative work of fiction, and an imaginative biography of her mother, whom she lost when she was very young.  With insight from  extensive historical research, Gille wrote a fictional memoir of her mother.  The book is beautifully written, and tells the story of Nemirovsky's childhood in Kiev, coming of age in St. Petersburg, exile in Paris, and eventually doom in the Nazi-occupied French countryside. It's themes revolve around Nemirovsky's Jewish ethnicity, even though she had few if any religious beliefs.

Born into great and constantly increasing wealth, Nemirovsky was nevertheless constantly threatened by anti-semitism.  In the Ukraine, she was the witness to deadly programs.  In St. Petersburg, she remained acutely aware of the tsar's anti-Semitic legal regime.  Fleeing the Revolution, she easily reestablished herself in Paris, and eventually parleyed her perfect French into a highly successful literary career, before fleeing the Nazi invasion and falling victim to Vichy France's cruel anti-Jewish regulations.  

Gille's book operates on several levels.  It is one the one hand the story of a young woman's attempt to make her way in the world in the shadow of a powerful if malevolent mother, whose sexual and class vanity apparently new few bounds. On the other hand, it's the story of a woman who is constantly being defined by her Jewish background. In fact, by the story's conclusion, one starts to feel as if Gille was telling the whole story of the European Jews when she discussed her mother's fate. While Gille always admits that her mother was not prescient about French or European anti-semitism, she goes out of her way to demonstrate the extent to which her mother's life was circumscribed by bigotry.  From the Black Hundreds of Russia to Action Francaise, no European Jew living in the first part of the twentieth century could possibly escape some level of persecution.  Even before Hitler's rise to power, Jewishness--in all of its religious, cultural, and allegedly biological dimensions-- was deeply problematic for a great part of European Christians.

 The book, of course, ends with Nemirovsky standing at the brink of deportation to Auschwitz.  In some ways, the demise of the brilliant French writer, Nemirovsky, in the holocaust demonstrates one more dimension of the horror of Nazism.  As hard as Nemirovsky sometimes seemed to have tried to assimilate, and as privileged as she was at every state of her life, there was simply no escaping Europe's inability to come to terms with difference. Gille's book demonstrates the original appeal of Zionism.  Whether you were in Russia or France, whether you were rich or poor, and whether you embraced your religion or ignored its rituals, your continued existence was, in the end, an open question.

 The sadness of Gille's book reminds me of Gershom Scholem's biography, From Berlin to Jerusalem:  Memories of My Youth, where the great Jewish thinker reminded readers that Zionism would have meant something very different if such a large part of the Jewish people had not been destroyed. Whatever Israel is now, its cultural vitality and generosity of spirit would have been many times richer if European Jewish culture had remained on its nineteenth century trajectory.  Whether Jews like Nemirovsky fled to Israel, or stayed alive in Europe, they would certainly have made Israel a better place.

Some favorite quotes from the book:

In the spring of 1918, everyone had an opinion, a story to tell, a picture to paint, or a poem to declaim.

Because of the Bolsheviks, I never celebrated my fifteenth birthday.

The opening of the play may have marked the moment of my true rupture with my mother.  I had not yet forgiven her for her terrible reaction to my announcement that I was pregnant two years earlier, when she had begged me, on her knees, to have an abortion.

Have I changed so much, once deliciously and exotically Slavic, now an unrecognizable Yid?