April 8, 2008

Suite Française.

Today we had a press conference announcing our upcoming exhibition, which will open on September 24th. Here are the remarks that I delivered this morning:

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We are extremely excited and pleased to be able to introduce our upcoming exhibition, Women of Letters: Irene Nemirovsky & Suite Française. We hope to see all of you in September when the exhibition opens at our Museum. We are very grateful to our hosts, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Kareen Rispal and her marvelous staff, especially Fabrice Gabriel and Amoury Laporte. And we are honored that Jack Lang could be with us this morning. Not only is Jack Lang a figure of great significance in the political and cultural life of contemporary France, but he is also the President of the Institut Memoires de L’Edition Contemporaine, also known as IMEC, a remarkable institution that has been our partner in this endeavor.

I am pleased beyond words to have met and to have worked with IMEC’s visionary founder and director, my friend, Olivier Corpet, and his talented and dedicated staff, especially Emmanuelle Lambert, who is with us today. I am also pleased that Garrett White, of Five Ties Press and the publisher of the companion volume to the exhibition, has also joined us this morning. And last but hardly least, I would like to introduce Sandra Smith, the gifted translator, who has made Irene Nemirovsky’s work so beautifully available to the English-speaking world.

It is most appropriate for me that we are holding this event in this place this morning. It was almost exactly two years ago that I attended the US book launch of SF in this very room. It was here that I saw for the first time what was perhaps the most powerful artifact I had ever seen. I am speaking of the leather notebook that contained the handwritten draft of SF, which was on view to the public for the first time.

In the last year or so of her life, in the small village of Issy L’Eveque, Irene Nemirovsky could be seen writing furiously in this notebook. Fearing that her supply of paper and ink would not last -- and that she was running out of time-- Irene wrote in a tiny script, filling the large pages of this notebook with stringy filaments of text. Like tiny capillaries, the blue veins of ink scored the ivory pages, animating them with her imaginings. She did not finish what she had started. She stopped work on this, her last project of a prodigiously productive career, when she was arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where she perished. She left the notebook behind.

After her husband’s own deportation and murder, Irene’s two children—even as they were forced to go into hiding-- took possession of the notebook and the small valise into which it had been deposited along with family papers and photographs.

The story is well known now of how Denise, the older daughter, discovered decades after her mother’s death that the notebook was not her mother’s diary, as she had always believed it to be, not the diary that she had been afraid to open. It was instead the manuscript for SF. When I saw this artifact, I was profoundly moved by it. Even in our contemporary world, with its unlimited supply of sensory opportunities, the experience of being in the presence of an original artifact, especially one as powerful as this, cannot be matched in any medium.

I was moved by how this notebook communicated an entire story. I thought at that time, that this manuscript must be part of an exhibition at my Museum, but only if we could also exhibit the valise in which it had rested for more than fifty years before Denise opened and read it for the first time. Together, they would tell an impossibly poignant story about memory and forgetting, about mothers and daughters, about legacy and loss. I am thrilled to report that both objects will be in our exhibition.

When you are responsible, as we are, for relating the complex and difficult history that is the subject of our Museum, you learn over and over again that context is crucial. In our exhibition on Irene Nemirovsky, we intend to tell the story of a real woman who lived in a particular time and place and who was confronted with unimagined and unimaginable challenges. Our interest is not hagiography but rather history, history with all of its nuance and texture.

When we resolved to do an exhibition on Irene Nemirovsky, we realized that it might well be a controversial project for a Jewish museum to undertake. We knew that Irene seemed to have had an ambivalent connection to her Judaism and indeed converted to Catholicism in 1939. We knew that her early works contained disturbing stereotypes of Jews, and that she had been criticized for the company that she kept. I was confident, however, that her story was unambiguously a Holocaust story; after all, she was deported to Auschwitz and died there. And I was equally confident that hers was a Jewish story. Not only was she deported to Auschwitz with a Jewish star stitched to her blouse, but with all of its complexity, her story echoed and reflected the stories of many who shared her fate.

What I was not prepared for was that Irene and her memory would be the target of tendentious and mean-spirited attacks that would accuse her of self-hatred and perfidy and even suggest that her works contributed to a kind of enabling of those who ultimately killed her. I was not prepared for the suggestion by some that the story of the discovery of Suite Francaise was at best exaggerated and at worst fabricated – that commercial hype was responsible for the success of the book and not Irene’s talent, or the poignancy of her story. Ironically, some critics have created of Irene the very kind of one-dimensional stereotype that they excoriate her for including in her novels.

I do not intend to offer a defense against such baseless and destructive comments, except to say that anyone who reads the work of Irene Nemirovsky and understands the context in which she wrote, anyone who appreciates literature, will see ambiguity, perhaps ambivalence, but not anti-Semitism. And anyone who meets Irene’s daughter, Denise, and listens to her account of the discovery of SF, will neither question its authenticity nor its impact.

Now, good exhibitions should not be “books on the wall” overwhelming visitors with text and contextual orientation; and exhibitions do not have footnotes to add details or supply explanations. For us to provide the public with the kind of context that is necessary for a full understanding of a complicated story, we intend to produce a series of public programs that will examine in detail important issues that are raised in the exhibition. Moreover, as a part of the exhibition, we will create a space in which the public can read and discuss the works of Irene Nemirovsky – and her critics. In this reading room, we will organize programs and presentations and hope that it will become a venue for discussion and debate.

We have a reputation at the Museum for producing exhibitions on important topics that are exquisitely designed and executed, and that are mindful in their perspective and approach of the crucial context that is all important if history is to have meaning. We will do nothing less with this exhibition, and I would like to introduce the curator of Woman of Letters, my gifted deputy, Ivy Barsky, who will give you a very brief overview of the exhibition itself.

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