Feb 23, 2007

Does it matter? Artists and anti-Semitism

Does it make a work less worthy if the artist was an anti-Semite?

In a review of TS Eliot by Craig Raine Terry Eagleton says Eliot's anti-Semitism doesn't take a thing away from his greatness as a poet.
Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot's well-earned reputation is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours. It is true that the poet was a sourly elitist reactionary who fellow-travelled with some unsavoury political types in the 1930s, and as a Christian knew much of faith and hope but little of charity. Yet the politics of many distinguished modernist artists were just as squalid, and some—Pound and Junger, for example—were quite a lot worse. There is no need to pretend that all great writers have to be uxorious, liberal-minded, philosemitic heterosexuals. Why does Raine write as though discovering that Eliot was a paedophile would change our view of Four Quartets?

There's currently a debate in literary circles about whether Irène Némirovsky, who perished at Auschwitz, was a self-hating Jew.
When Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française was published in English last year, something was left out. Just a few lines omitted from the introduction to the French edition that had appeared two years previously. Nothing to diminish the remarkable achievement of the writer's novel describing life in a French village under Nazi occupation. Nothing to undermine the ecstatic reviews - Le Monde called the book "a masterpiece ... ripped from oblivion" - and the fact that the novel has become a runaway bestseller.

And nothing to taint the story of the book's extraordinary appearance after 50 years tucked away in a French cellar, or the narrative of Némirovsky's tragic last years - stories that helped make Suite Française a literary sensation. Némirovsky, a Kiev-born Jewish woman, had settled in France with her wealthy family after the Russian revolution; become a literary celebrity on a par with Colette in 1930s Paris; was refused French citizenship shortly before the second world war broke out; and, in 1942, was deported to Auschwitz where she died, a stateless Jew, aged 39. For many years, the manuscript of her masterpiece, written on paper as thin as onion peel, had remained in a suitcase that she handed to her daughter Denise when she was arrested.

What was missing from the British Chatto & Windus edition was a passage in which Miriam Anissimov, a biographer of Primo Levi, suggested that Némirovsky was a self-hating Jew.
What's the point of all this self-hatred talk? Is it mere pyschobabble? Némirovsky certainly associated with some unsavory characters--and went out of her way to disassociate herself from Jews in an effort to save her life--but how does that affect her art? Although I've got to say Némirovsky's first novel, David Golder doesn't sound very appealing to me--primarily for its portrayal of Jews.

On the other hand, can an author who isn't Jewish create a disagreeable character who is Jewish without being an anti-Semite? That's question came up last week in a discussion of Trollope at The Corner. Like Peter Robinson, I'm inclined to give Trollope a pass.
It’s certainly true of Melmotte, the villain in The Way We Live Now, that he is an entirely disagreeable character, as also that his Jewishness is central to his identity. But what of Brehgert? He is an entirely sympathetic character—charming, generous, incorruptible; second only to Carbury himself as a model of virtue—whose Jewishness is likewise central to his identity. Could Trollope have made it any clearer that Georgianna is a fool for refusing Brehgert’s offer of marriage? And if The Way We Live Now were intended to foster anti-Semitism, surely Trollope would have proposed a neat divide between Jews, all of whom are to be disdained, and gentiles, all of whom behave admirably. Of course he does nothing of the kind, filling the book with gentile fools, liars, louts and poltroons.

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