Swans Commentary » swans.com February 27, 2012  



Loving France To Death


by Peter Byrne


Book Reviews



Irène Némirovsky: The Wine of Solitude, translated from French by Sandra Smith, 2011, Random House, ISBN 9780701185572, 248 pages. (First published in French in 1935)

All Our Worldly Goods,translated from French by Sandra Smith, 2008, Random House, ISBN 9780099520443, 264 pages. (First published in French in 1947)

Suite Française, translated from French by Sandra Smith, 2006, Random House, ISBN 9780099488781, with appendices and map, 404 pages. (First published in French in 2004)


"The French grew tired of the Republic as if she were an old wife. For them, the dictatorship was a brief affair, adultery. But they intended to cheat on their wife, not to kill her. Now they realize she's dead, their Republic, their freedom. They're mourning her."
—Irène Némirovsky in her 1942 notes


(Swans - February 27, 2012)   Irène Némirovsky's The Wine of Solitude came out in France in 1935. The author was born in 1903 at the same time as the character Hélène, whose first twenty-one years she recounts in the novel. Readers will have to make up their own minds how much of Irène is in Hélène. But it's clear that Hélène would be a very different character had Irène had a different childhood. Both little girls were enamored of their father and hated their mother. The Wine of Solitude will follow these two affairs of Hélène's, one of hate and one of love, till she sheds them like a burden at twenty-one.

Hélène is the only child of a couple living in a provincial Russian city very much like Kiev. They are on the top rung of local society. Némirovsky, always very precise on social class, pinpoints their position. Bella, Hélène's mother, is the beautiful daughter of a father who ran through several fortunes and now depends on her and her husband, Boris. The old man married Bella to Boris because he could extract a dowry from no one else. He considered his son-in-law one of those "insignificant little Jews who managed factories in the poor part of town."

For Némirovsky, who was Jewish and would die in the Shoah, Jewishness is a subject she wrote about till the end of her life. In 1938 she began The Dogs and the Wolves, a novel that appeared in January 1940, six months before the fall of France. In it she expands on a distinction she made on page 134 of The Wine of Solitude:

Jews who came from "good families" (the ones that spoke English together and followed the rites of their religion with proud humility), and [on the other hand] the nouveaux riches, skeptics, freethinkers with masses of money.

She would of course learn that Hitler made no such distinction. But at the time she was following the bias of her social class. Jews were acceptable when they reached a certain level of refinement. When rough and vulgar or money-proud they were despicable. She probably thought the same of gentiles. What complicated her case was that the vicious anti-Semite press could exploit her use of stereotypes to divide Jews into acceptable or not. The fact that beneath the stereotypes she treated her characters as roundly human went unnoticed by the editors of the infamous Gringoire and Candide. Némirovsky was also making a desperate attempt to establish herself as French. She saw the danger coming for herself, her husband, and her two daughters. It would be a gross oversimplification simply to write her off as a "self-hating Jew" as some have thoughtlessly done.

Frenchness is in fact Némirovsky's other constant theme. Given the lessening of France's importance in the last forty years or so, it's hard to understand today the great attraction it had for the rest of Europe right up to WWI and even WWII. Both Irène and the fictional Hélène spoke French before Russian and Némirovsky would do all her writing in French. The family took its vacations in France. Hélène's mother Bella worshipped Parisian fashion and the freedom she enjoyed there. Her father Boris liked the opportunities to gamble, both in casinos and in business ventures. Hélène's Francophilia ran deeper. Since neither parent paid her much attention, her only real bond of reciprocal love was with her French governess. As some unhappy children will, she built a new identity for herself in another language. Walking down a quiet Paris street she yearns to belong to an ordinary French family in a very plain house.

Hélène's own family life is constantly boiling over. Bella is a spoiled daughter and a spoiled wife. She won't accept the role of mother or faithful handmaiden. Boris indulges her, closes an eye, and concentrates on business. But the two fight endlessly and from childhood their daughter bears witness, always against her mother. No novel has ever traced the physical deterioration wrought by time on a beautiful woman like The Wine of Solitude. Hélène realizes early that her mother counts on a semblance of youth in order to keep the adulterous affairs going that are her life blood. The child becomes expert in detecting a fresh wrinkle or an increase in cosmetic repair work. As she develops into a vigorous young woman and Bella goes the way of all flesh, Hélène can declare victory, revenge for her loveless childhood. It's not the novelist's subtlety of sentiment that impresses here but its crude force. Hélène is completely possessed by her rancor, which gives the novel drive and a hard edge.

Boris has gone to manage gold mines in Siberia and comes back a millionaire. The family settles in St. Petersburg where he becomes a financial power, multiplying his wealth in dubious deals during WWI. When the Revolution arrives, he escapes with his family and his gold bullion to Finland. Hélène, coming to womanhood there in pristine nature as around her the White Army slaughters the local Red Guard, is beautifully rendered. Her youthful egoism turning its back on tragedy rings all too true. Established in post WWI Paris, the family, complete with a young lover Bella has brought along, doesn't change its ways. It only throws more money around.

In the 1930s, when Némirovsky wrote this novel, the French political right pilloried Jews as greedy cosmopolitans with no national allegiance. We can't help wondering if Némirovsky didn't go along with this invidious view. Boris fits the description as indeed does the whole family, including the imported lover. The author doesn't slight their humanity, however, and understands their predicament and the ambushes of history. Némirovsky herself had gone through pogroms in Kiev. But the solitude her title refers to, which Hélène in particular acknowledges and all her characters share, would seem to be the product of their rootlessness. When in her late teens she returns to her beloved Paris for good, Hélène nevertheless speaks of it as being a "cold" city.

All Our Worldly Goods, published posthumously, was completed at the beginning of WWII. It exemplifies what critics have marveled at in Némirovsky. She wrote not mere chronicles of events, but historical novels about history while it was being made. In this family saga the cosmopolitan novelist scrutinizes the upper middle class in what was arguable the most bourgeois-entrenched part of France, (page 171): "the region that ran from the English Channel to Arras on one side and the Belgian border to Paris on the other." The sweep of those words has the flavor of Balzac, who could well be Némirovsky's mentor here. She adds a two-fold feminine touch that makes her a scathing critic of her women characters and a stunning success at approaching huge historical events through small, telling domestic detail.

Némirovsky seems to be intentionally limiting herself to pure French realities. Nothing could be more Gallic than, "In these old families of Saint-Elme, people admired thriftiness as much as they did wealth: both were prime virtues, the cornerstones on which a family's prosperity was built." By beginning her novel in the buildup to WWI she will have France in her sights during its most disastrous and transforming event of the 20th century. The 1914-18 war bled the country dry and turned it into one great cemetery. No region suffered more than the one she chose to write about. Her fictional Saint-Elme was razed to the ground and, rebuilt, would be leveled again in WWII.

This family tale centers on mercenary, arranged marriages and parental concern of the sort that can reflect genuine love but just as often a tyrannical control that refuses to let offspring go their own way. The patriarch who owns the local factory is a relic of 19th century paternalism who treats his workers and the townspeople, as a monarch, his subjects. The tumult of the century will upset this style of life, but not so much as one would expect. Class loyalties die slowly and the way Némirovsky eventually brings her characters back to their origins and has children ape their parents recalls Lampedusa's dictum: "Everything must change so that everything can stay the same." Or is this cosmopolitan novelist simply stating her confidence in the staying power of a country's ways that she has tried to share?

All Our Worldly Goods covers twenty-five years of French life up to the first flight of civilians southward under threat of invasion in 1940. Suite Française, the author's masterpiece, incomplete but masterpiece all the same, consists of two novellas. Storm looks into the same wartime exodus of civilians but weighs up with greater precision what different pockets of society were thinking at the time. On page 146, a disillusioned character says,

And to think that no one will know, that there will be such a conspiracy of lies that all this will be transformed into yet another glorious page in the history of France. We'll do everything we can to find acts of devotion and heroism for the official records. Good God! To see what I've seen! Closed doors when you knock in vain to get a glass of water and refugees who pillaged houses; everywhere, everywhere you look, chaos, cowardice, vanity and ignorance! What a wonderful race we are!

It is a penetrating and merciless look befitting those years of treachery that will end in the Vichy regime and the French police arresting Némirovsky. Illustrious admirers could not or did not want to save her. She had repeatedly asked for and been refused French citizenship. However, she and her husband decided not to flee France. They had had enough of cosmopolitanism. She dug in and wrote: "Since it [France] rejects me, let us consider it dispassionately, let us watch it lose its honor and its life blood." But though dispassion would mean telling the truth as she saw it, compassion would never be forgotten.

Dolce examines the effect of the German occupation on one small French town. It was in fact Issy-l'évêque in Burgundy where she had retreated with her husband and two daughters. As in Worldly Goods, Némirovsky seems to be working toward a portrayal of an essential France with all its stubborn loyalties and unspoken betrayals. Her sense of class is more knife-edged than ever here. Peasant roots entwine sullenly with a ruling rural bourgeoisie that's losing its control under the assault of yet another world war. Of two elderly townswomen, page 276: "They feared a German victory, yet weren't altogether happy at the idea that the English might win. All in all, they preferred everyone to be defeated." The heroine can't escape the prison of family except in her thinking. She's free in her head. Her feelings for the German officer billeted in her mother-in-law's home reflect Némirovsky's own experience and view of the world: Heroes are rare but so are pantomime villains.

There were to be three more novellas: Captivity, Battles, and Peace. The last two titles bore question marks in the writer's notes. For she was depicting events in the midst of them. "I work upon burning lava." Her plan couldn't say how they would turn out. In 1941, she began Captivity, which would deal with the Resistance in Paris. It was cut short by her arrest.

The discovery of the Suite Française manuscript was an affair of chance. Paper had been scarce in 1942 and the two novellas were handwritten in tiny script in what looked like a diary or notebook. This had gone into a suitcase of documents that ended in the possession of Némirovsky's elder daughter Denise. Not wanting to be reminded of the grim past, she never read them. In the late 1990s, preparing her mother's papers for a French archive, Denise at last opened what she had taken for a diary. She read it with a magnifying glass and discovered it was finished work. She typed it out and gave it to a publisher.

The result was the literary sensation of 2004 and three million copies have since been sold. More important, a writer who was considered a minor figure in the entre-deux-guerres, something of a cosmopolitan butterfly and pathetic martyr, was revealed in all her steely gravity. Some critics insisted that had she lived she would have proved the greatest French novelist of her century.

Némirovsky never overplayed irony in her writing. In this she differed from her great contemporary Thomas Mann. He had been secure, even smug, in his national identity out of which he wove his powerful novels full of an irony that some have called Olympian. Némirovsky lived irony. It was like a flaw in her personal beauty. As a child she had everything but love. Homeland she had none though as she said when spurned by France, "I have done my best to make France known and loved." Jewish, she had even converted to Catholicism to establish her credentials. To no avail, Auschwitz claimed her. As an author her best writing spent a half century in a suitcase unread. The fact that she has ended up seventy years after her death among the immortals of French letters is surely the greatest irony of all.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 27, 2012