Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: Two by Nemirovsky

This post is far from the subject of my blog, I know, but I have enjoyed reading two of Irene Nemirosky's books recently, and wanted to share. I find her novels, including that great sensation of 2007, Suite Française, strangely compelling. You may remember the story of that book, two novellas of an ambitiously planned five novellas about France under occupation during World War II. Irene Nemirosky, who had been born in Kiev in a Jewish family, lived in France and had been baptized a Catholic. She was working on this five part saga when she was finally arrested as a Jew in Vichy France. She had written two parts of Suite Francaise and left this work behind, She died in Auschwitz. Her daughters escaped France and had the notebook containing this work for years. They presumed the notebook contained a diary, some private work. Finally, one daughter found it to be a work for publication, had it edited and it was published.

The Wall Street Journal published this consideration of her works in December last year:

Irène Némirovsky was a prolific writer punctiliously devoted to her craft. She was at work on her magnum opus, the novel Suite Française, just two days before French policemen knocked at her door on July 13, 1942, to arrest her as a foreign Jew. She died a month later in Auschwitz, either of typhus or in the gas chambers—the exact circumstances will never be known. She was 39 years old.

On July 15, from a transit camp in central France, she wrote a quick note to her husband, Michel Epstein, who would also perish at Auschwitz. "My dearest love, Don't worry about me. I have arrived safely. For the time being, there is disarray, but the food is very good. I was even astonished. . . . A parcel and a letter may be sent once a month. Above all, don't be anxious. Things will settle down, my dearest. I hug you as I do the children with all my heart, with all my love. Irène." The next morning, hastily penciled, came the last words she ever wrote: "My dearest, my beloved little ones, I think we are leaving today. Courage and hope. You are all in my heart, my dears. May God protect us all."

The strains of her final hours in France as she is about to board the box car transport to Poland are barely audible in these hopeful words. Part of it could be credited to a temperamentally matter-of-fact writing style that disparaged anything resembling the lachrymose or sentimental. Part of it also reflects her buoyant disposition in life and a will to stir courage in others. She was no stranger to setbacks and misfortune. Born in the lap of luxury in Kiev, she fled Russia with her family after the revolution and then managed to resettle in France in the very lap of luxury they'd left behind. There was always a way out, always room for hope. But part of her unshakable optimism derives from downright ignorance of the Nazi death machine. No one knew. Even the canniest and most discerning did not know, could not know, much less imagine, that when husband and wife or parent and child said goodbye what they meant was forever.

The author of the review essay, Andre Aciman, also comments on the difficulty of separating Nemirosky's success as a writer from her biography, particularly since while she suffered arrest, imprisonment and death because she was a Jew according to Nazi law, Nemirovsky never sympathizes with Jewish characters in her novels. "Never sympathizes" is indirect litotes; she depicts her Jewish characters as materialist and worldly, little else. She exposes their faults and their satisfied comfort with devasting irony, according to Mr. Aciman.

I say that her novels are strangely compelling to me because she applies that same irony to all her characters, as I read these two novels: The Wine of Solitude and All Our Worldly Goods. Her narrative voice conveys a certain distance from her characters as she tells their stories with unflinching detail of the ways they fool themselves, the ways they ignore their weaknesses and their flaws, the ways they exult in their comfort--even as their worlds are falling apart and their sins are catching up with them. The mystery is that I still care about these characters and their stories, even as Nemirovsky exposes their human weaknesses so brutally.

Vintage Books summarizes The Wine of Solitude:

"From the author of Suite Française comes a powerful novel of family, war and the end of innocence.

"Hélène is a troubled young girl. Neglected by her self-absorbed mother and her adored but distant father, she longs for love and for freedom. As first the Great War and then the Russian Revolution rage in the background, she grows from a lonely, unhappy child to an angry young woman intent on destruction. The Wine of Solitude is a powerful tale of an unhappy family in difficult times and a woman prepared to wreak a shattering revenge."

Helene loves her father Karol but he ignores the adultery committed by his wife Bella, even accepting her lover Max as part of his household. Helene also loves her French governess Mademoiselle Rose and her mother uses that love against her own daughter. The French governess dies during World War I in Russia and then Helene and her family travel in exile to Finland and then to France to escape the Russian Revolution. Religion has no part in their lives--Helene does attend Mass with Mademoiselle Rose, the only person who demonstrates real love and concern--otherwise, their lives are totally secular and totally immersed in sensual pleasure, wealth, sex, and addiction. The three adults blindly seek out their desires with no consideration of the child's emotional welfare. As an adult Helene decides to take revenge on her mother by stealing her aging lover--but she relents from total destruction, not wanting to be as bad as they are. When her father dies, he gives her all the cash he has and she flees with her cat, prepared to make a living on her own, standing under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, ready to face the world.

In one scene the child Helene adds narration to an idealized portrait of a family in one of her books. In contrast to the domesticity depicted in the scene, Helene's story reflects the disorder around her--a husband unaware or unwilling to confront the adultery of his wife; the wife revelling in the pleasure she's found--and when her notes are discovered, she is the "bad child" and Mademoiselle Rose's influence is blamed. Perhaps Mademoiselle Rose's influence prevents the adult Helene from totally destroying her mother and wrecking her lover Max's life with the scandal of marrying Max. The Wine of Solitude is a devastating story of the effects of sin and selfishness--and yet, how humanity endures and even triumphs (the image of the the Arc de Triomphe may be obvious, but it's also effective).

Vintage summarizes All Our Worldly Goods thus:

"Reads like prequel to Suite Française, but is a perfect novel in its own right - a gripping story of family life, of money and love, set against the backdrop of France in two terrible world wars.

"Pierre and Agnès marry for love against the wishes of his parents and the family patriarch, the tyrannical industrialist Julien Hardelot, provoking a family feud which cascades down the generations. Even when war is imminent and Pierre is called up, the old man is unforgiving. Taut, evocative and beautifully paced, All Our Worldly Goods points up with heartbreaking detail and clarity how close were those two wars, how history repeated itself, tragically, shockingly..."

Indeed, Mr. Aciman notes the connection between the two novels: "This novel is a paean to hope and middle-class fortitude. Hence the word goods in the title, meaning possessions and wares but also the good things of life. If the war did not end by the time All Our Worldly Goods ends—at the French surrender—then Némirovsky had no choice but to open the wounds again in her subsequent novel, Suite Française. One novel ends where the next begins. All Our Worldy Goods should garner as many readers as the best-selling Suite Française."

Nemirovsky is most devastating when she describes the thought process of Julien Hardelot, who is totally secure and satisfied, certain of his control even of the future after he dies: his factory, his family, his life is in his control--he thinks. I think any reader, even one who doesn't get the irony of the first sentence of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, would understand the irony here: the hubris, the folly of thinking one can control life after death!

Pierre and Agnès endure this family feud, which includes the twist of Pierre's former fiance Simone marrying a soldier she meets during the evacuation of Saint Elme and becoming part owner of the Hardelot family paper factory. Their son Guy then falls in love with Simone's daughter Rose and they marry, living with Pierre and Agnes because Simone won't give Rose any dowry. They also endure separation during World War I, financial difficulties after the war, and fear and stress leading up to the war. They do love each other, sacrifice for each other, and try to do the right thing in every circumstance.

Perhaps Mr. Aciman helps me understand why I like these novels so much:

Némirovsky was a moralist. Like Pascal, La Rochefoucauld and Flaubert, she liked nothing better than to unsaddle human pieties. Her short and polished sentences are underscored by a ruthless clarity of vision and an underhanded wryness that hurts—and was most likely meant to hurt. She is cold, lucid, almost vitreous in her ability to cut through deceit or, worse yet, self-deceit. In this lies her brilliance. Némirovsky was a supremely disabused writer. She is never taken in. She exposes bad faith, derides pretense, sniffs out affectation and, with masterly brushstrokes, undresses the fop and the hypocrite. She instantly spots the dissonance between who we proclaim we are and who we turn out to be. And she does so in a prose that is uncompromisingly classical.

Even in translation, I don't think that "uncompromsingly classical" prose is lost. Highly recommended.

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