Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Book Review: A Collection of Irene Nemirovsky, DAVID GOLDER, THE BALL, SNOW IN AUTUMN, THE COURILOF AFFAIR

A Collection: David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair By Irene Nemirovsky
By Irene Nemirovsky
Published by Alfred A Knopf, publisher of Borzoi Books, an Imprint of Random House
Publication Date: January, 2008
Price: $25.00
363 Pages
ISBN-13: 9780307267085
Four Star Rating ****

The story of Irene Nemirovsky and her rediscovery years after her death is almost as striking as the amazing writings she left behind. Irène Némirovsky (born February 11, 1903, Kiev, died August 17, 1942, a refugee at Auschwitz, Poland) was a Jewish novelist and biographer born in Ukraine, who lived and worked in France.

Irène Némirovsky was the daughter of a Jewish banker from Ukraine, Léon Némirovsky. Her mother was not interested in her, and often denied that she had a daughter, because it would make her "look old". The Némirovskys lived in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where she was brought up by a French gouvernante, almost making French her native tongue. Irène also spoke Yiddish, Basque, Finnish, Polish, and English, (probably learned while strolling the Rue des Rosiers in Paris, according to an interview).

The Némirovsky family lived for a year in Finland in 1918 following the Russian Revolution, and then, in 1919, moved to Paris, France, where Irène attended the Sorbonne and started writing when she was only 18 years old.

In 1926, Irène Némirovsky married Michel Epstein, a banker, and had two daughters: Denise, born in 1929; and Élisabeth, in 1937.

In 1929 she published David Golder, the story of a Jewish banker unable to please his troubled daughter, which was an immediate success, and was adapted to the big screen by Julien Duvivier in 1930, with Harry Baur as David Golder. In 1930 her novel Le Bal, (The Ball), the story of a mistreated daughter and the revenge of a teenager, became a play and a movie.

The David Golder manuscript was sent by post to the Grasset publisher with a Poste restante address and signed Epstein. H. Muller, a reader for Grasset immediately tried to find the author but couldn't get hold of him/her. Grasset put an ad in the newspapers hoping to find the author, but the author was "busy": she was having her first child, Denise. When Irène finally showed up as the author of David Golder, the unverified story is that the publisher was surprised that such a young woman was able to write such a powerful book.

Although she was widely recognized as a major author, by Jewish authors like Joseph Kessel and anti-semitic authors like Robert Brasillach alike, French citizenship was denied to the Némirovskys in 1938. Irène Némirovsky was Jewish, but converted to Catholicism in 1939 and wrote in Candide and Gringoire, two anti-Semitic magazines—perhaps partly to hide the family's Jewish origins and thereby protect their children from growing anti-Semitic persecution.

By 1940, Némirovsky's husband was unable to continue working at the bank—and Irène's books could no longer be published—because of their Jewish ancestry. Upon the Nazis' approach to Paris, they fled with their two daughters to the village of Issy-l'Evêque (the Némirovskys initially sent them to live with their nanny's family in Burgundy while staying on in Paris themselves; they had already lost their Russian home and refused to lose their home in France), where Némirovsky was required to wear the Yellow badge.

On July 13, 1942, Irène Némirovsky (then 39) was arrested as a "stateless person of Jewish descent" by French police under the regulations of the German occupation. As she was being taken away, she told her daughters, "I am going on a journey now." She was brought to a convoy assembly camp at Pithiviers and on July 17 together with 928 other Jewish deportees transported to Auschwitz. Upon her arrival there two days later, her forearm was marked with an identification number. According to official papers, she died a month later of typhus. Her husband was sent to Auschwitz shortly thereafter, and was immediately put to death in a gas chamber.

Némirovsky is now best known as the author of the unfinished Suite Francaise (Denoël, France, 2004, ISBN 2207256456; translation by Sandra Smith, Knopf, 2006, ISBN 1400044731), two novellas portraying life in France between June 4, 1940 and July 1, 1941, the period during which the Nazis occupied Paris. These works are considered remarkable because they were written during the actual period itself, and yet are the product of considered reflection, rather than just a journal of events, as might be expected considering the personal turmoil experienced by the author at the time.

Némirovsky's oldest daughter, Denise, kept the notebook containing the manuscript for Suite Française for fifty years without reading it, thinking it was a journal or diary of her mother's, which would be too painful to read. In the late 1990s, however, she made arrangements to donate her mother's papers to a French archive and decided to examine the notebook first. Upon discovering what it contained, she instead had it published in France, where it became a bestseller in 2004.

The original manuscript has been given to the Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine (IMEC), and the novel has won the Prix Renaudot—the first time the prize has been awarded posthumously.

Némirovsky's surviving notes sketch a general outline of a story arc that was intended to include the two existing novellas, as well as three more to take place later during the war and at its end. She wrote that the rest of the work was "in limbo, and what limbo! It's really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens."

In a January 2006 interview with the BBC, her daughter, Denise, said, "For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read. It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory."

On September 21st, 2007 another novel by Némirovsky was published from surviving manuscripts. Irène gave some of the manuscript to her husband, Michel Epstein; the rest was in the suitcase entrusted to her daughter Denise. The two matched up to form her last work, Fire in the Blood, a tale of country folk in the Burgundy village of Issy L'Eveque, based upon a village where Némirovsky and her family found temporary refuge whilst hiding from the Nazis.

The novel opens with Golder refusing to help his colleague of many years, Marcus. As a result of this, Marcus, bankrupt, commits suicide. Following the funeral, Golder travels to Biarritz where he has a huge, opulent house. His wife and daughter reside there in luxury, spending Golder's cash like water. On the train, he suffers a heart attack. Seriously ill, he is forced to re- evaluate his life.

David Golder is a self made man. From humble beginnings as a Jew in the Ukraine selling rags, he is now a cold, ruthless businessman. It is suggested by his wife, Gloria, that Marcus is not the only casualty of Golder's brutal dealings. However he has an Achilles heel, well hidden: his feckless daughter, Joyce. It is this weakness that eventually ruins him. Now sixty-eight and dying, he realizes that his wealth has not brought him happiness; simply a grim satisfaction that, as "a good Jew" he has provided for his uncaring family. Gloria and Joyce are portrayed as grasping and selfish, barely showing concern or interest in Golder except when they need more money for jewelry, furs, cars and cash for their lovers.

The novel is an astonishing portrayal of a businessman and his family in the years leading up to the Great Depression. It also introduces characters of great depth, like Soifer, the old German Jew who "walks on tiptoe" to save shoe leather; he is Golder's only connection with the old world from which he himself came. His wife, Gloria, (Havke, her Yiddish name) is as beautiful, cold and hard as the jewels she so treasures. But it is Joyce, Golder's eighteen year old daughter, who is central to the story. It is she who ultimately causes his ruin.

The Ball is a short novella, but it is a concentrated effort, Némirovsky at her best (and malicious worst). It is the story of Alfred and Rosine Kampf, and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Antoinette. The Kampfs lived humbly until recently, but Alfred suddenly found success and their circumstances have changed drastically. They have moved into a huge apartment, and now are trying to establish themselves in society. And so it is time for them to throw their first grand ball. Madame Kampf has grand ambitions, but her husband reminds her that one has to put up with quite a bit if one wants to work one's way up -- and so also:
"We must be methodical, my dear. For a first party, invite anyone and everyone -- as many of the sods as you can stand. When it comes to the second or third you can start to be selective. This time we have to invite everyone in sight."
For all the high society that is invited, a lot of them have questionable pasts : some have been jailed for fraud, some were prostitutes. But this is a society where the only measure of true worth is money, and wealth is enough to gloss of over any unseemly past. Antoinette is roped into helping to write the invitations, but though she desperately wants to be part of the grand affair her mother will have none of that: this is her stage to shine on. A cot will be set up for the girl in a dingy back room, and she is to go to bed at 9:00, as usual -- an hour before the ball is even set to begin. All her mother wants is for her to be out of the way. Antoinette is at that age where she imagines adult life -- love and balls and the like -- and resents how her parents are holding her back. More than most sullen teens she has a point: self-absorbed mom is worried about aging and she's unforgivably dismissive of her upstart daughter. But the ball affords Antoinette an opportunity to strike a devastating blow, and change their situations forever. Némirovsky's scenario is slightly implausible, and yet in the way everything unfolds seems believable enough. Antoinette doesn't set out to wreck her mother's grand night, but a series of small events convincingly set everything into motion. The characters are very nicely drawn, from prototypical teen Antoinette to the horrible mother to the poor relation, piano teacher Mademoiselle Isabelle. This is a family at its self-destructive worst, a drama Némirovsky gleefully recounts. A sharp social satire, The Ball is almost too remorseless to stand -- but so well done that it's impossible to turn away. With each cutting aside and observation Némirovsky reveals more and more of the utter falseness and shallowness of what passes for 'society', the high as base as anything one could imagine. And in making what happens in what winds up being essentially a family drama such a pivotal point in the lives of mother and daughter the story also feels much fuller than if it were just the account of a failed ball.
Snow in Autumn centers around Tatiana Ivanovna, nanny to generations of the Karine family for over five decades. It begins with yet another son of the household going off to war, in yet another step of what is now a vast upheaval and fundamental change. She sees Youri again, as he returns to the house in 1918, during the Russian civil war, but by that time the family has fled and she's the only one looking after the place. Eventually she follows the family with what she can carry of what's left of the family fortune, and then she follows them into exile to France, where they try to build up a new life in unfamiliar surroundings. Everyone deals with the changed circumstances as best they can; not surprisingly, the old woman has the hardest time of it. Snow in Autumn almost feels like a sketch of a novel, covering a good deal of time and material in a short space, focusing in on only a few events. Némirovsky captures the scenes well: the situation in Russia, after the family has left the house, the locals warily almost circling it like vultures, or the way the different family members take to their French exile, including the carefree (and careless) younger generation. Not quite an elegy to what was lost, Snow in Autumn feels like a first attempt to deal with the émigré-experience, Némirovsky choosing to try to work through it through the old servant, rather than anyone whose experience was closer to her own -- allowing her both to nostalgically wallow more in that feeling of what was lost (as old folk are wont to do) as well as provide an out (as it's no surprise that Tatiana Ivanovna wont survive this exile-life for long).

The introductory chapter of L'affaire Courilof brings two figures together in Nice who were involved in the Courilof-affair in 1903, the revolutionary Léon M. and an official who worked for the government back then. Years have passed, both are far from Russia, but M. retains his anonymity and refuses to reveal his role in the events. Eventually he does offer his account: a notebook found among his effects upon his death in 1932 contains a dying confession cum memoir, and it is this autobiographical account that makes up the rest of the book. The Courilof-affair was a defining one of his life, but he circles around it, first offering only a brief summary, then finally, with some apparent reluctance, revealing what actually happened in detail. He was born, in 1881, with only one destiny: to serve the revolution. The son of committed revolutionaries, his father a terrorist he last saw as a young child, his mother dying in Geneva when he was only ten (but already exposing him -- or using him as cover -- in her contributions to the violent revolutionary cause), he could only follow in their footsteps. By the time he reached adulthood he was an ideal candidate to commit a spectacular assault in Russia: unknown to the authorities, he had a better chance of getting to the powers that be, and when in 1903 the executive committee in Switzerland decided to targeted schools-minister Valerian Courilof he was the one they sent to Russia to get him. Posing as a Swiss doctor, Michel Legrand, the young revolutionary first tries to get an idea of the minister's lifestyle and schedule. It turns out to be fairly easy to get close to him; eventually he even manages to simply get himself invited to serve as a medical adviser at the minister's summer residence. Killing Courilof is the ultimate goal, but the revolutionaries have their own ideas about assassination, and merely getting rid of the man isn't enough, so despite the wonderful opportunity the orders are: hands-off. For one, they want the act committed in front of foreign dignitaries, so that the Russian government can't hush it up and so that the world knows the man was a victim of the revolution. And it should be fairly spectacular, to make an impression. Killing him at his out of the way island estate isn't at all what they have in mind. The fake Legrand, however, manages to get close to Courilof, with opportunity to kill him at many moments. And Courilof's medical troubles are enough to do him in as well: he's gravely ill with liver cancer (which no one dares tell him, because no one would think of operating on him, since the consequences of failure -- killing him on the operating table -- would presumably be fatal for them as well). Ironically, the would-be assassin in fact does more to preserve Courilof's life than take it for several months. Courilof is more afraid of court intrigues than revolutionaries, in any case, as they seem much more likely to cause him to lose favor and power. He has family problems, too, as his beloved second wife isn't seen to be entirely proper and gives the Czar (and his enemies) reason to keep him from court. The revolutionaries finally set a date for the assassination, months ahead, in October, but Legrand -- ever less convinced of the usefulness of killing the man -- warns that Courilof might not even be a minister at that time. In that case, he's told, a new target would be found -- and when Courilof does fall from favor it looks like Legrand is off the hook for the time being. But Courilof can't leave power be, and makes himself an inviting target again. The dance between Legrand and Courilof is an interesting one: each has a ruthless side, but neither acts rashly towards the other, tempting fate, allowing this fatal game to move towards its ugly, inevitable end. Legrand has little sympathy for the minister, who has much innocent blood on his hands, but he also sees the futility of striking here. But Legrand is only a tool, there to do as he is told; ironically -- though no one takes much notice (or cares) -- he fails, unable to do what he is supposed to (though it gets done nevertheless). It's enough, in the end, to get him first condemned to death and then, as the revolution triumphs, emerge on the side of the victors (before winding up in exile): such is the revolution and the way of the world, he learns. Némirovsky offers an interesting picture of early (pre-Bolshevik) revolutionary Russia, but the book suffers from the bizarre code of conduct of the would-be world-changers. The elimination of the government-evil-doers is not the top priority: Legrand's mission is not simply to kill Courilof, and by not making assassination itself the primary objective they undermine their own larger agenda. Instead of working towards achieving specific ends (ultimately: the overthrow of an unjust government) they seem more interested in being involved in 'revolutionary' acts involving theatre and fireworks (and requiring an audience to be meaningful). Legrand has ample opportunity to kill Courilof (and probably easily get away with it) -- and if he had tried he might even have been able to get some bigger fish -- but instead the revolution demands he bide his time (increasing the risk that he is either exposed or that he comes to sympathize with his intended victim).

Nemirovsky’s work reminds me of Hemingway or Fitzgerald’s work. There is a great development of character and plotline that is simply beyond her years, but it is the themes in her work that is the most striking. The reoccurring theme of failing wealth as transitory against the ultimate pull of death, and the upheaval and uncertainty of life is quite striking in all of her work. This is a great collection that deserves reading.

No comments: