Monday, December 12, 2011
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE WINE OF SOLITUDE” Irene Nemirovsky (Sandra Smith trans.) (Chatto and Windus/Random House $34:99)
Here is a new book which is 76 years old – first published in France in 1935 as Le Vin de Solitude, but “new” because only now does it get an English translation.
A little explanation is in order.
Irene Nemirovsky was born in 1903 in Kiev in the Ukraine. Her father was a Russian-Jewish banker and entrepreneur who thrived in late Tsarist Russia. The family often holidayed in France and spoke French fluently, as most cultured Russians then did. During the First World War the family moved to the capital, St Petersburg. When the October Revolution came they fled to Finland, and finally made it to France.
Always written in French, Irene’s first novels were published in France in the mid-1920s, when she was in her early twenties. She rapidly became a best-seller with her vivid (and sometimes lurid) tales of Russian émigrés in France, high finance and fraught family relations. She was a literary high-flyer. Some of her novels were made into movies. But she never took out French citizenship. When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, she was classified as a “stateless Jew” and (despite having judiciously converted to Catholicism a few years before), she was carted off to Auschwitz where she was murdered in 1942, at the age of 39.
Irene Nemirovsky would have been forgotten, like many best-sellers of former days, except for one extraordinary circumstance. In the late 1990s, one of her surviving daughters found among her papers the manuscript of two unpublished novellas, which Irene wrote in the first months of the Nazi occupation. They were published under the title Suite Francaise in 2004, caused a sensation in France, were hailed by some as the best-ever fictional reaction to the Fall of France and led to an international revival of interest in Nemirovsky.
There has been some controversy in this. Nemirovsky’s merciless and unflattering portraits of some Jewish characters has led to the charge that she was a “self-hating Jew”, especially as, in the last phases of trying to stave off the death camp, she tried to win favour by sucking up to anti-Semitic writers in France. But it is hard to justify this charge on the evidence of the novels themselves.
Sandra Smith’s translations have introduced all Nemirovsky’s novels to English readers. They have been appearing steadily for the last seven years and The Wine of Solitude , written when Nemirovsky was about 30, is the latest to appear.
You can spot at once that it is heavily autobiographical, as the family and historical circumstances of its main character, Helene Karol, are the circumstances of Irene Nemirovsky . Helene’s father Boris is a Russian-Jewish businessman. Her mother Bella is a spoilt Russian Gentile who comes from the Safronov family and seems to have married Boris only for his money. The novel spans most of twenty years, from Helene’s early childhood to her young adulthood in her early twenties.
The four sections of the novel chronicle four phases in the family’s life. In the first, before the First World War, the family live in a dull provincial Ukrainian town near the river Dneiper. In the second they move to St Petersburg as the war is in progress and Russia’s two revolutions (February and October) rumble past their windows. In the third, they are in exile in Finland and in the fourth they are settled in France.
Nemirovsky’s writing about time and place – much of it presumably drawn from memory – is vivid. The boredom of the provincial town and its snobberies, with card-playing nobodies pretending they are cultured society and just a genteel whiff of anti-Semitism here and there. The fears of a Russian entrepreneurial middle-class as its stocks and shares shoot up to incredible and unsustainable values during the war. The inconveniences of revolution, where power is cut off and aristocrats are giving away heirlooms at knock-down prices and businesspeople are making feverish plans to scarper. In exile in Finland, huddled in a hut with people of different persuasions and trying not to notice flames in the night sky as the Finnish Civil War draws nearer and Finnish Whites take bloody revenge on Finnish Reds. And a sharp evocative scene as the ship taking them to France travels down La Manche on the night the Treaty of Versailles is signed. Its passengers see on both the French and the English coasts fireworks displays celebrating Victory, and yet they all look very dispiriting as everybody already knows that The Peace won’t be much fun.
Told like this, The Wine of Solitude may sound like an “historical” novel concerned mainly with public events. But this is not the case. Remember, the public events it reflects were recent memory when Irene Nemirovsky wrote it (it would be like us writing about the 1980s and 1990s). More important, the focus really is on the family and on the development of Helene Karol, who is always centre-stage. Big public events are largely “noises off”.
And here we come to one of the most embarrassing things about this novel. The main themes of The Wine of Solitude are Helene’s growing hatred of her mother and her growing awareness that in the end even one’s family is no substitute for the individual conscience and consciousness. “The wine of solitude” is what you drink once you reach this bitter conclusion.
In detail, the novel shows little Helene, an only child, admiring her father Boris, despite his buccaneering business ways, but despising her flighty, selfish and self-indulgent mother Bella. The only real solace the little girl has is her kindly French nursemaid, Mademoiselle Rose, who reinforces her love of things French. But her mother cruelly sends the nursemaid away and Helene has to find other stratagems to counter her mother’s enmity. Once she discovers that her mother routinely cheats on her father and takes lovers, Helene is ready to use her own budding sexual powers and become her mother’s rival. Towards the novel’s end, as Helene is young and ripe, Bella is being described as a “hag” (the word is used often) in her mid-40s, desperately trying to prolong her youth by buying the favours of men much younger than herself. In its French scenes, the novel reminded me of the corrupt world of Colette, but without Colette’s charm.
Our knowledge of Irene Nemirovsky’s murder by the Nazis will of course incline us to sympathise with her and see things her way. But this really is a bitter and harsh story. Enmity of mother and daughter must equal enmity of father and son as one of the perennial themes in novels about growing-up, but it rarely reaches the acid levels it does here. Helene hates her mother and the feeling is mutual. The girl’s alienation from family is only heightened by being played out in a land foreign to her.
I was readying myself to make one crushing criticism of this novel. I thought the child’s awareness and judgements often seemed far too mature. Perhaps, I thought, the adult Nemirovsky was attributing more maturity to her younger self than she actually possessed. On reflection, though, I think she gets it right. Children often do see and intuit quite complex things about their parents, even if they lack the words to express them. Even more to the author’s credit, she repeatedly shows Helene having pangs of guilt about her hatred of her mother, though she can never rescind it.
One warning – beautifully translated by Sandra Smith, The Wine of Solitude is still a novel of its age, and it has some stylistic features that belong more to the 1930s than they do to us. Often there are big melodramatic gestures in scenes between mother and daughter; or mother spurned by young lover. Certainly there is a big, overblown rhetorical flourish to finish it off as Helene marches boldly into life.
That said, it is still a compelling read, and a vivid and moving story, repugnant though some of the main characters’ feeling may be.