Saturday, September 18, 2010

On the novels of Irène Némirovsky

This piece appears this weekend in The National.
The French novelist Irène Némirovsky died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, but, through one of those quirks of fate with which the history of literature is replete, her reputation only began to approach its zenith in 2004. That year saw the publication of Suite Française, an unfinished novel about the experiences of French fugitives during the German occupation of 1940. Némirovsky worked on it while she was on the run herself. It possessed, even in its incompleteness, a Tolstoyan scope and intensity.

For depth of feeling, concision of expression (the novel’s wide-angle opening sentence is only four words: “Hot, thought the Parisians”), and agility of narrative technique, Suite Française was difficult to forget. It immediately inspired an intense curiosity about Némirovsky’s earlier novels, of which there seemed to be a great number. The author was only 39 when she died but she had published roughly a novel every year in a career that lasted 16 years. How did she arrive at her extraordinary powers? What kinds of continuity existed between the earlier works and the later? Did the trademark Némirovskian narrator’s philosophical apprehension of life, which appears fully formed in the late books, come into its own piece by piece, or in one great leap?

New translations of Némirovsky’s books, delivered at the author’s own rate of one a year by her translator Sandra Smith, are slowly allowing readers in English to answer all these questions. Unlike Némirovsky’s contemporary audience we move backwards into her oeuvre, reading books that are smaller in scale and emotional range than her final works (including the majestic All Our Worldly Goods, one of a small shelf of novels in world literature that provide an extended portrait of a happy marriage). Nevertheless, these novels provide their own distinct emphases and satisfactions alongside their weaknesses. Jezebel, written mid-career in 1936, is the latest to emerge.

The very title of the novel appears to condemn its protagonist, the beautiful society lady Gladys Eysenach, whom we meet in a courtroom as she stands trial for the murder of her much younger lover. This opening scene is unusual in Némirovsky for the length of time – about 40 pages – that she holds the same frame. In most of her work she cuts from scene to scene (and often forward in time, too) as rapidly as in a film. But here we feel we are watching a play and we take our cues from the courtroom audience, who have flocked to the galleries in anticipation of a satisfyingly sordid spectacle.

The murder and its motivations are carefully reconstructed, and all the people in Gladys’s life take their turn to speak. Although the accused often flinches, she does not deny her guilt. There are the usual flashes of striking observation. When the judge asks Gladys to take off her hat, her chambermaid, sitting in the audience, moves instinctively to help her mistress before she realises where she is.

Although the trial is for murder, it is also, we see, a prosecution by men of a woman, by bourgeois society of someone who has violated its unwritten codes, and by the crowd of a scapegoat. The trial is about law, but beneath that it is about the complacency of public moralism. Némirovsky’s work, even as it attends to the thoughts of individuals in the manner natural to fiction, also often gives voice to what people think as a mass, usually in a way that exposes their biases. Here, when there suddenly appears on Gladys’s face a sly expression that was “the stock image of a murderer”, the crowd, we are told, “felt even more confident that they had the right to judge her”. When the sentence is passed, the crowd leaves, satisfied. But the narrator wants to tell us more.

The French filmmaker Jacques Becker once said: “In my work I don’t want to prove anything except that life is stronger than everything else.” He might have taken this thought from Némirovsky. In Suite Française, when the teenager Hubert Péricand breaks down in impotent rage because he has not taken up arms against the Germans, the dancer Arlette Corail consoles him: “What can we do? … first and foremost we have to live … to go on …” “First and foremost we have to live” is a thought that echoes throughout Némirovsky. From Ada Sinner in The Dogs and the Wolves to Golder in David Golder, her characters are conscious of all the beautiful things that life has to offer, of the enormous need in their own natures, and of the constant pressure of time upon existence. Life, for them, is stronger than everything else, and they will often transgress to keep the flame burning.

Gladys Eysenach represents this lust for life at its negative extreme. She is animated, but then gradually deformed, by the intensity of her desire to cheat time of its due. A great beauty, she enjoys a glittering youth, marries well, and has several love affairs after her husband passes away in middle age. She revels in her power over men, whose ardour is what gives her life its sweetness, but cannot stand anything that shows up her real age. She tries, for instance, to deny that her teenage daughter Marie-Therese is growing into a woman herself (Némirovsky appears to have drawn this detail from the conduct of her own mother, who dressed her in children’s clothing until she was well into her teens).

When Marie-Therese wants to marry early, Gladys implores her to wait a few years, just so that she may enjoy her own youth a little longer. Later, when her daughter dies in childbirth, Gladys has the baby sent away because it reminds her that she is now a grandmother. We see Gladys thinking, as a 20-year-old: “Leave me alone! I want my pleasure!” Forty years later she is still thinking the same thing. She cannot submit gracefully to the stages of adult life, and so turns herself first into a monster of egotism, later a figure of pathos.

In the novel’s most grotesque scene, we see Gladys camped one night outside the home of her Italian lover, Aldo Monti. Monti has repeatedly beseeched Gladys to marry him but she has always refused, fearing that his regard for her will disappear when he discovers her real age. Monti is out of the house, but he returns at dawn with Jeannine, the wife of one of his friends, a woman less than half Gladys’s age. Gladys is about to confront the couple when something stops her. “Jeannine could cry,” she thinks. “Jeannine wasn’t even 30. Her tears would make Monti feel tenderness towards her. But she, Gladys, couldn’t forget that tears made her make-up run down her cheeks.”

Jezebel is a slight work by Némirovsky’s standards. At times the narration has a perfunctory air, and the author might herself have conceded that the story becomes claustrophobic, hewing too closely to the protagonist’s perspective (this problem is solved in later books by a stronger narratorial voice and beautiful swoops into the lives of minor characters).

Yet the effort invested in the novel’s structure – Némirovsky loves the lash of an uncoiling plot, and the challenges of distracting the reader from perceiving the shape of things before the moment of revelation – yields rich rewards. Also on display is the trademark panache in managing narrative time, within a demanding story that covers over 40 years in the life of the protagonist. Indeed, it is a kind of beautiful paradox about Jezebel that narrative time should be managed so expertly in a story about a woman whose tragic flaw is that she can’t accept its passage at all.

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