David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair: An Everyman’s Library Original
by Irčne Némirovisky
translated by Sandra Smith
Published by Knopf
363 pages, 2008
When the Other is Yourself
Reviewed by Diane Leach
By now the amazing and sad story of her masterwork, Suite Française, and ensuing revival of her work is well known. Sandra Smith has since ably translated those works that eluded English readers: Fire in the Blood (a separate volume), The Ball, Snow in Autumn and The Courilof Affair.
The cumulative impact of these collected works is mixed: Némirovsky’s facility with language and her ability to capture humanity, notably greedy humanity, is well evidenced. So is the bewildering manner in which she wrote of her religious brethren: many are called “little Jews,” given “hooked” or “beaked” noses, and in all cases are presented are unsavory characters ever grasping for more wealth. That said, her prescience is chilling. The subject matter turns on those areas she knew best: those fleeing a war-torn homeland -- in this case, Russia -- the ensuing griefs of assimilation and homesickness in a new land, Anti-Semitism and, ironically enough, bankers specializing in oil. Her themes, now over 70 years old, could not be more timely.
David Golder, Némirovsky’s first book, was a French bestseller when it appeared in 1929. The author was 23. Her story of a Russian Jewish banker living beyond his means is hobbesian: nasty, brutish and short. Golder is a ruthless businessman who loves nobody but his spoiled, selfish daughter, Joyce, who does not return his affections unless asking for more money. Golder’s wife, Gloria, is a caricature of a poor Jewish woman made good, described as garishly made up, covered with the kind of diamond jewelry today called bling, openly adulterous. When the couple fights, their insults are the last retort of immigrants: native language.
Golder and his family are obsessed with money: Golder with the cunning of earning it, his wife and daughter with spending as much as possible. Their obsessions tumble into the excessive, with much talk about cars, jewels and houses. Theirs is very much the anxiety of the Nouveau Riche, hard to take until one considers the current exploits of hotel heiresses or the endless media fascination with emotionally bankrupt pop singers.
Golder, who begins the novel in ill health, finally collapses. So does his business. Joyce and Gloria leave him to a netherworld of an empty apartment and, suddenly, endless time. Golder has one acquaintance -- to call him a friend is taking liberties -- the fellow immigrant Soifer, an “old German Jew from Silesia.” One night Soifer insists on going to “a little Jewish restaurant. the only one in Paris where they know how to make a good stuffed pike.” Golder outwardly scoffs as Soifer relishes his portion of soul food, but inwardly he is reminded of the old country “seeing once again those familiar faces, but distorted, deformed, as in a dream...”
Golder decides to embark on a final business trip, one that takes him home, to Russia. He does not survive the journey, though arguably he never expected to.
At forty pages, The Ball cannot even be called a novella. This doubtless autobiographical story is about 14-year-old Antoinette Kampf, who, like her maker, is forced to dress as schoolgirl to salve her mother’s vanity. Also like her maker, Antoinette is the child of newly wealthy parents. Antoinette’s nervous family lives in Paris, where her mother, Rosine, longs for social acceptance into elite society. To this end, she has decided to give an elaborate ball. Antoinette is forbidden attendance; indeed, she is relegated to the box room, so her bedroom may be used for the bar. Enraged, humiliated, Antoinette exacts her revenge: given the party invitations to post, she instead tosses them in the Seine. The ball’s only guest is the miserable Isabelle Cossette, a cousin whose obligatory invitation was the only one to reach its destination.
The horror of a large party, complete with decor, food, liquor and music is evoked in deadly detail: the rush to the window at every passing automobile, the beautiful food beginning to rot, giggling servants, restless musicians. The horrified Antoinette observes it all from beneath the settee where she had, earlier, hidden herself with a mixture of horror and glee, which becomes, as her mother breaks down, the moment she leaves childhood behind.
Snow in Autumn tells of the Karine family, forced to flee Russia. They have lost nearly everything, including their son Youri, to the war. Bedraggled, lost, impoverished, they end up in a tiny Marseille apartment with their loyal nanny, Tatiana. Tatiana has worked for the Karine family for 51 years, raising three generations, losing some of each to warfare. Now 70 and deeply religious, she busies herself cleaning and doing the laundry. Initially the family, immobilized with the shock of forced immigration, surrounds her. But gradually they acclimate, finding jobs, making friends with fellow Russians, functioning in their new society.
Tatiana, old and alone, becomes increasingly disoriented. She longs for her home -- the Karine family estate in the countryside, the elegant winter parties, the autumn snowfalls. The comparatively balmy weather of her port home only exacerbates her lonely homesickness until, in a lost moment, she slips into the Seine.
The Courilof Affair has the most depth of the collection. A man born and raised in the Communist tradition is give the name “Marcel Legrand” and assigned to kill Courilof, the minister of education, himself responsible for the deaths of numerous university students.
Legrand, passing himself off as a doctor, manages to take up residence in the Courilof household. There he discovers the monster he has been trained to despise is, in his way, a principled man who agonizes over his work. Courilof is also fighting a losing battle with liver cancer and nervous about his position at court; the problem lies with his wife, Marguerite.
Courilof’s first marriage ended when his mentally ill wife died. He then married Marguerite, his long term mistress. Prior to her marriage, Marguerite was a French chanteuse whose lovely voice stills soothes Courilof during his painful nights. The couple is deeply in love, but alas, the Russian Royal family and their retainers despise her.
The depth of their love surprises Marcel; it has no place in the ideology in which he’s steeped. He continues his insinuation into the family’s trust, reporting to his comrades all the while. Meanwhile the man dubbed “the Killer Whale” for his size and brutality becomes “my Courilof.” When the inexorable moment arrives, Legrand proves incapable of carrying out the act.
Besides its exploration of human emotion beyond greed and bald hatred, The Courilof Affair gives the reader a sense of what living in Russia during the revolution felt like. The Courilof family lives in fear of what is translated as “terrorists.” I cannot read French, nor do I have the original. It would interesting to know if Némirovsky used the term “terrorist.”
So what to make of Némirovsky’s now much- analyzed dislike of Jews? Ultimately it is impossible to do anything but posit, but this only wastes time: Némirovsky married Jewish banker Michel Epstein and though their life was an assimilated one, it didn’t spare them the fate of their more observant counterparts.
The collection is ultimately instructive the way early works of great novelists are, marking the path to the masterworks. The escalating skill of Atwood comes to mind, as does Lionel Shriver, however different in place and time they might be. The Everyman collection may be a misnomer, for these slender early works aren’t for everyone, but for the connoisseurs of this great writer, they are enlightening. | January 2008