Irène Némirovsky, The Wine of Solitude (translated by Sandra Smith) – TLS
The resurrection of Irène Némirovsky’s writing over the last decade has been the cause of much pleasure, argument and anguish. Suite française, the unfinished novel about the French reaction to German invasion – interrupted when she was taken to Auschwitz and killed in 1942 – will remain the pinnacle of her achievement, a tantalising indicator of what might have been. But The Wine of Solitude, first published in 1935 as Le Vin de solitude, and appearing now in Sandra Smith’s fluent translation, is the book that holds the key to her oeuvre.
The novel begins with a swirl of yellow dust, a pale sunset, a gas-lit town. From this impressionist haze emerge the Karols – a family at war. Eight year old Hélène nurses thoughts of revenge against a mother whose fairy-tale looks (“snow-white skin…claw-like nails”) arouse feelings of revulsion in her. Bella, the scornful mother, dreaming of Paris and the arms of some anonymous lover, longs to escape from her provincial, Ukrainian family: from her husband, a banker who dreams only of money, and from her parents, the fading, aristocratic Safranovs, dependent now on their “peasant” of a son-in-law, “the little Jew who came out of nowhere”.
Sickened by her family, Hélène loves only her reserved French governess who dispenses nothing but the most practical advice: “Hélène, don’t read while putting on your socks. One thing at a time.” Yet even she is marked by “the stain of desire”, a story in her past (to do with “’love’, ‘kisses’, ‘fiancé’” and throwing herself in the Seine) that Hélène instinctively recoils from, stamping her feet and singing at the top of her voice in an attempt to banish the fate she senses lies in wait for her as a woman. What she likes best, what feeds her turbulent imagination, is to write in the pool of light at her bedside table, or to hear Mademoiselle sing the Marseillaise while she plays Napoleonic games with toy soldiers, “in a dream of bloodshed, of glory”.
The figure of the rebellious daughter is common enough in literature, but it is rare to find one as affronted and intelligent as Hélène. She stands shoulder to shoulder with Louisa in Christina Stead’s novel of 1940, The Man Who Loved Children, not just in her desire for revenge on an adult world that denies and humiliates her, but in her Nietzschean resourcefulness, transforming what material she has available – her repudiation and alienation – and making from it the steel in her back, the will to create herself: “if no one really cares about me I’m going to have to love myself”, she vows. It’s an idea Némirovsky returned to the year before her death in a poem she dedicated to herself, also titled ‘The Wine of Solitude’: “To lift such a heavy weight/ Sisyphus, you will need all your courage.”
Némirovsky wrote several versions of the daughter story including The Ball (1930), which Ian McEwan found “perfectly controlled”, and Jezebel (1936), a more melodramatic affair about matricide, but The Wine of Solitude is her most autobiographical fiction. Her identification with Hélène produces some complex narrative strategies that throw doubt on the teller’s memory and reliability, as Sartre was to in Nausea three years later. At one point Hélène is projected into adulthood: “The truth is that I came to understand gradually and now I’ve convinced myself I saw everything in a flash.” But the child rises up against this rewriting, thinking it further evidence of the bad faith between generations in which children (denied seriousness and the use of grown up language) feign ineptitude, and both adults and children see one another obscurely, as “insubstantial ghosts”.
When the Karols move to St Petersburg, Hélène’s illicitly scribbled words, “The husband, the wife and…the lover”, force the drama, leading to the death of Mademoiselle Rose. As revolution comes to the city the father stuffs dollars into sofas and under carpets, and Bella’s jewellery is sewn inside her clothing. The family leave for Finland, and it is here, in “air like ice-cold wine”, that Hélène has her first love affair and realises she can exact retribution by seducing Bella’s lover. The flirtation brings her “wild, proud pleasure”, demonstrating her power as a woman but also yielding a childhood freedom she has never before experienced – kisses happen on exhilarating sleigh rides, amidst shouting children and in the “rough and tumble” of snow play.
The affair ends when White Russians seize the town and the Karols are exiled to Bella’s beloved Paris. Here Hélène finally lets go of her obsession, as neither of her parents have been able to, realising “my desire for revenge isn’t strong enough to risk my own happiness.” But the damage is done, Bella is now the abandoned one, reduced to paying for lovers, and when her husband dies she is left searching for a fortune that no longer exists. Without saying goodbye, Hélène slips out onto the Champs-Élysées, shedding her past like an unwanted skin.
After much argument about the treatment of Jews in Irène Némirovsky’s writing, and claims from Gabriel Josipovici that Suite française was too highly praised, the republication of so many of her novels now allows us to consider her career in full. The Wine of Solitude is part of an analysis of Jewish life that begins in the caricatures of David Golder (1929) and culminates in the passionate illumination of The Dogs and the Wolves (1940). It places her among modernist contemporaries such as Stead and Jean Rhys who also wrote about estrangement and the modern diaspora, about women who “lived on the sidelines”, and the savagery of family life. Most importantly it lays claim to Némirovsky as one of literature’s great defenders and vindicators of children.
This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Bon Courage, Sisyphus’ on 10.11.2011.