The Wine of Solitude, By Irène Némirovsky

Revolution, war, and a big dose of end-of-era melancholy
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The Independent Culture

It was the very beginning of autumn; the air was clear and cold, and if you listened closely, you could hear the ice-cream seller's bell ringing as he drove down the avenue. In the courtyard the trees were almost bare, most of their leaves blown away by the August wind…"

Originally published in France in 1935, The Wine of Solitude is a novel shot through with with such end-of-era melancholy. Not as well known as Suite Française, Némirovsky's great unfinished novel about the Second World War, this early work is no less captivating. In this story set against the backdrop of the Great War and the Russian Revolution, the author re-visits her own Ukrainian childhood with a searing story of adult duplicity and casual cruelties.

Helene Karol lives with her parents and increasingly decrepit grandparents in a shabby apartment in Kiev. The only person to offer this clever and energetic young girl any affection is her French governess, Mademoiselle Rose. Her neglectful mother, Bella, entertains herself with extra-marital affairs, and Helene finds herself ignored and sidelined: "She nurtured in her heart a strange hatred of her that seemed to increase as she grew older; like love, there were a thousand reasons for it and none; and like, love, there was the simple excuse: 'It is because of who she is, and who I am.'"

With the October Revolution, the family flees to Helsinki and then Paris. Helene, now aged 18, and possessed with a new awareness of her own "intoxicating power", wakes up to the fact that she can make her mother suffer as she has suffered.

Having experimented briefly with a married philanderer, she turns her attentions to Max, her mother's long time lover. Even as she maps out her hot-headed revenge, Helene knows she musn't miss her own moment of escape.

Sandra Smith's translation of the novel faithfully reflects Némirovsky's talents as an astute portraitist and storyteller. One of her best early novels, here Némirovsky evokes a time and a place when domestic upheaval could prove every bit as tragic and bloody as those played out on a wider stage.

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