Forgotten by her father while he gambles, 12-year-old Hélène Karol has a moment of revelation. "For there comes a time in life when ...we study the faces of 'old people' and sense that one day we will be just like them. And that is the moment when early childhood comes to an end." Hélène, an emotionally neglected only child, is old before her years. She observes her selfish parents – a Russian Jewish father whose world revolves around investments and cards; a manipulative, spoilt mother obsessed with her looks and lover – and learns that "In every family there is nothing but greed, lies and mutual misunderstanding."
Irène Némirovsky's republished novel The Wine of Solitude touches on her own upbringing and returns to the territory of Le Bal, in which a daughter's hatred for her mother fuels revenge. Hélène pulsates with passionate energy; shows "joyous scorn", "a cruel, shy smile". If Némirovsky is looking back at herself as a child, she does so without sentimentality.
The author of Suite Française follows Hélène from eight to 21 while turbulent events (the Great War, the Bolshevik revolutions) chase her rootless parents from Kiev and St Petersburg to Finland, Sweden and France. As in her other works - all fluidly translated by Sandra Smith - Némirovsky catches the insecurity of displacement: what it means to be a foreigner wherever you go. But the lack of stability begins at home. Bella, Hélène's mother, has married "down", her feckless father having squandered three fortunes. Self-pitying, she hankers for excitement: "To hold a man... when she didn't even know his name", to live in Paris "alone and free".
Boris indulges his wife, refusing to see her infidelities with Hélène's cousin Max. Intoxication is a word which features frequently. Hélène is happiest when drunk with a kind of freedom - lying in fragrant grass under a vault of lime trees; flinging herself on a sledge down a snowy hill.
Némirovsky excels at describing this dysfunctional household. As Boris makes his millions, the Karols move from one chaotic home to another, where the accumulated wealth has no meaning because it has no emotional value: "the heavy silver pieces came from various sales; they hadn't bothered to remove the initials, coronets or family crests" Details seal the mood, whether Bella's over-ripe sensuality ("her breasts nestled in two satin pockets, like fruit in a basket") or a sense of expectation mirrored by nature ("the trees... creaked as the wind ripped off the young June leaves, still so green and delicate.")
As always with Némirovsky, we enjoy the contrast between the turbulence of her characters' emotions and the restorative truth and beauty of landscape. Trees are "the colour of tarnished steel"; the streets are "fragrant shadowy shapes full of whispers". And when Hélène finally escapes, it's these things - the parting clouds, a luminous sky - which give her the courage to find her way.Reuse content