Bookmark: No happy ending

A set of 10 short stories by Irène Némirovsky, published in English for the first time, takes you back to a different time and place.

Nemirovsky 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nemirovsky 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The problem with reading any work by Irène Némirovsky is that you know the end. Not how the story finishes; what happened to the author. There was no happy ending.
It is impossible to read this collection of Némirovsky’s short stories, written and published in French between 1934 and 1942, without being acutely aware of that 1942 date – the year Némirovsky perished in Auschwitz.
Némirovsky, widely acclaimed in France during her tragically short lifetime, burst beyond its borders with the astonishing publication in 2006 of a translation of Suite Française, penned in 1940 but discovered by her daughter only 50 years later. Suite Française is not a Holocaust book. Némirovsky, who converted to Catholicism, did not see herself as a Jew and has even drawn fire for perceived anti-Semitic stereotypes in her writing.
Nonetheless, this did not save her or her husband from Hitler’s death camps.
I hesitate to describe a book as a “must read” – even among friends, after all, tastes differ – but Suite Française is highly recommended both as a chronicle of the times and for its writing style.
Dimanche and Other Stories is another reminder of what tremendous literary talent was lost with Némirovsky’s death.
Chillingly, it seems she was aware of what her fate would be. Certainly having been born in 1903 into a family of wealthy bankers who had to flee Russia during the revolution, she knew even before World War II erupted that life’s fortunes were precarious.
In this collection, there are characters who foresee disasters and have this sense of foreboding.
It is particularly evident in “Fraternit´e,” the most Jewish of these short stories, in which a wealthy, assimilated man with the none-too-subtle name Christian Rabinovitch, “...would wake in the middle of the night, shaking, fearing that something was going to happen, had happened, that everything would be taken away from him, that his life was unstable as scenery that was about to collapse and reveal he knew not what abyss.”
On his way to meet the future in-laws of his son, Rabinovitch chances across a wretched refugee with the same name who insists that they must be related.
The meeting irritates the affluent, well connected Frenchman. “I’m much further away from that Jew than I am from an oriental peddler.
Three or four generations have elapsed. I’m a different man, not just spiritually, but physically as well. My nose and mouth don’t matter, they are nothing. Only the soul matters! “He did not realize it but carried away by his thoughts, he was swaying forward and backward on the seat in a slow, strange rhythm, in time with the motion of the train; and so it was that, in moments of fatigue or stress, his body found itself repeating the rocky moment that had soothed earlier generations of rabbis bent over the holy book, money changers over their gold coins, and tailors over their workbenches.”
In “Monsieur Rose,” as in Suite Française, the reader witnesses the panicked flight of wartime refugees who pack their porcelain and stuff their cars with furs and starched linen but neglect to take along something to eat. They are physically and psychologically utterly unprepared for what happens when they run out of food, the cars run out of fuel, and falling bombs indiscriminately mix the blood of the commoners with that of the social elite.
The stories are all based in a world that is no more – be it prewar Paris or a bohemian pre-Revolution Ukrainian abode (in “The Spell”). The themes, however, are universal: family ties and secrets, broken hearts and midlife crises, shattered dreams and fears. Each is a mini-drama with a twist.
The translation reads well, flowing naturally, although it made me curious to try to read the original. For some reason, the titles of the short stories have been left in the French with a translation added in parenthesis. Why bother writing out “The Confidant” next to “La Confidente,” “Mr. Rose” next to “Monsieur Rose” or “Brotherhood” next to “Fraternit´e”? And with some titles, it even detracted.
For example, seeing “Le Spectateur” simply translated as “The Spectator” made me wonder whether “The Onlooker” might not have been more appropriate. The protagonist (I could never bring myself to write “hero” of Hugo Grayer) lingers too long in Paris seduced by a false sense of security that his status and place in the world made him untouchably neutral. “‘It’s all so beautiful,’ murmured Hugo... ‘For several years I’ve felt particularly drawn to these threatened cities: Paris, London, Rome.
Every time I leave I have tears in my eyes, as though I’m saying good-bye to a terminally ill friend.’” Although very much a social chronicler, Némirovsky’s writing transcends time and place with images that we can relate to as well today as did her original readers of yesteryear: “She had a naïve, exaggerated understanding of physical desire, rather like a child who, given her mother’s jewelry to play with handles it with exaggerated yet touching respect, not realizing that the pearls she has been given are fake” (“Those Happy Shores”).
Don’t read Némirovsky because of how she died; read her works because of how she wrote. And may a little bit of the writer live on with every reading.