Mothers, daughters, lost youth and lost love

Best known as the author of the posthumously published ‘Suite Française,’ Irène Némirovsky tells a riveting story of lives in a different era.

Suite Francaise (photo credit: MCT)
Suite Francaise
(photo credit: MCT)
Any woman who has ever looked in the mirror and worried that she looks old, and anyone who has glanced in the mirror and disconcertingly seen their mother’s face staring back, is likely to enjoy this book. Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel is not about such women, but it might echo with them. The plot revolves around a socialite whose paranoid narcissism and fear of aging ruins the lives of those who would be closest to her, if she were capable of truly loving anyone other than herself.
The novel opens as a courtroom drama in Paris of the early 20th century where the attractive, privileged Gladys Eysenach is on trial for killing a much younger and poorer man, possibly her lover.
Reactions to the “heroine” range from sympathy to revulsion as the plot unfolds and fragments of Gladys’s life are revealed.
Early on in the book we learn that she “had lived only for love.”
Némirovsky carefully paints a portrait of her Jezebel: “Gladys may have been older and in decline, but she was still beautiful. Time had touched her reluctantly, with a careful, gentle hand.”
I was reminded of Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”
Reflecting her own turbulent relationship with her parents, Némirovsky writes of Gladys: “Until she was eighteen years old, she had lived with her mother, a cold woman, harsh and virtually mad, an elderly painted doll who was sometimes frivolous and sometimes terrifying, who dragged her Persian cats, her daughter, her restlessness, all over the world.”
Gladys, despite having been abandoned by her father and neglected by her mother, seems to have it all: the sort of wealth and beauty that brought her power combined with passion. But although she can control the hearts of men, she is not powerful enough to do the one thing she wants more than anything else: “‘Time,’ she said softly, ‘stand still.’” She can barely admit to herself, let alone to others, that she, too, is aging – gracefully, comfortably, but nonetheless aging.
When she is 40, all around her think she is at least 10 years younger. One of her society “friends” tells her: “You’re happy, Gladys, but you don’t know it yet.”
These friends – whose husbands and lovers she steals just to prove to herself that she can – provide the role of supporting actresses. Gladys is the star of this novel. Gladys is the star of the universe.
She cannot bring herself to move even slightly to one side, even for her own daughter – the daughter who mothers her for a while, the daughter she tells: “Oh! Marie-Thérèse, promise me that the day you see I’m old, really old, you’ll kill me in my sleep.”
This is a psychological thriller, but also a sociological study of a certain period. Time, indeed, does not stand still, and the world continues to change, but human nature remains the same and we can recognize the type of people Némirovsky is writing about even if the era in which they lived is long gone.
Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 into a wealthy banking family that escaped to France during the Russian Revolution. She attended the Sorbonne in Paris before commencing a literary career that included more than a dozen books. She was widely published and praised in French newspapers and literary journals, but neither her fame and social standing nor her conversion to Catholicism saved her from the Nazi death machine, and she perished with her husband, Michael Epstein, in Auschwitz in 1942.
More than 50 years later, her daughter discovered the haunting Suite Française in a suitcase. It was published some 60 years after Némirovsky’s death, bringing her name to the attention of a far greater audience. Just as Suite Française seems to predict her own fate, Jezebel indicates that her hatred of her mother was not baseless. When her orphaned daughters turned to their grandmother for help and shelter after the war, Fanny Némirovsky turned the 15- and seven-year old girls away in the sort of selfish gesture that is utterly in keeping with the fictional Gladys Eysenach’s nature.
Strangely, when Némirovsky’s mother died, only two things were found in her safe – this book and David Golder, another Némirovsky novel based on her strained relationship with her parents.
Sandra Smith, who has lovingly and smoothly translated this work and other Némirovsky novels, has written a short introduction including biographical details, such as the fact that Fanny Némirovsky dressed her daughter in children’s clothing well into her teens to help hide her own age and maintain her powers of attraction.
Gladys Eysenach would have killed for eternal attention. Her creator, Irène Némirovsky, was killed at the height of her career; her name deserves to survive, to avenge her death. Above all, Némirovsky deserves to be read because she was a novelist of extraordinary talent.