Sour grapes

Against a background of war and revolution, a child who knows no tenderness grows into a young woman fueled by the grapes of wrath/

Protesters with Lenin poster 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Protesters with Lenin poster 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Any review of a book by Irène Némirovsky must mention that she was born in Kiev in 1903 and died in Auschwitz in 1942.
So let me quickly get that out of the way. It must also say that Némirovsky is best known (at least to English speakers) for the book Suite Française, which was published more than 60 years after her death. Having dispensed with these obligatory details, I can turn my attention to The Wine of Solitude, the latest of her novels to be translated into English, first published in France in 1935.
Némirovsky’s writings cannot be separated from her life story, and (as any review is bound to mention) The Wine of Solitude is the most autobiographical of them all. Its personal nature is what makes it so poignant – and so disturbing. The more Némirovsky I read, the more I appreciate her talents as a writer, but the more I am convinced I would not have liked her as a person. I blame her mother. So did Némirovsky.
At the heart of most of Némirovsky’s writings lies the difficult relationship she had with the self-obsessed woman who refused to admit she was growing old and stunted her daughter’s own development as a result. (And, while we are still at the opening stage of the review, I should perhaps also mention here that Fanny Némirovsky turned away her two orphaned granddaughters when they sought shelter and help after the World War II, an act completely in character with how the novelist depicted the fictional mothers in her works.) The Wine of Solitude is also fairly damning of the father figure. The story follows the fate of Hélène Karol and her relationship with Bella, her egotistical mother with expensive tastes; her mother’s young lover, Max; and the father she adores, no less because Boris Karol is so openly cuckolded by his wife and even though his first love is gambling.
The bright light in Hélène’s unhappy childhood is the dedication and affection of her governess, Mademoiselle Rose, who gives her a lasting love of French language and culture.
Mademoiselle Rose’s love grants the young girl the only security she knows. It provides her with both her strength and her weakness, so cruelly exploited by the fictional mother. The end of Hélène’s innocence comes early and she is driven by the quest for revenge – the one constant factor in a dangerously ever-changing world of increasing uncertainty and disillusion.
One of the things Hélène and Bella share is a love of Paris. During her vacations, Hélène observes the French children: “How she envied them! She never grew tired of studying them. To be born in these ordinary, peaceful neighborhoods where all the houses looked alike – how wonderful that would be.”
She finally finds sanctuary (though not peace) in the French capital after many miserable years that take her through the heat of Kiev in summer; the stench and cold of St. Petersburg winters; and exile in the frozen wasteland of Finland after the Russian Revolution.
Bella also dreams of Paris – the city of lovers: “‘Ah,’ she thought, ‘I wasn’t destined to be a placid middle-class woman, satisfied with her husband and child.’” Némirovsky openly admired Tolstoy and shares more than his ability to portray sweeping emotions and tumultuous events. Throughout The Wine of Solitude, I am reminded of Tolstoy’s famous opening lines to Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
At a pivotal point in Némirovsky’s novel, Hélène, the aspiring child author who lives much of her life in an imaginary world, picks up the pencil “that’s always in her pocket” and writes: “There is no virtue, no love in the world. Every household is the same. In every family there is nothing but greed, lies and mutual misunderstanding.”
Némirovsky’s religious identity, troubled like so much in her life, is also touched on.
She has often been criticized for her harsh, stereotypical depictions of Jews, although, of course, neither these nor her conversion to Catholicism saved her and her husband from their fate under the Nazi regime.
In The Wine of Solitude, after the Karol family escapes the October Revolution of 1917 (as the Némirovsky family of bankers did) she writes: “The Jews talked about business and, either to amuse themselves or to keep in practice, sold each other land, mines and houses even though the Bolsheviks had confiscated them months earlier.
But to consider this type of government as here to stay would have been a sign of bad faith.”
There is even a moment of almost optimism when the Russians sharing the same house in exile would say of the men “they had until then referred to as ‘Israelites’...
‘Really, they’ve been maligned. Some of them are charming.’” Strangely, it was only when “the two opposing races lived side by side, thrown together by the hardship of the times...
they were all part of the same little society, united and happy.”
Happiness might be part of her vocabulary but it is not a part of her experience. At some point Hélène realizes she is a child no more, without ever having known tenderness.
“I’ve missed it so much... And not having had a childhood when I should have means that it’s probably impossible to mature like other people; I’m shrivelled on one side and green on the other, like fruit that’s been exposed to the cold and the wind.”
Hélène’s solitude foments into the grapes of wrath against a background of war and revolution.
Sandra Smith’s translation of the novel is smooth, and any time I consider tackling Némirovsky in the original French I realize that I could never read her beautiful flowing language with the same pleasure that Smith’s excellent rendition offers the non- Francophone.
Although I am a dedicated fan of Némirovsky’s (translated) writings, I would not necessarily recommend starting with The Wine of Solitude – it lacks some of the power of All our Worldly Goods, for instance.
Suite Française is almost a must-read (a term I do not use lightly) of Tolstoyan magnitude; The Wine of Solitude is an excellent (though not pleasant) read.
Whatever book by Némirovsky you choose, read it for the right reasons, not out of pity because she died of typhus in Auschwitz at the age of 39. She deserves to be remembered for the way she wrote, not for the way she died, and because, as her alter ego Hélène muses early on in The Wine of Solitude... “it was not in her nature to give in to pointless despair.”