Saturday , June 22 2024
Ten short stories from the author of Suite Francaise

Book Review: Dimanche and Other Stories by Irene Nemirovsky

With the enthusiastic reception of Suite Francaise, Irène Némirovsky's 1940 panoramic novel depicting the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, discovered by her daughter fifty years later and published in English translation in 2006, there has been an ever increasing interest in any and everything else of the neglected author's work that might be resurrected. Two other volumes followed: Fire in the Blood, a novella in 2007 and a 2008 collection of short works, including the novella, "David Golder." Now a newly translated collection of ten of her short stories, Dimanche and Other Stories has become available from Vintage Books.

While three of the ten stories deal with the period around the beginning of WW II — indeed two of them, concerned with refugees of one kind or another fleeing the approaching Nazi army, could well have sat nicely in Suite Francaise — six of the other stories are set between the wars, and the seventh is set in a pre-war Ukraine. Moreover, the tone of most of these stories is reminiscent of no author so much as Anton Chekov. Némirovsky's Russian heritage translates well into the Parisian cafes and drawing rooms of these stories.

"Dimanche," ("Sunday": all titles are given in French and then translated) the feature story, parallels in counterpoint the story of a mother in her forties trapped in a passionless marriage and that of her daughter just twenty and beginning to experience what she thinks is love. It is a bitter sweet story illustrating how quickly youthful passion turns to gray middle age, and it is all played out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon as the various members of a family of four go about spending their day. The daughter goes off to secretly meet her lover; the father leaves after lunch for a tryst with his mistress. The mother stays at home with the younger child. Little happens, but as in a Chekov story, everything happens.

"Les Rivages Heureux" ("Those Happy Shores") also deals with the loss of youth, contrasting a young woman's happiness in her love affair with the plight of an aging tart she meets in a café as she waits for her lover on New Year's Eve. Although, Christiane, the young lady in this story, seems much more worldly wise than Nadine, the naïve young lady of "Dimanche," the suggestion is fairly clear that age will be as unkind to her as it seems to be for everyone else, be they mothers or tarts.

In "Fraternite" ("Brotherhood"), an older Frenchman, paradoxically named Christian Rabinovitch, who has spent his life fleeing from his Jewish heritage, meets a poor old Jewish man at a train station. Christian is on his way to a weekend with gentile friends whose daughter his son would like to marry. Christian has some qualms about the marriage, both from his own pride and his fear that though friends they may well reject a Jewish suitor for their daughter. The old Jew at the station functions as a doppelganger, evoking in Christian the brotherhood of the title. This is quite an interesting story given the charge of self hating Jew sometimes leveled at Némirovsky.

"La Femme de don Juan" ("Don Juan's Wife") takes the form of a long letter written by a dying servant to the daughter of an old employer revealing her mother's dark secret. Le Sortilege ("The Spell") is the story set in Russia. It is a story about an adult relationship told through the eyes of a young girl who really doesn't understand what is happening. Liens du Sang ("Flesh and Blood"), the longest story in the volume, examines family relationships as a pride of older children gather together to deal with their elderly mother's sickness and their own hopes and fears, jealousies and pettiness. In Le Spectateur ("The Spectator"), an aging dilettante from a neutral country trying to leave France at the beginning of the war, discovers that neutrality is not necessarily going to keep one safe. Each story focuses like a laser beam on the vagaries of the human condition, and the ironies that abound in human relations.

Whether she is describing the torturous impatience of a young girl waiting for a lover who doesn't show up or the labyrinth of relationships in a large family no longer close, Némirovsky is always the most astute of observers. And always those observations are presented with a typical understated irony.

At the end of Le Confidente, the husband who has learned the truth about his recently deceased wife from a woman he thought was her friend explains why that truth is irrelevant. It is characteristic Némirovsky: "He now understood that he had loved an illusion, a shadow. He knew with absolute certainty that he had at last learned the truth. But he was more tormented than ever because he understood what Camille could not grasp: that his wife's soul, her wit and intelligence, were of no importance — all that was superfluous. What really mattered was the gentle movement of her shoulders when she turned her head toward him, the shape and warmth of her breast, the expression of her face, her tone of voice, the quick, bored way she pushed him aside when he approached her when she wanted to escape him (and now he knew why). This was what he would never get over."

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