November 19, 2007
Irène Némirovsky: Le Bal
Since the success of the much-lauded Suite Francaise last year, Irène Némirovsky’s British publishers have been drip feeding us new translations of her other books. After David Golder and Fire in the Blood, we now have Le Bal, containing two stories of 50 pages each. (People sometimes ask me how I manage to read so many books. Stick to the hundred-pagers and you can’t go far wrong.)
The title story is set in 1930s Paris, in the household of the Kampf family. Madame Kampf, whose husband has risen in society, is a snob who enjoys denigrating other women for their doubtful pasts, though we suspect that it takes one to know one. She is cruel to their daughter Antoinette, a habit which has lasted from the days before “they had suddenly become rich.”
‘Yes, that’s it, girl. If you’re waiting for your father to make his fortune like he’s been promising to ever since we got married, you’ll be waiting a very long time, you’ll watch your whole life slip by … You’ll grow up, and you’ll still be here, like your poor mother, waiting…’ When she said the word ‘waiting’, a certain look came over her tense, sullen features, an expression so pathetic, so deeply pained, that Antoinette was often moved, in spite of herself, to lean forward and kiss her mother on the cheek.
Antoinette’s resentment of her mother leads her to act against her when she plans a ball to launch the family in Parisian society. This, however, is less a “swift and exacting revenge” as the back cover describes it, than a momentary temper tantrum. It has nonetheless far-reaching consequences, and there is a sliver of a sentence on the very last page of the story, which adds a particular cruel relish. This expansion into something more far-reaching put me in mind of the great Stefan Zweig.
The second story, Snow in Autumn, is set in revolutionary Moscow, where a nanny watches one of the sons of the family called up to war. Némirovsky draws on her own family experience of fleeing Russia for France, where the emigrants are described thus:
Back and forth, they went, between their four walls, silently, like flies in autumn, after the heat and light of summer had gone, barely able to fly, weary and angry, buzzing around the windows, trailing their broken wings behind them.
Strong dialogue and short chapters keep the pages turning. And a jump in time, together with a couple of highly dramatic chapter endings, give the slender story an epic quality and a forcefulness which doesn’t detract from its subtlety.