November 19, 2007

Irène Némirovsky: Le Bal

Posted in Nemirovsky Irene at 3:00 pm by John Self

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.

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13 Comments »

  1. kimbofo said,

    Interesting — I saw all her books in Waterstone’s the other day — I had not realised she’d written so much. I still haven’t read Suite Francaise (yes, possibly the only person left on earth who hasn’t), but maybe I should dig it out of my To Be Read pile.

  2. I just could not read Suite Francaise. It was one of the few books I put down unfinished. I know it was a first draft. Could this book be better?

  3. John Self said,

    Well it’s more complete, Candy! I thought Suite Francaise was good as far as it went, but as it was only 40% finished, that wasn’t really far enough. The story behind it was better in many ways than the story within it. See my blog review, linked to above.

  4. Matt said,

    Obviously the UK and the US have different titles in mind in their release schedule. Fire in the Blood just came out a month or so ago here. But I haven’t heard Le Bal. I’m keeping my fingers crossed on this one for sure.

    Stefan Zweig who wrote The Chess Machine?

  5. I did read your review John. I still don’t know if I want to read this one but I suppose if I want to get an idea of her writing this would be a better choice.

  6. John Self said,

    Yes that’s the Stefan Zweig, Matt – in the UK The Chess Machine is published as Chess or The Royal Game depending on which translation you read. Click on his name in the post above and scroll down to read my comments on the books of his I’ve read (Chess is the last one … or the first, chronologically). I have more of his books in the wings waiting to be read, so watch this space.

  7. GeorgeAndrews said,

    Le Bal? Did you know that there is a film by that name? I saw it some years ago when I was in Paris. No dialogue, all dance that takes place in a Paris dance hall from early in 20th cent. to after 1968 student rebellion. Unusual and enjoyable!

  8. Nick said,

    John, to divert completely for a minute, did you see the article in the Indie about Amazon’s new electronic book? This really looks the business, light years ahead of the primitive things we’ve seen up till now. Could seriously compete with books, I think. It says the text looks exactly like printed text, it can be made smaller or larger and is still clear in bright sunlight. It’s also very slim and easily carry-able. Interesting, huh?

  9. Nick said,

    John, to divert completely for a minute, did you see the article in the Indie yesterday about Amazon’s new electronic book? This really looks the business, much better than the primitive things we’ve seen up till now. It could seriously compete with books, I think. The text looks exactly like printed text, it can be made smaller or larger and it’s still clear in bright sunlight. Also it’s very slim and easily carry-able. Interesting, huh?

  10. John Self said,

    Interesting you should mention that Nick – the Amazon Kindle, to use its given name – we’ve just been talking about it on Palimpsest. I’m afraid though that the consensus there seems to be that it isn’t the business!

    My view is that it’s ugly and looks dated already (very unfortunate in the week the iPhone was launched in the UK), plus as others have pointed out on the linked discussion above, you have to buy everything you want for it: books, blogs, newspapers. With an iPod (Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is calling it “the iPod of reading) you can put your own CDs on it for free.

    I’m just not convinced. There is certainly room for a great, well designed – and cool – eBook reader (god knows the heaving bookshelves we all have tell us that), but I don’t think this is it.

  11. Nick said,

    Thanks for the link, John, and the wisdom of more technologically savvy commentators. With the quickest opinion-shift in history, I revise my opinion to It looks just as clunky as all the others. The book is dead, long live the book!

  12. Guess what? Your blog is amazing! I can’t remember when was the last time i’ve overcome such a good blog that almost all articles/posts were interesting and wouldn’t regret spending my time reading it. I hope you will keep up the great work you are doing here and i can enjoy my everyday read at your blog.

  13. John Self said,

    That’s awfully kind of you, Arvydas, but you’ll forgive me if I consider you a bit of a blog-whore just trying to get links back to your Daily Facts blog – unless you really were being sincere when you said exactly the same thing here, here and here


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