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Heart of Darkness

Irène Némirovsky’s earliest tales.

David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair (Everyman’s Library, $25), is a collection of novellas by French Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky, now available for the first time in English in a translation by Sandra Smith, with an introduction by Claire Messud. Némirovsky’s tragic destiny is by now well known: Born in Kiev in 1903, she became a literary sensation in right-wing French literary salons in the inter-war years, converted to Catholicism, and was deported to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Suite Française, one of Némirovsky’s last works and a portrayal of France in the months following the German invasion of France in May 1940, was miraculously recovered by her daughter and published in 2004, winning France’s prestigious Prix Renaudot.

David Golder, a best-seller in 1929, established Némirovsky’s reputation. Its eponymous character, a rapacious oil magnate of humble Jewish Russian origins, is surrounded by his equally greedy wife and spoiled young daughter whom he loves with desperate affection. The story opens with a sordid monetary negotiation between David and his business partner (whom he will drive to suicide), and ends with an equally sordid one; each time, money carries a lethal power. Golder’s financial prosperity — he is literally made of “gold” — is also his curse. In a Faustian pact with the devil, he strives to recover from bankruptcy to satisfy his daughter’s greediness; but his heart starts failing him and the reader witnesses his slow spiraling into hell.

The story of The Ball (1930) seems straight out of de Maupassant, yet with a modern sensibility: Antoinette Kampf, the adolescent-protagonist, loathes her parents and especially her mother, a nouveau-riche with social ambitions. Resolved to sabotage the ball Madame Kampf is throwing to mark her entry into Parisian high society, Antoinette never mails the invitations, with tragic consequences. Astonishingly relevant for contemporary readers, The Ball portrays childhood as a time not so much of innocence as of violence, darkness, and solitude. Rebellious and misunderstood, Antoinette is at once selfish and endearing, dark and funny, uncompromising and in desperate need of love.

Snow in Autumn (1931), the story of the aristocratic Karine family and their servant Tatiana Ivanovna, forced to flee Russia for France during the Russian Revolution, speaks of turmoil, civil war and the loss of homeland with a quiet poignancy and a somber elegance. As the Karines arrive in Paris after endless travails, Tatiana Ivanovna asks her master: “Should I unpack the children’s things? When will we be leaving?” “But we’ve only just got here,” say Nicolas Alexandrovitch. “Why do you want to go?” In each one of the Karines’ lives, exile creates incalculable dramas, as one after the other, the layers of their previous identities peel off.

The Courilof Affair (1933), another example of Némirovsky’s astonishing range, shows Leon M., a Russian Bolshevik who disguises himself as the Swiss doctor Marcel Legrand in order to kill the Czar’s detested minister of education. This is a murder story where we know the end from the outset; yet suspense stems from the subtle fine tuning, as Leon M. becomes increasingly fond of his victim. They mirror each other in their vulnerability, their ambition, the vanity of their struggles. In Némirovsky’s fiction doubles abound: they are a kind of antidote to lives of grim solitude, a last glimmer of hope.

How, finally, can we understand the ugly, profoundly disturbing anti-Semitic portraits of Jews that have threatened to undermine Némirovsky’s reputation, especially in David Golder, The Ball and The Courilof Affair? A child of revolution, war, and exile, Némirovsky carries with her the irrational darkness of her times, where the forces of nature are constantly in competition with those of civilization. Perhaps we can extend to her the same sympathy she shows for her creatures. In her ability to negate or to expand herself, to inhabit both a Jew and an aristocrat, a servant and a master, a young girl and an old woman, a Bolshevik and a minister of the Czar, she is a chameleon, with infinite reserves of intelligence. In that duality and in that multiplicity perhaps lies her humanity.

Yaëlle Azagury writes on French and Francophone literature. Her most recent essay will appear in Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region, forthcoming from the Feminist Press.