Le Vin, les Biens et les Chiens: Aamer Hussein reviews Irène Némirovsky's The Wine of Solitude

Irene Nemirovsky's appearance on the British scene with the publication of Suite Française was accompanied by a burst of storytelling. Here was a highly talented Russian-Jewish émigré who had been murdered by Nazis, leaving behind a manuscript in a trunk which her daughters discovered decades later. Suite Française was a publishing sensation. These details were all true, but the implication that the author had been forgotten wasn't. Very prolific during the short span of her life, like many writers she had gone through phases of critical neglect. Several of her titles had, however, never been out of print, notably her bestselling David Golder. I discovered her books when I saw her collection of stories, Dimanche, in a shop window in 2004, over a year before Suite Française was translated. At the time I acquired several others of her titles, including Les Chiens et les Loups and Le Vin de Solitude (the translation of the latter is the occasion for this essay), in those inexpensive bright mass-market pocket editions that had appeared in the nineties, long before the myth-making began.

Over the last six years, all of her major novels have been made available in English, most recently the two above and Jezebel (2010). Two of these are located within Nemirovsky's Russian-Jewish immigrant community, with its desire to blend and assimilate, and its contrasting desperation to retain some shred of identity. Two present the figure of the wicked, self-gratifying and avaricious mother who, literary gossip tells us, was based on her own. These novels employ both French and Russian techniques of fairly stolid realism, with occasional epiphanic sequences that show the author's growing familiarity with modernist modes of writing. It may well be that when the process of Nemirovsky's renaissance is complete, these chronicles of a world which has rarely found a place in fiction will be the works that last.

When she was in her teens, Nemirovsky migrated with her family from the newly formed Soviet Union to Paris. Her journey deeply influenced her writing. Though today she's praised for her accurate portrayal of French upper-bourgeois mores, the novels she was best known for in her lifetime were about immigrant and Jewish life, often beginning in Kiev and moving via the Baltic to France in a reflection of her own trajectory.

When the first applause of posthumous recognition had subsided, accusations of self-hatred and anti-semitism surfaced. I find those kinds of biographical criticism gratuitous; and Nemirovsky's own assimilative strategies of survival were her personal affair. The novels, far from being anti-semitic in any conventional manner, are unflinching examinations of identity and assimilation. In an oblique, haunting way they explore the marginality and – at worse – self-hatred born from the economic, ethnic and social alienation of their characters' conflicted psyches. Nemirovsky never discarded her roots, though she may have felt distanced from them; she changed the language and the faith of her birth, but never her name. She remained a literary foreigner, and the most 'French' of her works, paradoxically distinguished by their cold-eyed if not unsympathetic distance from a provincial Catholic milieu to which she never would belong, were only published posthumously. These include Suite Française and the untranslated Les Feux de l'Automne.

But as more and more titles by Nemirovsky appear in this translation-shy market, and more and more British writers (including McEwan and Barnes) join the ranks of her admirers, another question replaces the ideologically slanted critique: was Nemirovsky really a good writer, or just a popular hack? In a recent debate, Gabriel Josopovic, academic and arch-experimentalist, accused her admirers of selling out to populist taste; in affirmative response, another critic claimed that Nemirovsky wrote the sort of middlebrow mid-twentieth century fictions rediscovered by Persephone Books.

For readers unacquainted with the British scene, Persephone, which published Nemirovsky's only collection of short fiction available in translation, announces on its website that it publishes 'books that are neither too literary nor too commercial', usually by forgotten women writers. Their tutelary deity is Jane Austen, and the word often used in connection with their output is domestic; they have revived some fine and neglected fictions. Their aesthetic varies, but unlike Nemirovsky's they are almost never emotionally violent, confrontational or controversial. (A minor academic industry has sprung up to redeem the feminine middlebrow, and what was once a cottage industry has now expanded into the mainstream with the rediscovery of Stella Gibbons, and the iconic status of Nancy Mitford.) Nemirovsky's novels may be middlebrow in construction, but her main concerns are not domestic, nor even ephemeral or romantic. Often set in the world of international finance or of bourgeois industry, with their attendant nightspots and seaside fleshpots, these fictions depict predatory, feckless or cuckolded men, and their vain, faithless wives and daughters.

Is Nemirovsky, then, the disciple and descendent of Flaubert, Chekhov and Mansfield she's said to be, or an opportunistic writer of purple sagas? What makes us Anglophones prefer her to other Parisian writers of her time, émigrés or otherwise, such as – let's say – her exact contemporary, the stunning Berberova, who only wrote in Russian; or the patrician, flippant, and very imaginative Louise de Vilmorin? The truth is that even some of the most sophisticated readers today are drawn to Nemirovsky's heady combination of storytelling dexterity, subject matter (Wartime France! High finance! Russian émigrés in gay Paris!) along with the author's heartrending biography. (Berberova, who wrote darkly brilliant fictions, lived in academic respectability to a grand old age; de Vilmorin, witty and agile, was too frivolous and... well, too French, to travel well.)

From book to book – and even within each novel – Nemirovsky is often uneven. That she is always accessible is evident: as a result, her literary aspirations are often overshadowed by her crowd-pleasing concerns. Her prose is conventionally pleasing, but rarely sublime. Her sense of structure is almost unerring, but occasionally marred by melodramatic interludes. She is probably at her technical best in her short fiction which, though a product of its own time, has undoubted and timeless artistic merit. In her better novels, the influence of her nineteenth-century mentors in both Russian and French can result in passages of fluid, expressive narration, perceptive characterisation (both in omniscient narrative and modified stream of consciousness) and mildly conservative, but expressive, analyses of society. She can also be lurid and sensationalistic: the purple passages in David Golder can be blamed on the author's youth, but the much later (and apparently bestselling) Jezebel is an embarrassing potboiler, reminiscent of the fin de siècle trash she might have read in secret.

Yet Jezebel shares with the exquisite novellas Le Bal and Les Mouches d'Automne its focus on the figure of the larger-than-life beauty and monster mother that Nemirovsky knew so well, and its focus on the immigrant world she inhabited. She returns to these themes, perhaps most insightfully, in The Wine of Solitude. But in this final variation, mother and daughter are given almost equal space: we see the world largely through Helene's eyes, but it's the mother, tellingly called Bella, who we remember: hedonistic, lascivious, heartless – and yet, in some odd and demeaning way, vulnerable.

The Wine of Solitude unfolds over a period of about twenty years, leaving Helene - when she has avenged herself by seducing and abandoning her mother's lover, and watched her once-wealthy father die deprived of his fortune - alone in the world but newly confident of her autonomy. It has many of its author's virtues of description and observation, and some of her vices; above all hasty or lazy writing, which, as more and more Nemirovsky titles appear, Smith's smooth translations have increasingly failed to conceal. It also contains a fascinating gallery of minor portraits of toffs, tarts, governesses and gigolos, often reminiscent of her earlier work but arranged here with the panache (and colours) of a Belle Èpoque painter. It isn't nearly as intricate and compelling as her finest 'Jewish' novel, Les Chiens et les Loups; nor as lavishly good as her best 'French' work, Les Biens de ce Monde. It does, however, chart the journey from Tsarist to Soviet Russia, and from the threat of Communism to the measured freedoms of capitalist France in more detail than any of her other fiction, and its sense of alienating otherness is now subliminally woven into the texture of her story rather than displayed directly. Once the definitive Nemirovsky canon has been established, this novel should be included in that list, not least because it gathers together the many strands of her expatriate fictions: in the words of one of her French appraisers, it is her "Dickensian autobiography". It draws strength from memory, both personal and collective, and, by veering closer to the details of her own youth and childhood than any of her major works, it reveals her skill at turning the raw details of life into complex and compelling fiction.

translated from the French by Sandra Smith