David Gold­er, the Ball, Snow in Autumn, the Courilof Affair

Irene Nemirovsky; San­dra Smith, trans.; Claire Mes­sud, intro.
  • Review
By – March 5, 2012

Four of Némirovsky’s nov­els have been gath­ered in one vol­ume and are new­ly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish from the French. Except for one, David Gold­er, they are appear­ing in Eng­lish for the first time. Most of us became acquaint­ed with Némirovsky’s work with the dis­cov­ery and pub­li­ca­tion of her long-lost mas­ter­piece Suite Française, when the man­u­script was dis­cov­ered by her sur­viv­ing daugh­ter, Helene Epstein. Sub­se­quent­ly, this review­er was priv­i­leged to review Fire in the Blood, anoth­er nov­el, also trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by San­dra Smith, which took place in the vil­lage where the author took refuge and where her lit­tle daugh­ters lived as hid­den chil­dren, “ but from which she was deport­ed to Auschwitz. 

Némirovsky is a mas­ter of char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and the ironies of human inter­ac­tion. She is also a mas­ter of mood and scene, of set­ting the cen­tral dra­ma with­in a frame­work of poet­ic, yet detailed descrip­tions. To read Némirovsky is to enter anoth­er era, anoth­er place, and to be an imme­di­ate observ­er of the scene, per­haps even an eaves­drop­per hid­den behind an ornate screen, a lamp post on a Parisian street, or per­haps a tree in the gar­den. Her writ­ing reflects her expe­ri­ences as a mem­ber of a rich, assim­i­lat­ed, bare­ly Jew­ish bank­ing fam­i­ly who iden­ti­fied with the White Rus­sians and the Tzar and who had to flee for their lives at the onset of the rev­o­lu­tions that rocked Rus­sia. She also iden­ti­fied with immi­grants in France, strug­gling to accom­mo­date to their reduced cir­cum­stances. Both themes are expressed in Snow in Autumn. She is able to grasp life’s con­tra­dic­tions— the assas­sin who becomes fond of the man he has been assigned to assas­si­nate, a man pos­sessed of both evil and com­pas­sion­ate atti­tudes (The Courilof Affair). Themes of greed and lone­li­ness, of lofty tra­di­tions and wealth sur­ren­dered to the cat­a­clysm of war, and sur­pris­ing­ly — in The Ball and David Gold­er, of mother/​daughter con­flict, as well as scorn and ridicule of the Jew, two themes that pop­u­late her novels. 

David Gold­er is the nov­el that estab­lished the author’s rep­u­ta­tion in France in 1929 when the author was twen­ty-six. Its plot could be read in any soci­ety gos­sip col­umn today — a self-made mul­ti-mil­lion­aire busi­ness­man, a by now love­less mar­riage, dis­ap­point­ment in chil­dren, fail­ure in busi­ness… Gold­er is a ruth­less but bril­liant busi­ness­man who deals with Rus­sia and oil. He is heart­less and his denial of a part­ner­ship deal with his for­mer part­ner results in the latter’s sui­cide, but Gold­er, him­self, will suf­fer ill­ness and busi­ness rever­sals, per­son­al dis­ap­point­ment and heart­break. Yet, the author pulls it all togeth­er with a tawdry, but socko” ending. 

The Courilof Affair is fas­ci­nat­ing. An old, tuber­cu­lar rev­o­lu­tion­ary recalls how he was once draft­ed to assas­si­nate Courilof, one of the Czar’s offi­cials, a man respon­si­ble for sanc­tion­ing the mur­der of demon­strat­ing stu­dents, among oth­er acts. The agent infil­trates the official’s house­hold by assum­ing the role of physi­cian, min­is­ter­ing to his tar­get, Courilof, who is suf­fer­ing from liv­er prob­lems (a can­cer, but he is not to be informed of the real source of his ill­ness). Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters is that while await­ing the sig­nal from his han­dlers, the agent becomes odd­ly fond of his tar­get. Again, it is the author’s mas­ter­ful han­dling of char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and her abil­i­ty to grasp life’s con­tra­dic­tions, that captivate. 

Snow in August brings the read­er into the heart of a wealthy Russ­ian estate belong­ing to the Karine Fam­i­ly. It is mid-win­ter and some of the for­mer serfs have remained behind. The home, a shad­ow of its pre­vi­ous his­to­ry and its noble fam­i­ly, is tend­ed to by the elder­ly nan­ny, Tatiana Ivano­va, who still inhab­its it. As she helps the two sons, Youri and Cyrille, whom she raised since infan­cy, depart for war against the Bol­she­viks, she reflects on the depar­ture and loss of her ear­li­er charges, gen­er­a­tions before. One of the sons, her favorite, will be lost. The fam­i­ly has fled to Kiev, where the faith­ful ser­vant will bring them their last jew­els sewn into her skirt. Ulti­mate­ly they will all end up in France, strug­gling to begin again with noth­ing after the mon­ey made by sale of the jew­els is expend­ed. Tatiana, who knew every cup­board, every piece of fur­ni­ture, and every child­hood inci­dent on the Karine estate, has become super­flu­ous in France, although the fam­i­ly cares for her and includes her in their family. 

The Ball is the least of these nov­els. A nou­veau riche cou­ple pre­tends to sta­tus and the wife, por­trayed only a cut above the famous Cinderella’s step­moth­er, plans to have a grand ball com­men­su­rate to their new­found wealth. She has her daugh­ter write out all the invi­ta­tions, although the girl is treat­ed bad­ly by her moth­er and is not invit­ed to the event, or indeed to occu­py her reg­u­lar bed­room but must sleep in an out­size clos­et. Cir­cum­stances pre­vail where the daugh­ter unex­pect­ed­ly is asked to mail the invi­ta­tions by her gov­erness, busy with a tryst. The girl deliv­ers one, to her music teacher, a poor rel­a­tive with good con­nec­tions to whom the moth­er wish­es to show off. The rest she deliv­ers  in care­ful­ly torn pieces to the riv­er. Roles are reversed as the moth­er, sure that soci­ety has scorned them, seeks com­fort from her daugh­ter. The intro­duc­tion by Claire Mes­sud gives fur­ther insights, while the chronol­o­gy pro­vides: date, author’s life, lit­er­ary con­text, and his­tor­i­cal events from 1903 to 2007.

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

Discussion Questions