Irene Nemirovsky; San­dra Smith, trans.
  • Review
By – May 1, 2012

Irene Nemirovsky came to the atten­tion of most Amer­i­can read­ers with the posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tion of her nov­el Suite Fran­caise. Born in Kiev, Nemirovsky was a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist in France when she was deport­ed to Dran­cy and even­tu­al­ly killed in Auschwitz. The pub­li­ca­tion of a pre­vi­ous­ly unknown nov­el in 2006 made quite a stir, and Suite Fran­caise received a lot of deserved praise for its real­is­tic depic­tion of French life under Ger­man occu­pa­tion. Now Vin­tage has pub­lished one of her ear­li­er pop­u­lar nov­els, a much short­er and less nat­u­ral­is­tic work than Suite Fran­caise. Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1936, Jezebel is a mys­tery of sorts, which begins with a love­ly mid­dle-aged woman on tri­al for mur­der. She’s accused of killing her much younger lover, and the sur­prise is that she offers no defense. She hard­ly says a word, in fact, and refus­es to explain what hap­pened. The rest of the nov­el flash­es back more than forty years and even­tu­al­ly brings the read­er full cir­cle to the begin­ning.

Much of the sto­ry is set before World War I, and Nemirovsky describes a world of wealth and com­fort and inter­na­tion­al flir­ta­tions. Extra­or­di­nar­i­ly beau­ti­ful, Gladys Eyse­nach is a mem­ber of a rich Jew­ish fam­i­ly who enjoys noth­ing as much as her own beau­ty and the pow­er it gives her. She only wants to be want­ed since in the beau monde she inhab­its, a wom­an’s val­ue is set by men. Of course, as she gets old­er, her val­ue is some­what reduced, which sends her into fits of des­per­a­tion. There’s the prob­lem of her daugh­ter too, who insists on get­ting old­er as well. What’s a vain woman to do?

Nemirovsky’s prose often feels over­heat­ed, as if she was chan­nel­ing Col­lette with­out the wry amuse­ment. Almost every­thing is told rather than shown, as they say in writ­ing class, and Gladys is such an unsym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter than it’s dif­fi­cult to stay in her point of view for very long. Still, Jezebel has a page-turn­er qual­i­ty; one keeps read­ing to find out what happens.

Miri­am Rinn has been an edi­tor and writer for decades, recent­ly retir­ing from a posi­tion as com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ag­er for JCC Asso­ci­a­tion. Her writ­ing has appeared in many news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines and she has won numer­ous awards, includ­ing a Rock­ow­er, for her work. She is a reg­u­lar review­er of books, film, and the­ater in print and on the Web, and is also the author of a children’s nov­el called The Sat­ur­day Secret, which has been cho­sen as a selec­tion by PJ Library.

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