Translated by Eoin Bates and Sandrine Brisset.
Kindly sent to me by Sandrine Brisset – one of the translators.
Some time ago I read Dimanche and other stories – a collection of Iréne Némirovsky short stories re-issued by Persephone books. Since then, despite my best intentions I have only read one Némirovsky novel, Suite Française. I was delighted therefore to have to have the opportunity to read In Confidence a new collection of previously unpublished stories.
Famously of course several of Némirovsky’s works have been published decades after the author’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 when she was aged just 39. When she died, Némirovsky was already a published author, and for some a controversial one, due to the depiction of Jewish people in her work. Némirovsky had been baptised a catholic in 1939, but in 1940s Paris her Jewish heritage meant she was forced to wear the yellow star. I shudder now to imagine the fate of this wonderfully talented writer, a fate shared by so many whose talent and names remain unknown to us. Reading Némirovsky is always such a poignant reminder of this.
In this collection Némirovsky explores a variety of characters – mainly women – exposing their secrets and desires. Be it Parisian suburbs or small French towns, in the years between the wars, there is a wonderfully strong sense of place. Némirovsky’s canvases are small, her themes however are not. She examines the human condition, the things which go unspoken, the secrets, unexplained mysteries and histories behind the seemingly ordinary middle aged, middle class people who we meet in her stories.
I’m sure lots of other people will be reading this collection soon, so I will merely attempt to give a slight flavour of the collection – which I think is absolutely superb.
There are eight stories in this collection, opening with Epilogue, in which an American woman, a pianist, confesses her darkest secret to a fellow regular in a bar she frequents.
An Honest Man, tells the sad story of an ageing man cut off from his once adored son, because the father suspects the son of theft. The father nurses his fury, and his own dark secret, disinheriting his son, and refusing to see him. As the father lies dying, the son arrives at a nearby hotel – hoping that his father will consent to see him one last time.
Lunch in September Thérèse Dallas, a married middle aged woman, is remined of a man she used to have a secret infatuation for, Suddenly, he appears and asks her to lunch.
The title story In Confidence – was undoubtedly my favourite. Blanche Lajunie feels her best years are behind her, approaching middle age she obliged to earn her living teaching the spoiled teenage daughter of relatives – among other pupils. On the morning the story takes place, she visits her doctor, before returning home where she gives lessons. Blanche understands how she is viewed by her pupil. While her pupil can only think about the handsome boy across the street, Blanche wishes only to share the story of her one great romance, when she was a young girl. Blanche Lajunie is a beautifully drawn character, Némirovsky shows us the sad quality of her life, the frustration of her position, equally well drawn is Colette her pupil.
“The indifferent crowd pushed her on. It was noon. All the shops and offices were closing their doors. Everyone was rushing. No one even glanced at her. No one would recognise this supreme effort of the propriety and dignity she was imposing on herself… But she would not give up. She would walk home. At the moment of her death she would be able to think in all honesty, ‘I was my own mistress until the very last day.’”
In a rather different little story, Magic tells the story of a man who whilst in Finland as a young man, joined in a group entertainment of ‘table-turning.’ The memory of the resulting magic stays with him for many years. It is a story which considers the question of destiny.
In The Fire Madame Georges and her husband pride themselves on their ability to haggle over the estates they wish to purchase. Their latest acquisition comes with a sitting tenant – who Madame Georges can’t get out of her head.
The Spell takes us to a Ukrainian town in the memory of a woman looking back to her childhood, and the visits she made to the family of her childhood friend Nina. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric tale of friendship, fortune telling and romance.
“On stormy days rainwater was collected in tubs, and all the women of the house washed their hair outdoors and then dried it in the sun; this is how I saw Klavdia Alexandrovna’s hair. It was a cloak of gold. I remained motionless, gazing in admiration at it. Her hair fell to her knees, its radiant colour shimmering in the light. Sofia Andreïevna was there too, half stretched out on a straw lounger. She was wearing a lilac dressing gown, open slightly on her heavy white chest. She caught me looking and started laughing. Her chin quivered slightly when she laughed and she had a kindly, gentle, wise expression.”
The final story, Nativity concerns two sisters, one the youngest is about to be married, her elder sister about to give birth. Yvonne is blissfully content, her trousseau, the wedding gifts a fond fiancée – Brigitte, has reason to be less happy. Her marriage has been soured by her husband’s debts, infidelities and several pregnancies. Yvonne is shocked when her sister goes into labour – terrified by the sounds from the room next door.
In Confidence was a really excellent collection, Némirovsky’s writing is really very good, clear, insightful with sublime characterisation. I love her writing, and I am (again) determined to read more of her work soon.