'The Wine of Solitude', which was first published in 1936, is considered to be Irene Némirovsky's most autobiographical novel and is a poignant story of a young girl's difficult relationship with her beautiful, but vain and shallow mother. The novel is set during the period of the Great War and the Russian Revolution and is wonderfully atmospheric.
The story begins a few years before the Great War, in Kiev, where a young Helene Karol lives with her parents and grandparents. Helene is devoted to her Jewish father, Boris, but has a volatile and difficult relationship with Bella, her mother. Bella married Boris to improve her financial situation and Helene feels a great resentment towards her mother who continually quarrels with her husband and is often unfaithful to him. As Helene is neglected by her mother, she builds a close and loving relationship with her governess and, as time passes, she comes to regard Bella with increasing dislike - "She nurtured in her heart a strange hatred of her that seemed to increase as she grew older...". Helene's dislike for her mother increases further when Bella starts a love affair with Max who is fifteen years her junior. Boris turns a blind eye to the affair and concentrates on his business, but his obsession with improving the company's profits means he has very little time for Helene, and this coupled with Bella's indifference towards her daughter, only increases Helene's isolation and resentment as she grows up.
However, there are more important issues at hand, when the October Revolution starts the family flee to Finland and then to France where Helene, now a young woman, begins to think of her romantic future. She starts a dalliance with a married man, but later turns her attention to Bella's lover, Max, in order to punish her mother whose looks are now fading. Helene, after years of feeling neglected, now realizes that her youth and strength give her "....an intoxicating power" and it is a power that she wants to use. However, as Helene becomes more perceptive at observing life going on around her, she realizes that certain traits which exist within her mother also exist within herself, and that she must not let her dislike of Bella lead her into a life that is a shallow copy of her mother's.
This is a beautifully written novel where Némirovsky wonderfully depicts a tumultuous period in history and her work has been thoughtfully and sensitively translated by Sandra Smith. It is true that one could take a moralistic tone with characters in this novel and say that few of them behave really well or deserve our sympathy, but this was a time in history when everything was played out in a turbulent world arena, where nothing remained stable and where lives were cast adrift by the catastrophic events of war and displacement. And Némirovsky captures that time perfectly.
on 3 November 2011
We first meet Hélène when she is eight years old, a lonely child, born in Kiev in pre-Communist Russia. She adores her father, who, although affectionate towards her, has eyes only for her shallow, self-centred mother and devotes little time to his daughter. So preoccupied is he with business ventures and with gambling, that he leaves Hélène outside the casino in Monte Carlo, emerging hours later surprised to find her waiting and too absorbed in his own affairs to realise that she must be starving hungry.
Her mother is vain, shallow, and dissatisfied with life as a wife and mother in Russia. Easily bored, she peruses the latest fashion magazines from Paris and dreams of the excitement, danger, and the lovers she would take if only she could live in Paris. Hélène detests her mother, with her marble skin and claw-like nails, so it is not surprising that she relies on her French governess, Mademoiselle Rose, for the love and companionship her family fails to provide.
As the years pass and she grows up, she is able to observe her mother's behaviour from a dispassionate distance. She notes the sagging flesh, the lines and wrinkles, and relishes the realisation that she can at last effect revenge and make her mother suffer as she herself has suffered.
Beautifully translated, the book is almost worth reading for the descriptions alone. You feel as if you know Kiev, even if you've never been to Russia, and St Petersburg, where `soft, damp snow falls from a yellowish sky and is whipped away by a furious wind', and the `sickly odour of filthy water' rises from the Neva.... `A thick fog wafted through the air like smoke. Hélène hated this strange city before she even arrived; now that she saw it, her heart ached as if something terrible was about to happen....' After the family flees St Petersburg during the October Revolution, you see the snowy wastes of Finland and experience the exhilaration of hurtling down a slope of pristine snow on a toboggan, laughing, young again, and, for a short time, free of care. And so at last to Paris. I think to reveal more would spoil it for those who haven't read it.
In many ways The Wine of Solitude is more absorbing and accessible than Suite Française so if you haven't read either I'd recommend starting with this one. Do try it, and I hope you'll love it as I did!
Our Book Club Choice April 2013
I feel in awe of by these double figure novels, written in perhaps ten years before such a wicked wasteful end. Prolific, driven, focused; Irene Nemirovsky worked away at her craft until she literally ran out of ink, spending her last days in Auschwitz, dying there in 1942, all the while her husband obsessively writing to the authorities pleading for her release. This drawing of attention to himself ensured that he too was captured and killed in Auschwitz soon after his wife. Now translated into 38 different languages, she clearly has universal appeal. Seeing `The Estate of Irene Nemirovsky' written at the beginning makes her fate all the more poignant and somehow brings her back to life.
Her daughters' more recent discovery of `Suite Francaise' six years ago, allowed us all a chance to read that great and memorable novel. Perhaps `The Wine of Solitude', first published in 1935, has been considered to be semi- autobiographical, and it all rings true. Sensitively translated again by Sandra Smith, in 2011, a supremely skilled interpreter of the Ukrainian Jewish French speaking but Slavic born Irene Nemirovsky. There is no sign of a language barrier; all is elegantly smooth and flowing. I enjoyed listening to Sandra Smith talking about Irene on you tube.
This book really richly rewards re reading. On the first pass you may be just sticking to sorting out the shape of the story, then secondly truly savouring the superb descriptive passages.
Hidden, well-placed clues also will emerge from the text. For example, the first time Max is mentioned, as a boy visiting with his mother Lydia Safronov. Another is the side story of French Mademoiselle Rose, Helene/ Lili's companion, nurse, nanny, and governess. She dares to say that she thinks sometimes Lili has a demon in her. This demon is shown to grow inside its host, a succubus, and an evil twin. Mademoiselle Rose, a humble, patient creature, brought up herself in an Ursuline Convent, whom Helene praises as being `the only pure, peaceful woman she had ever known', understands her charge too well. She even chooses her time to leave. I loved `The servant brought in a lamp, and with the doors and windows shut, a sweet safe little universe once more encircled the child and her governess, a world that was like a seashell, and just as fragile'....
The opening domestic scenes are as if we are looking into a doll's house with the old fashioned stiff little family carefully placed around the living room. I was touched by the grandmother, who is not a major part, `She was only fifty but she looked so old and weary'. She was the ultimate self-sacrificer. She put herself at the back of the queue and cried all the time, just longing to be of use. As to the old gentleman grandfather who spent 'all morning' polishing his fingernails, well, that is an image I'd rather not have in my head!
Escaping from Kiev in Imperial Russia, St. Petersburg, to Finland then Paris, the family all but break up, leaving Helene and her hated amoral mother Bella rubbing along together awkwardly. Irene Nemirovsky is renowned for her portrayal of monstrous mothers. Themes of fortunes won and lost, banking collapses, also arise as well as the dispersal of ancient family possessions - jewellery bartered for loaves of bread in terrible times. For a while the family are the recipients of such valuable debris, greedily filling their home with stuff, often not even unpacked, gathered wildly from ruined neighbours.
Perhaps the kernel of the story is the attitude of adults towards children at that time. The dog died but euphemisms are employed leaving Helene confused and waiting for its return. Our twenty first century way of parenting is so very different and this is something worth discussing. Bella wasn't prepared to submit to being a good mother. She maintained her sense of self and confidence in her entitlement to whatever she wants. She had, for her punishment, an ungrateful child.
Boris Karol, referred to as Karol, initially managed a factory although Bella announced that he `owned' the business. He then made and lost large amounts of money gambling, often really successfully. Helene felt she was like him rather than her mother; she yearned for him when he was away but gets very little attention from him in his presence. Why he always rolled over is a small mystery, he found it easier to give in - `They would shout and then they would stop'. His weakness was recognised by his first employer as a danger even before he done anything fraudulent or disloyal.
Helene wants a life that didn't seem possible - `Oh how I long to be French!' (A country which disappointingly would eventually betray her creator - thereby sentencing her to death). She uses writing as a means to escape but her early thoughts on paper are discovered, causing a desperately distressing response from her family. `Sometimes this child seems like an idiot. You'd think she landed on earth from the moon!'
At fourteen years old Helen falls hopelessly for a married man, Fred, a family from within her Finnish social circle. The awakening of her young spirit to passion is exquisitely written. A feeling of power begins to spark into her heart. Helene uses her experiences to seduce Max in the duel that takes up so much of the last part of the book. A coming of age novel in its truest form.
I wonder if anybody out there knows where the quotation - `le vin de solitude' comes from? It sounds like a classical allusion.
If Irene Nemirovsky survived surely we would have had one of the most intricate, useful and eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. Being a stateless Jew, denied French nationality she went first, with no possible pardon.
on 27 December 2011
Having read all her other novels, translated so very well from the original French by Sandra Smith, I was very pleased to have this latest offering. It is a novel that explores a girl/young woman's relationship with her mother and to a lesser extent with her father. It exudes atmosphere and is considered to be a reflection of Nemirovsky's relationship with her own mother-according to the biography of Nemirovsky by Philipponnat and Lienhardt. Incidentally, this is available in English and well worth reading. 'The Wine of Solitude' is a must read for those who admire Nemirovsky's work.
on 10 September 2012
The novel begins in a shabby apartment in a provincial town in the Ukraine ...'The silence of this sleepy provincial town, lost deep within Russia, was intense, heavy and overwhelmingly sad.' Eight-year-old Hélène sits at the dinner table with her mother, father, grandparents and French governess, Mademoiselle Rose. Devoid of affection from her mother, indifferent to the affections of her grandparents, Hélène has only eyes for her beloved Papa, who rarely makes the time to notice her, and her practical and caring Mademoiselle Rose. In this environment young Hélène's distance from her mother begins its descent to hatred, fuelled by her mother's love affairs, her treatment of her papa, her coldness towards her daughter and treatment of Mlle Rose.
As the family's fortunes change, Boris moves them first to St. Petersburg, leaving Hélène's grandparents behind and taking with them Hélène's cousin and Bella's lover, Max; subsequently, the Russian Revolution leads Boris and Bella to hide money and share certificates in every available piece of furniture, stuffing notes into sofas for safekeeping. Hélène sadly watches the Revolution go on around them from her privileged position, despondent at her parents ignorance of the hardships surrounding them. The Revolution then leads them to flee first to the Finnish borders, and then to Helsinki; later, after the War's end, to Paris. Hélène's teenage years are spent mostly in isolation, against this backdrop of war and upheaval, changing fortunes, lies and deceit. She grows up devoid of affection, falls into an innocent, brief affair with a married man and hatches a plot to wreak revenge on her mother. In all, we see her emerge into a hard and bitter young woman; her redeeming features being her determination to turn out differently and not succumb to the same path as her mother. It's not difficult to empathise with this bitter, young Hélène as what else has she known?
A number of Irène Némirovsky's novels carry this theme of mother-daughter estrangement and the rebellious daughter, and 'The Wine of Solitude' is believed to be the most autobiographical of these - the fleeing from the Russian Empire, the year spent in Finland, before settling in Paris. The denouement of the novel is perhaps more final than Irène's gradual estrangement from her mother (reference. Jonathan Weiss, 'Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works'). It leaves the reader to wonder if this is the dramatic exit from her mother's life that Irene wishes she had taken.
It's a very well-executed novel, short on words but not lacking in description; fluidly written, evocative and shocking and undeniably, a powerful coming-of-age story.
This precisely observed novel is so obviously semi-autobiographical (down to her heroine's date of birth) that one wonders how Nemirovsky managed to write such a measured and engrossing book.
I am baffled by so many one/two star ratings for such a superb piece of sustained writing. In this novel she reminds me of both Chekhov and, less blatantly, Colette. There are hints of the melancholy and cynicism of Turgenev at times too.
It's the story of Helene Karol, a Jewish girl from Kiev, whose father is a complacent, feckless cuckold, and whose mother is a petulant, skittish adulteress. We watch - spellbound, in my case - as she grows from a recalcitrant, troubled child into a vengeful, unhappy young woman, who longs for love, as well as recognition of her existence, but who longs more for the attention of her parents, in particular her beloved father. She comes to loathe her neglectful mother, the theme upon which much of the story hangs.
We are taken from Kiev to St Petersburg, Finland and Paris, taking in the periods of the First World War and the Russian Revolution (both of which happen mainly offstage, so to speak) and the book is in four sections, in each of which Helene has grown a little older and - perhaps - wiser.
There are passages which I found breathtaking, both for their perceptiveness and their startling truth. For example, on p.104/104 she tells us of Helene's first attempts at writing (what she's writing is another matter) and is able, in a very few sentences, to describe exactly what it feels like when writing - or indeed almost any artistic endeavour - is 'going well'. Here is an excerpt:
[...] she continued writing, barely pressing down on the pencil, but with a strange rapidity and dexterity she had never experienced before, an agility of thought that made her aware of what she was writing and what was taking shape in her mind simultaneously, so they suddenly coincided.
Rarely has the creative process been so simply yet effectively described, or even attempted. There are many such arresting passages in this great little novel.
Helene is not meant to be an especially sympathetic character, but we root for her, in her increasing solitude, just the same. What chance of a 'normal' healthy life has she been given? So she must create her own life, as it were. How she does so is brilliantly portrayed in this wonderful novel by the recently re-discovered Irene Nemirovsky.
Praise be that we now have so many of her books to read and marvel at. Sandra Smith's seamless, elegant translation is a marvel in itself.
Only one star? Ridiculous!
Nemirovsky's most autobiographical work, starting with the central character - Helene - as a child. Her father loves her but is far more interested in gambling, while her mother (for whom Helene is growing to increasingly hate) is preoccupied with her younger lover.
As World War I and the Russian Revolution go on around them, the family are forced to relocate to St Petersburg and then Finland and France (just like the Nemirovskys actually did.)
There are wonderful descriptive passages, notably of her few happy times in Finland. But life is harsh, and as Helene grows up she starts to contemplate revenge on her mother...
I quite enjoyed this but it's not in the same league as the superlative 'Suite Francaise'.
on 9 January 2014
I loved this book, I purchased it after reading 'Suite Francaise', Her books are amazingly perceptive and I wonder how much she writes from her own experience. She is a great writer whose own tragic story I have still to read. Her murder at the hands of the concentration camp has robbed us of a classic writer. The book has, of course, been translated from the original in French but I am sure that she would have approved.
on 15 October 2015
I enjoy anything about France and the war
on 20 February 2015
This book is up there with the best.