Top positive review
Poignant, insightful writing that puts others in the shade
on 10 April 2017
After years of wandering in exotic places, dissipating his inheritance on unsuccessful schemes which leave him unable to repay debts to his kindly relatives Hélène and François, and forced to sell land to the miserly old Duclos who has married the young, penniless possible gold-digger Brigitte, Silvio has returned to his home village of Issy-L'Évêque in Burgundy, where the author herself once lived briefly in the 1930s.
Observing the world with a shrewd and cynical detachment, Silvio suspects that Colette, the vivacious young daughter of Helene and François may regret her marriage to Jean, the sensitive young miller. When Jean is found drowned after an inexplicable accident, a chain of events is set in motion, revealing the passions which lie beneath the surface of a closed, conservative community whose members maintain a rock-like solidarity to suppress any whiff of scandal: keeping up appearances, guarding one’s privacy and leading a quiet life are more powerful driving forces than admitting the truth and ensuring that justice is done.
This short novel hooked me from the first page. It is a psychological drama written with great clarity, which I believe has been retained in the English version. Irene Némirovsky is remarkable both for her insight into human nature and her acute sense of culture and place. Without having experienced life in a French village, one is convinced of the truth of her perceptions, as when Silvio describes how the bourgeoisie, from which he comes do not stand out from the ordinary people in their attitudes, working their land and not giving a fig about anyone else. Living behind their triple-locked doors, their drawing rooms may be stuffed with furniture, but they live in the kitchen to save on fuel. In another evocative scene, Silvio captures the beauty of nightfall – the subtle change and reduction in colours, “ne laissant qu’une nuance intermédiaire entre le gris de perle et le gris de fer”. But all the outlines are perfectly sharp: the cherry trees, the little low wall, the forest and the cat’s head as it plays between his feet and bites his shoe.
Laden with nostalgia, the story contrasts mature, companionable love with “the fire in the blood” of youthful passion, posing the question as to which of these states is more “real”, and necessary for us to have lived to the full. How often does love make us lie to each other, and delude ourselves? When reminded in old age of past passions, how can we deal with feelings of regret and jealousy.
It was neither the somewhat stereotyped characters nor some contrived incidents that disappointed me initially, but rather the abrupt and unexpected ending. However, since the novel was not discovered until 2007, decades after the author’s tragic death in Auschwitz which denied her the opportunity to edit and complete it, we should be thankful that it survived at all and be impressed that what is probably a “first draft” should be so well-written and tightly structured, and have the power to absorb and move us so strongly. Also, the ambiguity of the last sentence leaves us free to speculate on the final outcome, on what the author intended to write next and adds to the sense that we may never fully know and understand each other in our complex and fluid emotions.