I bought Irène Némirovsky’s Dimanche and Other Stories halfway through my read of Suite Française — which, now that I’ve stepped back from it, is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I just wanted to see how she wrote her short fiction. [Also, I reasoned then that 600 bucks for ten stories wasn’t a bad deal, haha.] Basically, I just wanted to read as much of her as I can.
The stories in the collection display the same depth of character in that awesome novel — people caught in the war, people caught in their own lives despite of the war: socialites, politicians, children, farmers, artists. And Némirovsky once again displays how she can be both ruthless and lovely with her characters, her stories.
“I’m in agony. I’m unhappy.” Oh, what fine new words these were: love, unhappiness, desire, She rolled them silently on her lips.
In the stories “Brotherhood,” “The Spectator” and “Mister Rose,” we’ve got entitled characters, those who feel themselves untouchable by the war. And in the bottom line, really, is how inconsequential we all are in the face of this disaster [at the hands of much powerful men, when ye think about it]. It’s in “Brotherhood,” that I get a taste of that buzz going around about the author’s treatment of her Jewish characters. Here, we’ve got two very different men at a train station, bearing the same name. Ah, the contempt of one Jew over the other — the outrage, the insistence that they are not the same. [Not too subtle there, Miss Némirovsky.]
Many of the stories are studies in contrast — and almost, always, the realization of a similarity that chills the characters, but leaves the reader going, Yes, ma’am, sure, of course. In “Dimanche,” one of the most basic studies: a mother and a daughter. Classic juxtaposition, and constantly so, within the story. Again, quite unsubtle — it’s almost quaint.
Ah, that’s a feeling I’d have a hard time shaking off — it’s disconcerting to think of Némirovsky quaint, for goodness’ sake — so my main beef with this one is the tone: I had to constantly adjust to that which I saw as quaintness for the stories to succeed. And, well, once I did, it worked well enough. I was able to enjoy the stories, although with a different mindset / mood. But that ensured that the experience wouldn’t be as sublime as her Suite Française.
In the story “Mister Rose,” that entitled character, check, looking with disdain over everything around him, because he’s ready for this war, he’s rich, isn’t he? And of course he meets someone at the opposite end of the spectrum. However, there’s a moralistic angle to it all, especially the ending. And I was not too happy with that.
As I mentioned, once I was able to reconcile with this change of tone, I was able to enjoy the stories — for they are ruthless and they are lovely. One of my favorites was “Don Juan’s Wife,” told in the form of letters a former chambermaid sends the then-young daughter of the house. The change in structure served the author well: No more quaintness. Revelations, the retelling of the scandal — but, more so, the secret stories behind the scandal that rocked the family. It was awesome.
She was crying and, oh, Mademoiselle, she was scared of making any noise She was holding back her tears with all her might, but a child can’t cry silently. You learn how to do that later.
Quaintness aside, there is one unforgivable, however. Whereas I found the language in Suite Française “dense and lush. Unafraid of images, of utterance,” the stories here Dimanche fell short of my expectations. The language is not as lyrical. The collection has a different translator, Bridget Patterson, and, as usual with translated works, I don’t know where I can pin this lacking on. I mean, I found the prose occasionally graceless:
It is the element of mystery in childhood memories that gives them their power. The people and events of the past seem to have been diguised; you thought you knew what was happening but, years later, you realize your mistake. What seemed simple was in fact masked by secrets and shadows: what intrigued you then what just an every day matter of inheritance and adultery. A child’s ignorance creates a world that is only half understood and party;y concealed. Perhaps that is the reason wit remains so vivid in the memory.
Uneven, uneven. That could have been said better. That could have made me breathless. There was just something missing, some clumsy feel to it all and I don’t know where I can attribute it to.
I guess that’s the thing with the entire collection: I think I like it, but I was a teensy bit disappointed by the feel of most of the stories. The tone. That country charm, despite the author’s ruthless insight into character. Again, that’s forgivable. What I couldn’t get over was the prose. Dayum.
That said, I still want to read as much of her as I can. Sigh.
- Some time this week, I might just put up a post about one story, “Flesh and Blood” — it’s rich, detailed, complex, spanning years and lives. And, it’s sixty pages. I will dork out at a later time.
- I scouted the nearest Fully Booked for more Némirovsky — since I got my first two at that branch — and yay, there are at least four. Four! Gahd, I need money now.