Hélène Karol’s childhood home in Kiev was beautiful in all the ways that don’t matter. Her mother, Bella, who came from and old wealthy family that was coming down in the world, married Hélène’s father for his wealth, but the fact that he was a Jew meant she got money but lost status. She also didn’t get love, so she sought it elsewhere, most notably from her lover Max, who follows the family from St. Petersburg to Finland to Paris. Hélène sought love from her father, but he preferred gambling to loving.
Irène Némirovsky’s 1935 novel, newly translated into English by Sandra Smith, shows how the observant young Hélène grows from a longing child to an angry young woman. Her inner tumult is echoed by the war and revolutions that reverberate in the background of the novel. Despite her material comforts, Hélène’s childhood is bleak, her governess and her books the only reliably bright spots:
She loved studying and books, the way other people love wine for its power to make you forget. What else did she have? She lived in a deserted, silent house. The sound of her own footsteps in the empty rooms, the silence of the cold streets beyond the closed windows, the rain and the snow, the early darkness, the green lamp beside her that burned throughout the long evenings and which she watched for hours on end until its light began to waver before her weary eyes: this was the setting for her life. Her father was almost never there; her mother came home in the evening and locked herself in the sitting room with Max; Bella had no women friends: in wartime, people had other things to worry about than the happiness of children…
When the revolution forces the family to flee Russia, Hélène experiences a personal revolution, discovering her own power over men, and thus her power over her mother. But this power is not without a dark side. Hélène risks her own heart, for one thing. Insofar as flirtation is a game of one upmanship, there’s always a risk of being outdone by your partner, and Hélène, as clever as she is, doesn’t play the game perfectly. Plus, when she does win, she’s left holding with a heart she stole because she wanted to steal, not because she wanted the heart.
I’ve noticed before that there are books that provide a window into a world and books that provide a doorway. Although I made this observation in relation to fantasy novels, I think it can also apply to realistic fiction as well. Some books draw you inside their world, making you not just see the sights, as you would through a window, but also hear the sounds, smell the fragrances, taste the flavors, and feel the sensations—physical and emotional. Némirovsky is a doorway writer. When she describes Hélène’s exhilarating day of sledding with a paramour, I shivered with the cold. And when Hélène imagines the glass of cold milk she plans to drink after a long run, I could feel the cool, white wetness sliding down my throat.
Némirovsky is just as precise and clear when describing her characters’ feelings. It helps that Hélène lives in her head so much and is always thinking about the reasons for her actions. And it’s pleasing to watch her thinking grow. She matures in fits and starts, noting late in the novel that “I’m shriveled on one side and green on the other, like fruit that’s been exposed to the cold and the wind.” She’s half-child, half-women, and as such, how can she make her way in the world? Yet perhaps we’re all a little bit child, and a little bit grown-up.
I admired Némirovsky’s Suite Française more than I enjoyed it. I listened to it on audio, with a long break in the middle (a break that didn’t fall between sections of the book), so the already fragmented narrative felt even more broken up. But I liked the writing enough that I knew I had to try again. I’m glad that I opened the door and stepped into this different corner of Némirovsky’s world.