Book Review of Everyman Library: Irene Nemirovsky
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 5/26/08
Generally I find it a good rule of thumb that if one is searching for book reviews regarding a literary “classic” writer or even a “rediscovered classic” writer like Irene Nemirovsky, one can pretty much forget finding any reasonable criticism. Why? Because people have it so ingrained into their heads that if a writer lived a long time ago and has maintained his or her name in print, then the public just assumes that writer is great. Not all, mind you, but many of the reviews on Amazon, for example, will even rave about an incomprehensible mess like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake simply because Joyce wrote it. If I had written it for example, one would expect to see very different responses.
I begin this review addressing all this because it irks me how literary agents and publishers continually talk about the need to “fall in love” with a particular work, yet I know that if any great classic book were put in front of them (take your pick—The Trial, The Grapes of Wrath, Steppenwolf) one could pretty much expect lackluster responses since agents 1) don’t read and 2) can’t rely on their own objective ability, hence having to “fall in love” with it. Reading Irene Nemirovsky is sort of a frustrating experience because she receives such rave reviews and yet her work is at its best, good solid. Basically, she does have talent, and she is capable of writing well at times, but is she great? Not really. Just look at what O Magazine said: “Nemirovsky’s scope is like that of Tolstoy: she sees the fullness of humanity and its tenuous arrangements and manages to put them together with a tone that is affectionate, patient, and relentlessly honest.” This is merely clichéd blubury and tells you nothing about what her writing is really like. Affectionate? Patient? Honest? Huh?
Other than their Russian names, that is where Nemirovsky and Tolstoy’s similarity ends. This book is actually a collection of four different books, David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, and The Courilof Affair. And in reading this collection, everyone seems to think Suite Francaise is her masterpiece, when that was an unfinished work and it shows. This book actually contains her best works that I’ve read thus far, and overall she has some interesting ideas yet the tropes come across as old-fashioned much of the time. Yes, she was writing this back in the 1920s and 30s but so did Steinbeck and Hesse, and somehow they managed to avoid this. How? They were better writers. Nemirovsky’s works come across as more 19th Century (perhaps maybe that’s another reason she’s been compared to Tolstoy?) and her tales are not particularly strong on character development. In David Golder, for example, the character is pretty much a clichéd “stingy Jew” and from what I read, caused her some criticism since Nemirovsky herself was Jewish and died at the hands of the Nazis. The middle tales, The Ball and Snow in Autumn, also have this 19th Century feel to them with Snow in Autumn bearing strong resemblance to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
Other times, either due to Nemirovsky’s choice of words, or Sandra Smith’s translation, her descriptions fall into cliché: “He was shivering; an insidious, icy chill seemed to pierce him, right down to his bones.” Later on she describes a small electric bulb that was flickering “like a candle in the wind.” Not only does such language bore the reader, it is likely to put one to sleep. Throughout the text there are many incidents of such poorly described sentences as the one above, that were this really a “great writer” or a “literary heavyweight” as critics have said, certainly Nemirovsky would have known to avoid such triteness. So comparing her writing to Tolstoy is not particularly apt since Tolstoy didn’t write with such obvious melodrama, at least in the translations of his that I’ve read. I note this because it is always difficult to judge a translated work fully since one can’t be sure if the poor wording is due to poor translation or just poor writing.
Yet having said all that, this is why I say Nemirovsky is more frustrating to read than anything because she has some good setups and then as the narrative plods on, we’re given more and more melodrama. She begins David Golder very interestingly, in that the first word of the novel is “No,” said by Golder himself when someone is asking him to borrow money. And then from there, he’s a bitter, lonely, unlikable man who exudes every stereotype. One can see how portraying a Jewish character in such an unsympathetic light allowed Nemirovsky to get the book published in the time she did, yet reading it now, such lack of sympathy does not help the work artistically.
So my conclusion is that Nemirovsky has somewhat a limited range, and suffers from moments of cliché. And were it not for her tragic death, I don’t believe for a second that she’d be getting the positive attention she’s been getting, because quite simply, while the books have interesting moments, they ultimately just sort of lay there, and seem a bit derivative.
But if you are interested in reading her, despite my criticisms, I do suggest this collection over any other of her books, simply because it contains 1) finished works (unlike Suite Francaise, which is unfinished) and 2) there are four works to choose from. Add on the fact that Knopf is selling the book for $25—new hardcopy—not a bad price for four novels.
There. My advertising is done.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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