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Book Review

More stories from Némirovsky

'Dimanche and Other Stories' is the latest addition to Irène Némirovsky's posthumous bookshelf. "Dimanche and Other Stories" is the latest addition to Irène Némirovsky's posthumous bookshelf. (Courtesy of Irène Némirovsky Archive/ IMEC)
By Heller McAlpin
May 15, 2010

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Sixty-two years after she died at Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39, the Russian-born, French writer Irène Némirovsky became a literary sensation with the publication of “Suite Française,’’ her long-lost, incomplete novel about France under siege. After its success, a lesser unpublished novel, “Fire in the Blood,’’ also written while she was in exile in the German-occupied Burgundy village of Issy-l’Eveque, followed in 2007. Several of her early bestsellers, including “David Golder’’ (1929), were reissued both in France and abroad.

“Dimanche and Other Stories’’ is the latest addition to Némirovsky’s posthumous bookshelf. Written in the 1930s, these 10 short stories, translated into English for the first time, range from Balzacian portraits of French families and unhappy marriages to moral tales about ethical flaccidity, greed, and Parisians in flight from the German occupation. They provide an excellent introduction to Némirovsky’s work.

For Némirovsky, no sentimentalist, the ties that bind are as likely to be fiscal as amatory. “Those Happy Shores’’ picks up her recurrent theme of female emotional dependence on inconstant men. More than beauty, a significant dowry spells the difference between landing on “those happy shores, never buffeted by storms, where only a light, perfumed breeze would blow,’’ and bobbing like “an old boat being tossed on the waves.’’

The title story, “Dimanche,’’ set in a bourgeois Parisian household on a spring Sunday in 1934, portrays a family in which the older daughter, at 20, is already, unwittingly, headed toward a life of bitter disappointment mirroring that of her cast-aside mother.

Némirovsky’s stories, like her novels, show influences of Balzac, Flaubert, and, to a lesser extent, Tolstoy. Her prose, with florid descriptions of the Seine, which “twined itself around Paris like a woman putting her arms around her lover — a very young woman, affectionate and blushing,’’ and characters’ thoughts spelled out blatantly, seems at times stylistically old-fashioned. But there’s nothing quaint about her sharp social observations and reportage on France under siege.

In both her stories and novels, Némirovsky skewers the arrogance of the rich. Hitler’s approach upsets even comfortable lives, teaching hard lessons about humanity and humility. In “Mr. Rose,’’ a rare act of altruism on the chaotic flight from Paris saves a snobbish collector. The bon vivant in “The Spectator’’ at first believes that Europe’s plight is not his concern: “He was a civilized man! He had nothing to do with their war!’’ When the supposedly neutral ship on which he flees France is torpedoed, he quickly learns that there’s no such thing as neutrality in such a conflict.

Némirovsky, who never practiced Judaism and converted to Catholicism in 1939, wrote surprisingly little about her ancestral religion in her late novels. The story “Brotherhood’’ is a remarkable exception, a stark exploration of Jewish identity. When a rich, assimilated Frenchman of Jewish heritage is approached by a downtrodden old Jew at a train station, he is surprised to learn that they share a last name. The none-too-subtly named Christian Rabinovitch wonders, “What did he have in common with this poor Jew?’’ He thinks, “My nose, my mouth, the only specifically Jewish traits I’ve kept.’’

The clincher comes in describing her haughty, anti-Semitic character pondering this question. Némirovsky who has been accused of anti-Semitism herself and was murdered because she was classified as Jewish despite her lack of religious affiliation writes slyly, “his body found itself repeating the rocking movement that had soothed earlier generations of rabbis bent over the holy book, money changers over their gold coins, and tailors over their workbenches.’’

Heller McAlpin is a freelance critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.

DIMANCHE AND OTHER STORIES
Irène Némirovsky
Translated, from the French, by Bridget Patterson
Vintage, 304 pp., paperback, $15