Here’s a nasty little literary game: Scan this brief passage, the first lines of a short story written by a European author in the years between 1934 and 1942, and set in that same time period, and then try to imagine how the story ends. It won’t be a difficult challenge:
They had eaten well. The creaminess of the quenelles brought out the deep, dark flavor of the truffles: not too overpowering, but mingling with the tender flesh of the fish and the delicate white sauce, just as the deep notes of the cello had harmonized with the sound of the piano in the delightful concerto he had heard yesterday. If one used one’s imagination and experience it was possible, thought Hugo Grayer, to extract the maximum pleasure from life, and innocent enjoyment.
As I said, it won’t be difficult – the “tender flesh” of the fish is a dead giveaway. A few weeks after this evening of “innocent enjoyment”, Hugo Grayer is gazing not at a cellist or pianist, but at “... a woman who had been cut in half. Her head with its dark hair, her ears with their silver earrings, and her torso were intact, but her legs had been blown off.” Grayer encounters this horror on a supposedly neutral ship that has been torpedoed, forcing him into the sea where soon enough he will starve to death or drown.
This story, “Le Spectateur” (“The Spectator”) like the others in this posthumous collection by Iréne Némirovsky, Dimanche and Other Stories, is predictable and excessively ironic. Certainly that’s one of the shortcomings of Némirovsky, who achieved renown long after her death when her volume of two lacerating satirical novellas, Suite Francaise, became an international bestseller in 2004.
This is not an entirely damning indictment, however; for her favorite subjects –- the comfortable, smug and soft-handed bourgeoisie of France in the war’s early days and during the Nazi Occupation -– were by some historical accounts more predictably craven than could believably be portrayed in mere fiction. It’s also worth noting that the persistent cynicism of Némirovsky, a fairly well-known author who resided in France and was a convert to Catholicism, was “vindicated” in a ghastly way –- like one of her own characters, she died violently at the hands of the Nazis. In her case, though, it was in a way she couldn’t quite conceive of when alive and writing – she was gassed to death at age 39.
Here and in the more-accomplished Suite Francaise, as she observes the scurryings of the moneyed and the middle-class just ahead of the Nazis’ advance, Némirovsky resembles an especially sensitive entomologist, dryly noting the petty hypocrisies, evasions, and rationalizations of those about to be swept before the flood. Sometimes she, or one of her characters, comments on the reprehensible behavior on display (though reprehensibility of a relatively minor variety, it should be said, because she focuses not on the Nazis but on their victims and on the Nazis’ small-time collaborators, sometimes one and the same.) For the most part, though, she abjures commentary and merely observes the way that human beings go about their petty and ever-disappointing daily business. Thus, her writing is especially cruel.
There are three kinds of irony in Dimanche. In some of these stories, translated from the French by Bridget Patterson, the protagonists know that they are about to die, and cast about frantically for their humanity as if it were some sort of infallible inflatable vest before going under for the third and final time. In others, as in Le Spectateur, the protagonist holds on grimly, to the end, to nothing more or less than his own quivering, selfish skin:
Enough! He’d had enough! It was time for these horrible waves to stop! It was time for some warmth! Time to stop seeing those little girls’ faces in front of him, as pale and lifeless as dead fish! How tolerable misfortunes appear when they affect only other people! How strong the human body seems when it’s another man’s flesh that bleeds! How easy it is to look death in the face when it’s another man’s turn! Well, now it was his turn. This was no longer about a Chinese child, a Spanish woman, a Central European Jew, or those poor charming Frenchmen, but about him, Hugo Grayer. It was about his body being tossed about in the spume of the waves, his vomiting; it was about his frozen, lonely, wretched, shivering self!”
The third form of story in this collection references the war glancingly, if at all. These stories are the most satisfying and, in truth, this is because they provide a respite from the heavy inevitability otherwise on display. The title story is about the rivalry and mutual incomprehension between a mother and her beautiful daughter, both of whom have been left bereft by inconstant men—the mother permanently, the daughter temporarily.
The daughter, like just about everyone else in these stories, is self-centered:
It was impossible to detect a single word or a single idea in anything she thought or said that did not relate to herself, her clothes, her friends, the ladders in her stockings, her pocket money, her own pleasure. She was…triumphant. Her skin had the pale, velvety brightness of jasmine and of camellias, and you could see the blood beating just beneath the surface: it rose girlishly in her cheeks, swelling her lips so that it looked as though a pink, heady wine was about to gush from them.
Her mother attempts “not to be wounded by her daughter’s almost overwhelming beauty,” and indeed is tolerant of her daughter’s condescension to her. After telling a petty lie that her mother believes, or chooses to believe, the daughter thinks, “will I be as… gullible, when I’m her age? And as placid? Lucky Mother… it must be wonderful to be so naïve and to have such an untroubled heart.” The daughter, of course, is the innocent one, and the mother, in a way, the lucky one, because at least she has been able to live a full life, whereas the reader is all too aware of the terrible future perhaps awaiting the daughter with her “blood beating just beneath the surface.”
Dimanche, and a couple of other stories in this collection, are as subtle and as piercing as anything by Katherine Mansfield or Elizabeth Bowen. One of them, Le Sortilége, about how children misunderstand the motives of adults, is a tender little sidewise fable that seems to comment on the more fraught misunderstandings of adults she considers elsewhere. However, Némirovsky, who might have gone on to expand her range of subjects had she lived, was a fairly complicated case; she was a convert to Roman Catholicism from Judaism, an attempt, some have said, to escape her eventual destination. She also evidently truckled to her future murderers by writing some anti-Semitic stories, and in fact there are hints here and there of anti-Semitism in this collection.
Judge her harshly if you will, but bear in mind that she was witness to much worse crimes than any she committed. Like all but a very few of the most powerful writers, she was far more of a spectator than an instigator. It’s true that in a literary sense she treated her fictional characters of all religions and nationalities like colorful bugs who had in common, whatever their provenance, the tendency to scrabble selfishly in vain as they faced their own demise. Bear in mind, however, that she wasn’t the one doing the actual drowning, crushing and gassing.