UK publishers are ahead of the game in releasing new translations of Irène Némirovsky’s other works after the thumping success of Suite Francaise. Browsing through Kinokuniya in Kuala Lumpur, I was excited to have found David Golder and La Bal, neither of which are available in the United States at the time of travel. This slim volume binds together two tales of 50 pages each that explore the same themes.
Le Bal is set in 1930s Paris. Némirovsky presents the Kampf family. Alfred Kampf, a German Jewish immigrant, struggles to be accepted for years until he makes a fortune on the stock market. Once wealthy, he marries Rosine, who becomes Madame Kampf, is a snob who enjoys denigrating other women for their dubious moral background. She is acrimonious, sullen, and pretentious. The opening sentences of this story, which is packed with actions and rich details, aptly summarizes the troubling dynamics of the relationship between Madame Kampf and her 14-years-old daughter Antoinette:
“Madame Kampf walked into the study and slammed the door behind her with such force that a gust of air made the crystal beads on the chandelier jingle with the pure, light sound of small bells. But Antoinette didn’t stop reading; she was bent so far forward over her desk that her hair brushed the pages of her book. For a moment, Madame Kampf watched her daughter without saying anything; then she went to stand in front of her, arms crossed over her chest.” (3)
How can one resist such intriguing opening? One senses a complex, standoffish, and hostile relationship, a product of years of living in fear of her parents. They frightened her with the roar of angry voice that resonates her head over the years. Hounded from morning to night, trapped in monotonous routine, she was subjected to humiliation and torture. Madame Kampf was obsessed with being accepted into the upper classes, material possessions, and status. The plan to give a ball was intended to confirm their acceptance into the Parisian high society, but her relationship with her daughter would intervene to give the tale a scathing twist. In an impulsive fury of adolescent rage and despair, Antoinette pulled a tantrum that would ruin her mother, for whom she felt contempt and scorn.
Snow in Autumn is set in revolutionary Moscow. It chronicles the life of a devoted servant following her masters as they flee Revolutionary Russia and emigrate to a life of hardship in Paris. For 51 years, Tartiana Ivanovrna cared for the children over three generations in the Karine family. As she watched the youngest son called up to war, she was resolved to stay and watch over the family property. Upon news of the family from Paris, she smuggled back the jewelry that was left under her guard to her master in order to cash in money. As the crisis pushed the Karine to brink of dissolution, the grown-up children found no use of the senile woman and chased her away. But Tartiana’s heart has been with the family house in Soukharevo, where she nourished and raised all the children against vicissitudes. As the Karines, having lost everything to warfare, desperate attempted to start a new life in a foreign country, the faithful nanny resorted to the beloved memories and waited in vain for her cherished first snows of autumn.
Duly bound together in one volume, the two classic tales present an insightful analysis of two recurring themes in Némirovsky’s works: the nuances in interaction between family members and how foreigners were treated with suspect in 1930s Parisian society. Némirovsky treats these emotions and feelings that associate to parting and loss with a touching sensitiveness.