By Irène Némirovsky (Trans: Bridget Patterson)
Literary fame seldom arrives in reverse order. But Irène Némirovsky's popularity exploded with the release in 2005 of her last, unfinished work, Suite Française, depicting both the barbarity and tenderness of what she calls "the war of 1940". It has been followed by a steady stream of her earlier works.
On July 11 1942, Némirovsky took her notebook into the woods near the French village of Issy L'Eveque. The next day, she was arrested. A month later, she died in Auschwitz. The last words she wrote were notes on her own literary style: "the historical must be only lightly touched upon… the emotional life must be described in detail."
Now, long neglected and more than 80 years on from their first airing, comes this collection of short stories and, intensely observed and acutely detailed, they fulfil Némirovsky's own prescription.
By the time this collection's title story, Dimanche, was published, Némirovsky was already famous for her novel David Golder, after which she produced several short novels exploring Jewish identity. However, by the mid-1930s, such themes had become unwelcome and dangerous in an increasingly antisemitic France.
Dimanche, a dark comedy of manners, examines with stylish cynicism the hypocrisies of Parisian bourgeois life. A privileged young woman luxuriates in her own youthful elegance - "Nothing gave her more pleasure than her body, her eyes, her face"; "'It's wonderful to be 20,' she thought fervently" - the latter as she waits for her lover. At home, her mother despairs as her errant husband spends his Sunday with a new mistress. The story neatly and ironically contrasts the illusions of youth with the disappointment of middle-age.
In Those Happy Shores, another wealthy spoiled young socialite imagines herself in sole charge of her indulged life as she drives her smart sports car to a late-night assignation: "'Love?' This was said in the same way that you might tentatively mouth the name of a passer-by you think you have recognised." As she waits for her man, she meets a prostitute, and buys her a drink. Their worlds briefly collide, underlining the fragility of the heroine's protected paradise.
Sadly, the collection's central story, Flesh and Blood, an exhaustively detailed piece of work of Flaubertian precision, is devoid of a single sympathetic character. Its principal effect is the conveying of the stolid self-centredness of its over-large cast of characters.
The remainder, however, anticipate the most scintillating parts of Suite Française. In Brotherhood, an urbane cultivated Jew bearing the unlikely name of Christian Rabinovitch, is at a train station. He reflects, neurotically, on the fluctuations of his health and anticipates the next gourmet meal he will eat. These forensically presented musings merge into a conversation Rabinovitch strikes up with a ragged stranger with a "hoarse foreign accent" and who, it turns out, is also called Rabinovitch.
The pair chat companionably about the ingratitude of children: "We give them everything and they're never happy. That's how Jews are."
On the run from Hitler's Germany, Christian nonetheless is eventually repelled by his possible kinship with his namesake: "'What a wretched creature!' Was it possible that he was of the same flesh and blood as that man? 'What do we have in common?'" It is a tale that is both disturbing and provocative and shows Némirovsky on top form.
Suite Française devotees will delight in this imaginative collection, especially when Némirovsky leaves behind her comfortable, middle-class milieu for the larger canvas. In The Onlooker, for example, the rich, spoilt Hugo Grayer thinks he can escape the brutality of a fragile France on the brink of war - "one was watching a country shudder and die whilst singing just as one might feel the beating heart of a wounded nightingale in one's hand".
Grayer sets sail for Uruguay, remarking as he departs: "Europe has the charm of those who are going to die". But his boat is torpedoed and, suddenly ejected from the pampered luxury of his cruise, he finds himself within a barbaric drama where, in the ghastly turmoil, he sees a woman sliced in half, and witnesses children dying.
Far-reaching and sensitive, the urgency of Némirovsky's prose leaps out from the past in which it was written, the poignancy of her own situation adding to her portrayal of life's unfairness.