Each book I read by Irene Nemirovksy presents me with a happy dilemma, that of trying to decide if this one might be the best I've read to date, or perhaps nothing can surpass Suite Francaise, or Le Bal, or The Couriloff Affair, or David Golder (which I've read but don't seem to have written about here) or Fire in the Blood which I listened to on audio book, and I then have a merry little debate with myself over it all whilst stroking and admiring the beautifully cohesive collective design of this series.
You know an Irene the minute you see one.
A fascinating fact (to me) about this little contretemps is that I can remember all these books very clearly indeed, moments leap out at me, the tragic life of the father in David Golder, the unbridled hatred for the mother in Le Bal, the devious tutor and his bomb in The Couriloff Affair and of course my late-flowering love of the panoramic canvas of Suite Francaise which started it all eventually, long after the hype but with a permanence that never seems to waver or fade.
Then I do that ridiculously sensible thing of rationing the books because I'm reading them faster than Sandra Smith can translate them, except suddenly I have a little queue of three new ones on the shelf.
Right, just the one I think, except Jezebel was so good I haven't been able to stop myself picking up All Their Worldly Goods and I might as well give in and read The Dogs and the Wolves whilst I'm on the Irene trail.
And that unless I'm mistaken is the entire Irene Nemirovksy milieu currently available in English along with the recent edition of her short stories from Persephone Books. I keep seeing The Wine of Solitude mentioned and I'd like to think Sandra Smith has her head down and is busy translating that for me right now because I'll be needing another one soon.
'Gladys may have been older and in decline, but she was still beautiful. Time had touched her reluctantly, with a careful, gentle hand...'
And as the trial and the mysterious and unexplained events unfold, and Gladys's character is slowly revealed through the evidence of those who knew her alongside her own hesitant and reluctant testimony, Irene Nemirovksy had this reader eating out of her hand. So sad was I for poor,poor Gladys, what a terrible fall from grace this seemed to be, what a tragic demise, and as the judge passes a fairly lenient sentence I found myself feeling quite relieved.
But this is only page forty, much has been left unexplained and slowly but surely Irene Nemirovsky turns it all around.
I don't really want to tell you any more because to read is to experience the escalating power of Irene Nemirovky's skills at psychological dissection, both of her characters and her readers. So if you read Jezebel, I'd love to know if you, like me, would have happily marched Gladys to the guillotine and let slip the razor-sharp blade as Irene astutely pecks away at those dwindling reserves of sympathy.
It's a book about ageing and the shallowness of physical beauty, the fear and the insecurities when a woman's life is heavily invested in that beauty, coupled with the insecurities of a wealth and love falsely predicated on youth and looks.
'Like all obsessions, this one did not give her soul a moment's peace. Just as a miser thinks only of his gold or an ambitious person of attaining honours, so Gladys was in love with the desire to be attractive and with her fear of growing old.'
And Irene Nemirovksy, with her gift for 'pitiless compassion', according to one critic in Le Figaro, is merciless in her depictions, brave and courageous I always feel about telling it like it is. There is nothing on which to hang any notions of sentimentality here, this is the depths of human nature, cruelly exposed with a searing honesty and about a stage in life that Irene had clearly thought about but sadly would never live to experience.
'She had reached that age when women no longer change: they simply decompose, but in a way that is hardly noticeable, beneath a mask of powder and make-up.'
Published in May 1936 with a print run of 15,000, 12,000 copies of Jezebel had sold by the end of 1942, the year in which Irene Nemirovksy tragically died in Auschwitz.
Biographically there is much evidence to suggest that the character of Gladys is based on Irene's mother Fanny, with whom she had a turbulent and troubled relationship, also remembering that it was to Fanny that Irene's daughters turned when needing shelter after the war and the death of both their parents. Fanny famously refusing to open the door to the fifteen-year old Denise and seven-year old Elisabeth who were then taken to an orphanage by their guardian.
Doubtless, though it can't have seemed so at the time, a lucky escape for the girls from heaven knows what, but interestingly this would have been an act entirely in keeping with the character of Gladys already portrayed by their mother in Jezebel.
Of this book Irene Nemirovksy would say
'I wanted to describe the moment when that hitherto innocent passion, since it has to do with a very natural wish to please and to be liked, invades the soul, blots out all other feelings, and eventually turns itself into a kind of madness...In fact this tendency of the female heart resembles, in its tyrannical strength, a man's ambition and avarice, and it deserves to be studied in the way ambition and avarice have been.'
And is if Irene's mother, sensed its relevance to her own life, Jezebel was one of only two of Irene's books found in her possession after her death in 1972, David Golder being the other, a book again based on Irene's parents.
So with the Nemirovsky spring running dry, I can happily re-read (but not for too long Sandra) and now I remind myself that I had promised myself a read of the biography, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt once I had read all the available fiction. I find there's nothing worse, when reading a literary biography, than having to lah-lah-lah my way through the pages that detail the books when I haven't read them and don't want to know what happens.
So at least I have that to look forward to now.