Sometimes it seems you read and read and there is always more to read, always an author whose work you haven't gotten to. This is the case for me with Irene Nemirovsky. I first read about her when Suite Francaise was published, posthumously, to great acclaim, but only this week did I pick up a volume of stories, Dimanche, and read some of her work for myself.
Let's put it this way: There is one story in this collection called "Flesh and Blood" that strikes me as a masterpiece. It describes a family of three brothers, one sister, an elderly mother, and three sisters-in-law all struggling to make their lives work as the mother's life slips away from her. So many characters in a single "short story" represents a signficant narrative challenge, but Nemirovsky handles the relationships that unfold--particularly among the brothers, one of whom wants a big loan from the others so that he can run away with his mistress--with exceptional art. These people love and loathe one another, know they don't know each other anymore, wonder why they must always have Sunday dinner together, and realize that when the elderly matriarch dies nothing will hold them--and a significant part of their lives--together. I would put this story somewhere in a class of long, interesting stories defined well by Chekhov's "A Boring Story," which is astonishing in its leisurely, nuanced unfolding of life as a whole...life as one more typically confronts it in a novel.
The other stories are explorations of class, love, the effects of Germany's assault on France and its people, and the fantasies people under great pressure entertain as they imagine they can somehow hold onto their dearest possessions, personal wealth, or life itself.
These are not endearing characters, which is a great strength. In "The Confidante," a homely woman eviscerates the vain man who married the homely woman's best friend. She tells him that she, not the pretty girl the man loved, wrote him those endearing letters. She reveals the love affairs she helped the pretty girl conceal. In effect, she assumes the role of a creative artist, much more capable than the cuckhold, who, after all, is a world-renowned pianist, but just, as he puts it, someone who interprets art, not someone who generates it.
In several stories, WWII looms over France and Nemirovsky's characters. Sometimes these characters are desperate fools, but sometimes they're well-realized common folk coming to terms with the violence and ironies of war.
Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz. She carries a legacy marred by the term "self-hating Jew," who converted to Roman Catholicism. I haven't read enough of her work, or about her, to venture an opinion on this matter. My immediate thought is simply that "Flesh and Blood" by itself makes Dimanche worth reading.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund