Le Bal, consisting of two novellas by Irène Némirovsky is the second book in my Irène Némirovsky year-long project. Le Bal proved to be the perfect pick after I read Ruby, as I was in need for some mood-lifting. 😀
Le Bal, the first novella is about Kampf family. Alfred Kampf has recently made a fortune after struggling for years. He is married to Rosine, a beautiful woman and with her, he has a fourteen-year-old daughter, Antoinette. Rosine, determined to show-off her new found wealth to her relatives who thought the Kampfs were not good enough to be associated with when they were poor, plans a grand ball to be thrown for two-hundred guests together with Alfred.
‘… Tell me, Alfred, are we supposed to use their titles when we speak to them? I think we should, don’t you? Not Monsieur le Marquis like the servants, of course, but my dear Marquis, my dear Countess… If we don’t, the others won’t even notice we are receiving the aristocracy.’
While reading, I felt like Alfred is much similar to David Golder, bending over to please a wife who is eager to flaunt their prosperity. Alfred probably wanted to be accepted by Parisian high society as well, but to me, he did not come off as shallow as Rosine who obsessed over the ball. The twist in the story comes when Antoinette pleads with her mother to be allowed to attend the ball.
‘Please, Mama, please, I’m begging you!’ she shouted. ‘I’m fourteen, Mama, I’m not a little girl any more. I know girls come out at fifteen, but I look fifteen, and next year…’
Madame Kampf exploded.
‘Well, honestly, how wonderful! Honestly!’ she shouted, her voice hoarse with anger. ‘This kid, this snotty-nosed kid, coming to the ball! Can you just picture it? Just you wait, girl, I’ll knock all those fancy ideas right out of you. You think you’re going to come out “next year”, eh? Who’s been putting ideas like that in your head? You listen to me. I’ve only just begun to live, me, you hear, me, and I have no intention of rushing to lumber myself with having to marry off a daugher…
Antoinette plots her revenge against Rosine and at the end of the story ‘one of them will ascend on life’s journey, and the other will plunge downwards into darkness.’
I think the plot in this story also must have been inspired by Irène’s hostile relationship with her mother. Irène could not have had an easy childhood, but at least her difficulties are poignantly put through Antoinette’s narration. Nonetheless, I felt bad for Rosine at the end and thought maybe Antoinette was a bit too cruel. But then again, what can you expect from a teenager who is not sure if her mother loves her?
Snow in Autumn is entirely different from Le Bal. Snow in Autumn is told from the perspective of Tatiana Ivanovna, a dutiful, loyal servant of Karine family. At the time the story begins during 1917 Russian Revolution, Tatiana had been at service in Karine household for fifty-one years. She had raised Nicolas Alexandrovitch – the current head of the house, his siblings, and later his offsprings. When Cyrille and Youri, two elder sons of Nicolas’s leave the house on Christmas day to join the war, Tatiana is understandably devastated. Her sorrows only deepen when she witnesses the murder of Youri and has to join the rest of the exiled Karine family in Paris. Once wealthy, the Karines live in poverty in now, and their tiny apartment in Paris is nothing compared to their elegant house in Russia. They all try their best to adjust to their new life, which is not even remotely glamorous like it used to be, some Karines doing menial jobs to earn a living. But Tatiana struggles with adjusting to their new circumstances – probably because she is much older, so in Tatiana’s dreams – even at the end of her life, it is their house in Russia she dreams of, and the gleeful life they had.
Snow in Autumn takes a closer look at war and the disruption it causes. Again, Snow in Autumn must have been inspired by Irène’s experiences – her family was wealthy and lucky enough to escape to France during the Russian Revolution. Through Tatiana, Irène has beautifully rendered the nostalgic melancholy for home and the trauma she must have felt (at least at the beginning).
All in all, Le Bal was a very good read. I am glad I decided to read Irène’s books in chronological order. Because Irène draws inspiration from her life, I might get to see how the atmosphere changed from the time of the Russian Revolution to the beginning of World War II. Also, given the current political status in the USA, it might do me some good (and a lot of others!) to read these novels which contain unflinchingly honest memories of life as refugees to better understand the gravity of things which we tend to take for granted!