The Courilof Affair is the fourth book I read as a part of my Irène Némirovsky year-long project. I have mentioned this before – I believe that Irène Némirovsky’s inspiration for her writing came through her life. In The Misunderstanding, the main character is a beautiful adulterer married to a wealthy man, just like Irène’s mother. David Golder, Irène’s second book, is a story about a self-made Jewish banker, similar to her father. Le Bal focuses on a difficult relationship between somewhat of a narcissistic mother and her teenage daughter, which again must have stemmed from Irène’s imperfect relationship with her mother. Snow in Autumn is about a family and their faithful servant who escaped to France during the Russian revolution, and the difficulties they faced in adjusting to their new life – something Irène experienced first hand.
But unlike her previous works, The Courilof Affair is not based on events that are intimate to Irène’s personal life. Instead, it is based on a historical event that took place in 1901, two years before Irène was born, where a student/ Socialist Revolutionary activist named Karpovich assassinated the former Russian Minister of Education, Nikolay Pavlovich Bogolepov.
In The Courilof Affair, the protagonist Leon is the son of a terrorist and a revolutionary activist. Both his parents died when he was young, leaving Leon to be raised by Party members, so as Leon puts it he was a member of the Party by his very birth! When the Party wants the “notoriously brutal and cold-blooded” Russian Minister of Education, Courilof to be assassinated out in public in the most grandiose manner possible, they turn to Leon. Leon insinuates himself in the Courilof household as his physician months before the assassination must take place. During the course of Leon’s stay, he becomes privy to the inner world of Courilof’s life – Courilof’s second marriage to his mistress has put him out of favor of the Czar and his colleagues are gunning for his post, Courilof’s health is drastically falling but none of his doctors give him the full picture because they are worried of operating on him – and sees Courilof’s life is less than rosy. The more Leon becomes familiar with his soon-to-be victim, Leon starts to question motives of terrorism from a philosophical standpoint. Sure, Courilof has questionable judgment, and he is infamous, but Leon sees that there’s more to Courilof, and realizes Courilof like every other human is not entirely black or white.
In the Translator’s Afterward, Sandra Smith compares The Courilof Affair with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Dirty Hands, and Albert Camus’ The Just Assassins. The two plays had been written more than fifteen years after Irène had published The Courilof Affair and all three works of literature explore the theme of terrorism, and the moral questions it raises. It is fascinating to speculate as to how much of an influence, if at all, Irène was on Sartre and Camus. But we do not know if either of them had read The Courilof Affair when it was first published in 1933, although it is probable that Sartre knew of Irène’s work because, in 1948 Maxence, a literary critic wrote a review in which he said that he preferred Irène’s The Courilof Affair to Sartre’s Dirty Hands.
The Courilof Affair is an excellent novel, and my favorite read this year so far. The story and the perceptions it dwells on are entirely relevant to the world we live in. I can not recommend it highly enough!