Friday, 28 January 2011
Foreign Language Friday: Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky
First published in: French
Translated by: Sandra Smith
Summary (from Goodreads): In a French courtroom, the trial of a woman is taking place. Gladys Eysenach is no longer young, but she is still beautiful, elegant, cold. She is accused of shooting dead her much-younger lover. As the witnesses take the stand and the case unfolds, Gladys relives fragments of her past: her childhood, her absent father, her marriage, her turbulent relationship with her daughter, her decline, and then the final irrevocable act.
With the depth of insight and pitiless compassion we have come to expect from the author of Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky shows us the soul of a desperate woman obsessed with her lost youth.
Review: Do not be deceived by this the UK cover, which would lead you to believe this is yet another historical-romance novel of no real worth. That, dear blog, is not so. Jezebel is deep, dark and moving stuff about obsession, possession, mothers, daughters, love and most importantly, youth.
It's very cleverly written. The story opens with something vaguely resembling a prologue, at about forty pages, in which the witness describe the evening Gladys killed her lover and her motives. That part of the story draws to a close with Gladys being sentenced to a mere 5 years in prison, at which point you're about 40 pages in and like, "wait, what are the other 160-odd pages for?" then? Well, the rest of the book chronicles her life from young womanhood leading up to the night where she committed her crime.
The thing I love most about this genius little novel is by far the characterisation. Not one character falls flat; each one is as human and individual as the next. It's narrated in the third person, which can more often than not make the characters seem more distant and hard to relate to. But the way that Gladys in particular is written, I think it works for the best because it means that the reader doesn't feel what Gladys feels, or think what she thinks, so much as observe it and then try and make your own judgement on her actions and her obsession with remaining young. She's like a character out of a fantasy novel or a fairy tale or something; a creepy old (yes, yes, Gladys is old) hag who wants eternal life and is willing to mess up everyone elses' lives in order to get it. She's cold and controlled, yet passionate at the same time, sophisticated yet shallow. The nature of the book is quite similar to Gladys herself in that respect: like an old black-and-white film with rich characters who have affairs and will do anything to keep their social standing, even though they're crumbling and they don't realise it. There's a lot of gossip and paranoia, and paranoia about gossip.
Némirovsky is totally ruthless in the way that she portrays age and women and what happens when one meets the other, with no sympathy for Gladys' actions. With reason I guess. As an example of the way, one of my favourite quotes from the book; "She had reached that age when women no longer change: they simply decompose." As I read that I was like, "Yes! Irène, you've done it."
There was a lot of talk going round when Jezebel was first published about how much influence and/or inspiration came from Irène's mother, who I suppose must have treated her the way that Gladys did for Marie-Thèrése. In which case, I can see why it was written.
The scenes between Gladys and her daughter were both my favourites and the ones that I loathed most in the book; they were I suppose more than they were infuriating or darkly fascinating into such a world, they were saddening. In the dialogues between mother and daughter were the moments when I hated Gladys the most. But it was ultimately, I suppose, the kind of loathing that comes from pity. Of course I felt sorry for her; not because she was getting old and falling from grace, but because she was so selfish and caught in such a trap.
Some stories that strip the human soul so bare can just result in being bleak and depressing without anything else to it. But Irène Némirovsky pulls it off so well, and makes it more of a why-dunnit than a who-dunnit, I can safely say that Jezebel is one of my favourite books reviewed for Foreign Language Friday so far.
In Three Words: dark, sophisticated, fascinating.
Recommended for: women.