Friday, 29 July 2011

Foreign Language Friday: Le Bal by Irène Némirovsky

Dear blog,
This is two novellas put together in one volume, so I'll review each one separately.

Original titles: Le Bal and Les Mouches d'automne, respectively.
Written by: Irène Némirovsky
First published in: French
Translated by: Sandra Smith
Summary (from Goodreads): Le Bal is a penetrating and incisive book set in early twentieth century France. At its heart is the tension between mother and daughter. The nouveau-riche Kampfs, desperate to become members of the social elite, decide to throw a ball to launch themselves into high society. For selfish reasons Mrs. Kampf forbids her teenage daughter, Antoinette, to attend the ball and banishes her to the laundry room. In an unpremeditated fury of revolt and despair, Antoinette takes a swift and horrible revenge. A cruel, funny and tender examination of class differences, Le Bal describes the torments of childhood with rare accuracy.
Also included in this volume is Snow in Autumn, in which Némirovsky pays homage to Chekhov and chronicles the life of a devoted servant following her masters as they flee Revolutionary Moscow and emigrate to a life of hardship in Paris. 

Review: Le Bal- This was definitely my favourite of the two.  Of course, I didn't like Antoinette, I didn't think much of her father, and I didn't like her mother either.  But then I don't think you're meant to like Madame Kampf and her daughter, so much as just read from both their perspectives and observe both of their actions, and see how they clash. 
Although they both strongly disliked one another, they both had a lot of mannerisms in common, and the same desperate desire to be appreciated, loved, to show themselves off to society.   At the same time their thoughts are written in such a subtly tender way, and I think on some level it's possible to sympathise with and relate to every single character, even those who are somewhat minor and don't play too large a role, which is something I love her for; the way portrays family dynamics in such a horribly truthful way.  Her characterisation is absolutely spot on. 

The scene where Antoinette is hiding behind the sofa is, by the way,  without a doubt one of the best that I've come across in literature over the last few months.  If this makes sense, reading it from Antoinette's perspective, makes you feel almost kind of guilty.  I don't even know what for... just being, I suppose, being able to identify with some of her thoughts and emotions, and to know that they were messing things up.  For such an outwardly simplistic story, there are a lot of motives that you're left pondering for a long time after you read it.

In three words: Vivacious, insightful, tense.
Rating: 5.

Snow in Autumn- I was pretty surprised at how different this was from Le Bal, which felt lively and sort of fierce in a controlled kind of way.  But the best thing for me to compare Snow in Autumn to is actually snow.  It's so quietly beautiful and sorrowful.  It's told from the perspective of a faithful servant when the wealthy family she works for flees persecution in Russia. Wealth and social standing is another big theme, but it's a total contrast from Le Bal, which is kind of a rags-to-riches story, .  Snow in Autumn is the complete opposite, and the central family are left .  Themes of loss and nostalgia, I've noticed, are also a recurring theme in all the Némirovsky that I've read so far, and she writes it very well. 

But for all its haunting glory, I don't know why, but it felt kind of...incomplete.  The story of their journey from Russia to France was perfectly alright, and the way they initially settled in, but I felt like it could have been a lot longer- maybe even a novel in its own right.  I felt like there were some characters that I would have loved a lot more if I had had more time to get to know them, but I didn't, alas.  Still, it's an entirely beautiful novella in a subtle sort of way, and I highly recommend it.

In three words: Lyrical, sad, haunting.
Rating: 4.

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