Friday, August 24, 2018

Irene Nemirovsky's The Wine of Solitude

After reading The Mirador, a "fictional autobiography" of Irene Nemirovsky by her daughter, I felt compelled to tackle those Nemirovsky's novels that touch upon her early years in the Russian Empire. The Wine of Solitude is such a book, and clearly provided her daughter with much of the inspiration for the early chapters of The Mirador.  Like many of her books, it features a wicked, self-absorbed mother, and a wealthy father.  Like the author, the non-observant Jewish protagonist, Helene, grew up in the Ukraine.  She described her childhood hometown thus: "The silence of the sleepy provincial town, lost deep within Russia, was intense, heavy and overwhelmingly sad."  Later, Helene moved as  St. Petersburg, but it equally depressing, introducing the famous capital city accordingly: "How harshly it blew, that day, the biting north wind, and what a sickly odor of filthy water rose from the Neva." Soon, Helene was displaced again, and this time by the Revolution.  Moving briefly to Finland, she ultimately found her way to France, which she already knew from a series of earlier vacations.

The book's chief virtue is that it's told from the point of view of youth, but lacks any sense of condescension.  While young, Helene is perfectly capable of maintaining her own intellectual vitality, and equally capable of offering the reader an uncompromising critique of the adults in her life.  While the novel doesn't dwell on the Revolution, it does demonstrate the extent to which the Revolution could serve as a plot point in the psychological development of Russians.  The Revolution was both a social fact and an individual one.  The Revolution led Helene into exile but, unusually for the time, did not diminish the wealth for her family.  It did however appear as a sad or even tragic event, somehow mirroring Helene's own bitterness about her family situation.  Great events, like great cities, could be experienced as new forms of tragedy. Without sentimentalism, the author introduces the twentieth century's most influential political convulsion with deliberately minimal commentary.  "The February Revolution came and went, then the October Revolution.  The city was distraught, buried in snow."

The Wine of Solitude is a deeply personal novel, somehow describing the personal pain of the protagonist and the universal pain of entering the inhospitable world of adulthood.   However, the novel is also a commentary on Russia, which forced Helene into exile.  The Revolution did not bring joy to people like Helene. Instead, it brought a new level of chaos, decay, and disorder.  In fact, its chief visual legacy for Helene was garbage.  As the author remarks:  "In the darkness they could smell the rancid odor of the canals;  no one had bothered to clean them since the February Revolution;  no one bothered to repair their stones;  the city was crumbling beneath the weight of the water, slowly disintegrating, becoming a city of smoke, illusions and fog, retreating into a void."

The chaos of post-revolutionary Russia soon led to exile, which often entailed new forms of confusion and anxiety, if not also delusion.  Where should exiles go if they could no longer live in their homeland?  "They talked about Shanghai, Tehran, Constantinople.  They had to leave.  But where should they go?  Danger was everywhere, but since everyone was in the same boat it seemed less urgent;  it would pass."  Helene ultimately landed in France, physically safe and still relatively rich.  But of course even safety can be experienced as trauma if one's father remains psychologically distant, and one's mother is your rival rather than protector.

A few quotes from the book: 

...she was always sad, complaining, anxious: everything was an excuse for her to sigh, to lament. "Life is bad," she would say.  "God is terrible.  Men are harsh..."

Take my time, my care, my blood, my flesh...she seemed to be saying as she stared at them with her soft, dead eyes.

Her entire life was scarred by the marks of misfortune and unhappiness;  she had experienced poverty, illness, the death of people she loved;  her husband had cheated on her, betrayed her;  she felt that her daughter and her husband could barely stand her.  She had been born old, anxious, weary, while everyone around her was overflowing with vitality and passionate desires.  But her main affliction was a kind of prophetic sadness;  she seemed more included to fear the future than weep for the past.

A rush of anguish suddenly ran through the child, making her shudder;  she sat in a corner holding a book, quiet and alone;  she felt as if she could sense the solitude of the grave;  the room became hostile and frightening;  beyond the narrow circle of the light from the lamp, darkness reigned;  the shadows slithered toward Helene, rising to engulf her;  she strained to push them away, like a swimmer pushing back the water with his arms.

It was late autumn and the children were confined to the safety of their room, to protect them from the cold air that Russians feared as if it were a plague.

On one side of her was her husband, who wore glasses and had cold, pale hands;  on the other her long-standing lover, who was even older, fatter, and balder than her husband.

"Your hair's no naturally curly, is it?" Her lips were so pursed that they words came out in a kind of soft whistle, like the sound of a flute.
"Jealous bitch," thought Helene.

"Did you also know Safronov senior when he was at the height of his success?" asked Madame Manasse.  "When I came to live here he was already old."
"Yes, I did know him.  He squandered three fortunes:  his mother's, his wife's and his daughter's, who had some money left to her by his wife's father.  Three fortunes..."

Oh, how she hated Mademoiselle Rose.  It was a shy hatred, but a profound one.

"Live with the dogs, not like them," he sometimes told Karol, since Karol loved gambling, wine and women.

"What is in the interest of Russia," Chestov said harshly and looked around him, haughtily scrutinizing everyone as if to remind them all that he was the representative of the government and had the right to look deep into their hearts and souls in the name of the Emperor.

"What am I complaining about?" she thought. "I'm no different from anyone else.  Of course, everyone's house has an adulterous wife, unhappy children, and busy men who think only of money.

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