Book review: “Jézabel” by Irène Némirovsky

This short novel or novella, was first published in 1936. By then, its author was already successful. You may be familiar with her by either having read one of her other works, or seen the film based on her famous unfinished “Suite française”.

Irène Némirovsky was a refugee. She was born in Kiev in 1903 in a wealthy Russian, Jewish family. When the October Revolution broke out in Russia, the family fled the country. They settled in France in 1918 and Irène attended the Sorbonne and wrote all her works in French.

irene NemirovskyIrène’s first novel “Le Malentendu”, was published in 1926. Her second one made her famous. “Jézabel” appeared in 1936. Less than six years later, Irène Némirovsky was arrested by French police during a razzia on the 13th of July 1942. Barely a month later, she died in Auschwitz.

Irène’s daughter found manuscripts, decades after Irène’s death. The first published is the now famous “Suite française”. The impact of this unfinished novel ensured republication and publication of other works, as well as many being translated in various languages and a posthumous Prix Renaudot.

My first introduction to this author was her novella “Jézabel”. It is a short French novel which is easy to read. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a disappointment. Probably because the hype surrounding the rediscovery of this author sets such high expectations.

Summary

The first fifty pages deal with a murder case. A woman of a certain age is in court. She has committed a crime. Society, judge, lawyers, the public which has nothing else to entertain it, society will convict her of a crime. She seems incapable and unwilling to defend herself :

“Une femme entra dans le box des acusés. Elle était belle encore, malgré sa pâleur, malgré son air haggard et las; seules, les paupières, d’une forme délicieuse, étaient fanées par les larmes et la bouche affaissée, mais elle paraissait jeune. On ne voyait pas ses cheveux caches sous le chapeau noir. … “ (p. 7)

Jezabel coverIt is clear she is a rich upper class woman. The judge humiliates her, the lawyers are more interested in making the right impressions to safeguard their careers. In the public gallery, women judge her hardest. None are apparently able or even interested, in discovering the truth and concentrate on outward appearances. The shallowness and hypocrisy of society is stressed.

Gladys Eysenach, does not help her case. She admits to the judge she has committed a terrible crime:

“ – Je ne demande pas l’indulgence … J’ai commis un crime affreux …
… Vers neuf heures du soir, enfin, une sonnerie retentit, si grêle qu’on l’entendit à peine; elle marquait la fin de la délibération des jurés. La nuit était tombée. … Le tribunal prononça le jugement. Un murmure parcourut les bancs de la presse et parvint jusqu’au public debout:
– Cinq ans de prison …
Les portes du vieux Palais laissèrent passer les spectateurs. Tous, en sortant, s’arrêtaient sur le seuil et respiraient le vent avec plaisir; la pluie recommençait à tomber, en gouttes larges et rares.
Quelqu’un dit en montrant le ciel:
– De la pluie encore pour demain …
Un autre:
– Venez prendre un bock …
Deux femmes parlaient de leurs maris. Le vent emporta leurs paroles vers la Seine tranquille et noire.
Comme on oublie les acteurs lorsque la pièce est finie, personne ne se souvenait de Gladys Eysenach. Son rôle était fini maintenant. Il avait été en somme banal. Un crime passionnel … Un châtiment modéré … Que deviendrait-elle ? Personne ne se souciait de son avenier, ni de son passé. ( pp 49 – 50)

Indeed, the case seems clear to everybody: it is a “crime passionnel”. Gladys shot her much younger lover, while she was also involved with another man. According to scandalized society, Gladys is a scarlet woman, a Jezebel, a “cradle-snatcher”. Once the sentence is passed, society is no longer interested in Gladys. The entertainment is over and Gladys is forgotten.

From page 51 till the end of this novella, Gladys’ real story is told. The first chapter picks up where the previous part left off. It describes Gladys again. She is indeed still beautiful. It is quite obvious beauty and youth are important themes.

Gladys is described as being nearly as beautiful as at the ball organised by the Melbournes, which she attended with a distant relative called Teresa Beauchamp – decades ago. A flashback then describes Gladys aged eighteen. She is having a taste of the London season, after having been dragged to Europe by a crazy, opium-addicted and indifferent mother.

Gladys will never forget this ball. She is not only drunk with happiness; she also becomes aware of her beauty and especially, her power over men. On the other hand, the relationship between Teresa and Gladys offers a glimpse into relationships between Gladys and women. On the surface, all is friendship and kindness, but all is feigned. Hypocrisy, double standards, the veneer society presents to cover up what really goes on, is another important theme of this story.

Gladys marries, divorces, remarries. Her second husband is much older, a wealthy business man and banker. Gladys is happy and the couple have a daughter. But the banker dies and Gladys discovers that throughout the marriage, her husband kept a mistress. In fact, he discussed business and shared his business deals with his mistress, rather than with superficial Gladys.

The widowed Gladys is rich and free. She joins the Edwardian and post World War I jet-set. She has affairs and when a place or country no longer pleases, she migrates.

The only problem is her fear of losing her looks, her beauty and showing her true age. A friend warns her this is inevitable. Gladys refuses to believe this. So when one of her lovers deserts her to join the army in 1914, this shocks Gladys. For the first time, she is dumped instead of the other way around.

Very soon, Gladys commits the first of the horrible deeds which will lead to her conviction. For she will kill more than once. The cause, as with the murder for which she is convicted, is Gladys’ denial of her true age. The novella ends with a description of what really took place and caused Gladys to pull the trigger.

Comments

There are several problems with this story. For a start, an observant reader will deduct the truth during the first fifty pages. Even an unobservant reader will understand the plot after the first crime; about two-thirds into the novella.

This leaves the reader with at least seventy if not over a hundred-and-forty pages to read. With the cat out of the bag and not much tension, drama, developments … The only reason a reader does not put down the book to never finish it, is it shortness. One hopes something striking may happen after all but turns the remaining pages in vain.

Then there is the credibility of Gladys. The story is mostly told in third person and Gladys is not a character with strong or deep feelings. The main drama of her life is her inability to accept her age. Everything she does, is motivated by and originates from her need to rmain beautiful and young. In the end, the reader is expected to accept and believe that Gladys is at least sixty years old yet looks thirty – when she kills because her true age is hinted at … to her lover of years standing.

Would a woman, who is described as being as wealthy and independent as Gladys, who is divorced as well as a widow, who takes lovers and has affairs, who belongs to the fast set and is rather scandalous … not marry the man with whom she is in love and who loves her and wants to marry her? Not even after having been asked by him several times? Not even after having fiddled with her age – like for instance Josephine de Beauharnais did when she married Napoleon? Would such a person pull a trigger, when her true age is hinted at to her lover of several years standing?

Where Gladys is fairly flat and unconvincing, the other characters are props. They remain flatter than flat, whether they are one of the lovers, distant relatives, witnesses, the daughter. They obviously serve to jog the story on towards the conclusion as described during its first fifty pages.

During the thirties, when this story was first published, a woman like Gladys might have been deemed amoral. Her treatment of her daughter might have raised an eyebrow. Now one wonders why the girl does run away to join Swiss relatives and Gladys and her lover not marry.

But if a reader starts wondering about possible twists or developments for a plot, what does this say about a book? Truly great and engaging literature remains great and engaging literature, regardless of how much time has passed and how much society has changed. In a good story well told, amoral, weak, horrid characters still fully engage and captivate readers.

So the plot of this novel had possible scope for development, its main character unfortunately remains unconvincing, the story fails to engage the reader. Perhaps the clue lies partly in Irène remaining rather disengaged and aloof. Or as a French critic remarked:

…Sans jamais porter de jugement, Irène Némirovsky saisit, d’une écriture fluide et avec une rare finesse psychologique, la réalité derrière les apparences, les ambivalences affectives et les contradictions de l’âme humaine.

Irène Némirovsky does have a fluid and readable style. She does explore some contrasts between society’s veneer versus the figures behind the masks. But to claim there is a rare psychological insight into the ambivalence of the human soul – this is a bit rich.

This novella is not a bad one, but due to the hype around this author’s other works, expectations might be raised far too high. One is left feeling the author could have delved deeper, explored more, created a truly interesting story and moving character which all combined, might have made a lasting impression on a reader.

“Jézabel”, Irène Némirovsky, 218 pp; first published by Albin Michel in 1936; this edition from Ed Livres de Poche, 2010
“Jezebel”, Irène Némirovsky, new English translation, Vintage Books, 2012.

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