Book Review: Le Bal by Irène Némirovsky
“A kind of giddiness took hold of her: the wild need to do something outrageous and evil. She clenched her teeth, crumpled up all the invitations, tore them into little pieces and threw them into the Seine. For a long while, her heart pounding, she watched them floating, caught against one of the bridge’s arches. And then the wind finally swept them deep into the water.” – Narrator, from Le Bal
“Back and forth they went, between their four walls, silently, like flies in autumn, after the heat and light of summer had gone, barely able to fly, weary and angry, buzzing around the windows, trailing their broken wings behind them” – Narrator, from Snow in Autumn
I love it when chain bookstores like Fullybooked and National Bookstore have sales. When you enter their bookstores and you see bins with books that are priced for as low as 50 pesos per book, then you will feel no guilt in buying books by authors that you have practically never heard of because that is what I do when I go to their sales and that is how I discovered authors like Paul Auster, Philip Roth, and Irène Némirovsky.
I bought Némirovsky’s Le Bal at a Fullybooked sale held last July at The Fort. I knew nothing about her but I took a leap and bought her book because it seemed interesting and I have not regretted that decision. The book actually contains two novellas titled Le Bal and Snow in Autumn that discusses two different themes; the former discussed adolescent angst and the latter discussed the immigrant experience of Russian nobles after they were driven from their homes by the Bolsheviks. The two novellas are miles apart when it comes to their plot but they possess the same nuanced and pained writing by Némirovsky.
Le Bal is about Antoinette Kampf, an adolescent girl who grew in 1930s Paris under the shadow of poverty and only to be suddenly yanked from the shadows and then thrust into the glimmer of Parisian high society as their situation improves when her father comes across wealth through the stock market. She has a distant relationship with her father and a violent one with her mother as they both hate each other vehemently. Her mother is obsessed with gaining acceptance into high society and she can’t be bothered to raise her daughter while Antoinette dislikes how her mother treats her and tries to conceive of a plan that will ruin her mother. When Madame Kampf decides to throw a grand ball, she refuses to present her daughter to admirers because she does not want Antoinette to steal the spotlight. Antoinette, who is in charge of the invitations, executed her revenge by ripping the invitations, in a fit of fury, to shreds and throwing them into the river Seine. The resulting absence of all of Parisian high society at the ball destroyed Madame Kampf, who does not know of Antoinette’s revenge, and left her marriage in shambles as she wishes that her daughter does not suffer the same humiliation.
Such a story has been prevalent in modern pop culture especially in local films and television and it has been retold many times. But Le Bal possesses certain uniqueness as it tells the story without being melodramatic and contrived. Although I have heard that Némirovsky often uses the conflict between mother and daughter as a plot device to the point that it becomes tiresome, I have not yet read any of her works for me to complain about such a plot point. For me, the relationship and the conversations between the mother and the daughter is what drives the whole story.
However, my major gripe about Le Bal is that it does not possess a likable character and it doesn’t even have a moment where you will like Antoinette. For me, it’s okay if the character possesses unlikable characteristics but I think it’s important for a reader to have a moment where he can sympathize, connect, or like the main character. Even Catcher in the Rye, a novel with a similar angst-riddled teenager, has moments where a reader can sympathize with the main character. Yes, Madame Kampf treats Antoinette horribly but Antoinette’s thoughts are selfish and angry to the point where she has no redemption as a character. That, in my opinion, is a major flaw of the novella but it does not take away all of the pleasure in reading this piece and that may be because Le Bal is short therefore the readers does not have to suffer the unlikability of its characters.
The second novella, Snow in Autumn, tells the story of Tatiana, a servant of the Karines who are members of the Russian aristocracy who has fled Revolutionary Moscow for Paris. In Paris, the Karines and their servant, Tatiana, faces a life filled with hardship that is far from their comfortable life in Moscow. As time goes by, however, their stay in Paris seems to be taking a greater toll on Tatiana than on the members of the Karine family because, after a while, the family has moved on and has come to reluctantly accept their life of poverty in Paris while Tatiana still dreams of the day that she will return to the snows of Russia. Because of the increasing business of the Karines, Tatiana is neglected and she slowly spirals into despair and, one day, she hallucinates the coming of winter and snow and she goes out of the house, into the river, and drowns.
Némirovsky’s skilled juxtaposition of the modern and fast-paced life of Paris and the provincial and moral life of Russia embodied by Tatiana is one of the more profound things that can be found in the novella along with how the Karines handled the immigrant experience that was cruelly forced upon them without warning. The way they bore their misfortunes at the hands of the Bolsheviks, their son dying, their losing their estate and the other hardships that they suffered just goes to show that revolutions and change are not always good.
Snow in Autumn is much better than Le Bal because Tatiana is more developed and more likable when compared to Antoinette. Also the struggle in Le Bal dwarfs in comparison to the monumental sufferings of the Karines in Snow in Autumn. That does not mean that struggles about adolescent life and about high society does not matter in the world of literature, it’s just that Némirovsky, in my opinion, has failed to properly tell the conflict in Le Bal.
All in all, this collection of Némirovsky’s novellas is a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in authors that have almost faded into obscurity. Most of Némirovsky’s work is published posthumously and it is lucky for readers around the world that her works have been recently rediscovered. That is certainly how I feel and I am looking forward to her other works which I have already bought in eager anticipation.