The city is a whirl of decadence and corruption and he embarks on a life of parties and shady business dealings, as well as an illicit affair.
But as another war threatens, everything around him starts to crumble and the future for him and for France suddenly looks dangerously uncertain.
Irène Némirovsky has long been a favourite author of mine and is definitely one of the best 20th century authors, sadly still criminally under recognised by readers out there. Her ability to clearly convey human nature is incisive and dramatic but most of all beautifully accomplished.
The first chapter contains a wonderful Champs-Élysées family scene, which was perfectly executed and was made all the more poignant knowing the events that history is rushing inexorably toward. I would have been happy to stay in that place and just wish these people well but sadly that is not life.
Perhaps they have now gone too far to step back and feel we’re on the brink of an abyss? But what is certain is that it will be the young men who are first to fall into that abyss.
It’s a hard book to read knowing what will befall nations and tear apart of families. The problem with Némirovsky’s characters – which goes for all her books – is that they are so well realised and penned that it becomes hard to see them suffer on their journeys. Even the characters one dislikes demand a certain sympathy as their flaws are something we can all relate to as much as their fears and expectations.
There are plenty of characters in the book, despite only mentioning Bernard Jacquelain in the blurb and a plethora of different views and struggles throughout the novel, what I found most striking was the adjacency of both the challenges of everyday life at home and the war ‘over there’ that defies the abilities of the characters to reconcile. The hopes and dream of the individual and the generation are utterly subsumed by the momentous and epoch changing events of history.
She was walking towards love the way you walk towards a fire, in full knowledge you will only end up either seriously injured or even dead and that you would have died for nothing, in obscurity, without honour.
Throughout the book, the ideals of society and the personal react over time to the carnage inflicted and the realisation of the transience of everything in an insecure world. A new morality and the urge to live life to the full – even at the expense of other people – is born from the cruelty and irrevocable changes of recent times which makes one ask what is the collateral price of a soldier’s life?
For a book encompassing both war and peacetime the author manages to show what happens when ordinary people transcend their fears and risk themselves, not only for loved ones but also for complete strangers. The conscious loyalty and heroism is made all the more striking by the inherently random nature of death during war. Once I got over my reticence on the Champs-Élysées and carried on through the rest of the story, I didn’t want it to finish. Such is the power of her writing, that I was strongly invested in the characters from the start and would have been more than happy to read a further 300 pages of their stories.
It was a war zone where you could no longer tell which bodies were yours and which were the enemy’s – the mud covered them with the same shroud.