Back To Basics: Jezebel by Irene Nemirovsky

on Saturday, September 25, 2010
It's been almost five years since the literary supernova that was Irene Nemirovsky's unfinished masterpiece Suite Francaise, and the steady flow of novels by this once forgotten Frenchwoman shows no signs of abating. Every six months it seems we are hit with a new translation, each one a literary gem in its own right. How Nemirovsky could have disappeared into the ether for so long is quite beyond me but at least she is now back in her rightful place in the literary pantheon.

Personally, I have always been a bigger fan of her miniatures than the bombastic epic that heralded her return. Nemirovsky had an incredible ability to draw out the pettiness of everyday life in less than two-hundred pages. To wit, David Golder, which copped a good deal of flack for being borderline anti-Semitic. Suspect politics aside (I, for one feel the anti-Semitic reading is probably an erroneous one), I can't think of a better portrait of the detestably weak nouveau riche. Now, in a similarly devastating vein, comes Jezebel, probably the most disturbing portrait of vanity gone awry you are ever likely to read. I realise this is a massive call. Oscar Wilde would spin in his grave. Or shut me down with a pithy aside. But Jezebel towers over The Picture of Dorian Gray. Yep, I said it.

Never before have I been so moved to despise a lead character as much as Gladys Eysenach. As the novel opens, this faux-sophisticate is on trial for the murder of a young man, presumed to be her lover. An initial surreal swirl of courtroom drama gives way to the story of Eysenach's decline, marked by selfishness and a vanity so consuming that it literally destroys all around her. Eysenach is petrified of ageing, but even more so of people knowing that she is ageing. At sixty she is said to look thirty. She takes lovers half her age. She gives away a son at birth, and forces a daughter to become party to her lies. It is a damning portrait Nemirovsky paints, one inspired, or so it was said at the time of publication, by her own mother.

There is an element of mystery about the identity of the murdered lover, but Nemirovsky is less concerned about writing some sort of whydunnit than she is in exploring the psyche of this awful woman. Indeed, it becomes increasingly apparent that the tears Eysenach sheds in the courtroom at the start of the book aren't born of remorse or guilt for murdering her own son, but a realisation that her age will finally be unveiled. I suspect Jezebel may draw criticism for misogyny just as David Golder did for anti-Semitism, ruminating as it does on what Nemirovsky sees as a stereotypical feminine trait, but to so accuse would be missing the point of the book. Jezebel is a character study beyond par and, in my humble opinion, Nemirovsky's best book.


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