October 7, 2011 10:09 pm

The Wine of Solitude

Family strife during Russia’s civil war

The posthumous publication of Suite Française, in 2004, rekindled the world’s interest in Irène Némirovsky, a prolific Ukrainian-French writer who died in Auschwitz in 1942. The Wine of Solitude is the latest of her novels to be translated into English.

The story is autobiographical in its dissection of the troubled mother-daughter relationship. Its protagonist, Hélène Karol, is the only child of Boris, a businessman with a taste for gambling, and Bella, his bored wife. The Karols share their house in Kiev, at the beginning of the 20th century, with Hélène’s maternal grandparents and with the French governess, Mademoiselle Rose.

Told from Hélène’s point of view, the novel is a scathing indictment of adult hypocrisy. Hélène despises her mother, who seems to care only for flaunting the latest Parisian fashion and finding a lover. She adores her father, who appears mostly uninterested in his only child. Her greatest affection is for Mademoiselle Rose, who offers the only sphere of emotional security.

When Boris’s business prospects improve, the family moves to St Petersburg. But outside events soon intrude on the Karols’ uneasy domestic arrangements: Boris’s easily made fortunes are just as easily lost when Russia is convulsed by civil war.

As the October Revolution turns the world on its head around them, Hélène is steeped in her own tragedy. Out of spite, she tells her father that Bella has taken a young lover. A furious Bella sends Mademoiselle Rose away, assuming it is she who has turned Hélène against her mother.

There comes a time in life, Hélène remarks, “When we study the faces of ‘old people’ and sense that one day we will be just like them. And that is the moment when early childhood comes to an end.” The Wine of Solitude is an end-of-innocence story in which Hélène unveils the melancholy truths about adult relationships – even as she realises that she will hardly be any better herself. “I wanted to change the course of our lives, as a child might try to stop a flood with his powerless hands,” an adolescent Hélène thinks as her parents’ relationship disintegrates in a whirlwind of paid-for lovers and ill-gotten gains gambled away.

Sandra Smith’s translation is mellifluous and certain passages – the opening lines describing dusk in Kiev, for example – are breathtaking. It is Némirovsky’s powers of social observation, however, the implacable eye for the nuances of human conduct, that make The Wine of Solitude so memorable.

The Wine of Solitude, by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith, Chatto & Windus, RRP£14.99, 248 pages

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