The Wine of Solitude by Irène Némirovsky

Translated from the French, Le Vin de Solitude, by Sandra Smith.

Chatto and Windus, 2011, 248 p. First published by Éditions Albin Michel, 1935.

Hélène Karol is the only child of Bella and Boris Karol. Bella feels she has been forced, for financial security, to marry beneath her – she is self-centred and has expensive tastes. Boris is forced to leave his job as he would be tempted to steal to keep her in style. He leaves for, and makes his fortune in, Siberia. While he is there Bella takes a lover, Max Safronov, who considers the child Hélène a nuisance. Boris refuses openly to acknowledge his wife’s infidelities. Némirovsky notes that “a man needs a certain amount of breathable air, a small dose of oxygen and illusion in order to live.”

The novel traces Hélène’s life from early childhood in Kiev, to St Petersburg, then after the Russian Revolution to Finland and finally France. Hélène loves her father but the only person who has any time for her is her governess Madamoiselle Rose, with whose services Bella eventually dispenses, claiming she has set Hélène against her.

The book’s focus is firmly on Hélène and the effects on her of Bella’s indifference. While still a child she reads a book displaying a happy family she thinks is a fantasy and writes in it, “In every family there is nothing but greed, lies and misunderstanding.” The upheavals of the outside world, the Great War, the Revolution, are mostly off-stage – though one of the scenes in Finland has the White Army gradually nearing the village where the Karols are staying. Even when living through interesting times people still have personal concerns. Wars and revolutions are only the backdrop against which their lives are experienced.

Hélène’s hatred of her mother is such that when she grows up and realises a young woman’s attractiveness to men she determines to win Max’s affections to gain a measure of revenge. More subtly Némirovsky has Max’s mother say to him, in respect of Bella, “Women don’t love a man for himself but as a weapon against another woman,” and doesn’t make those Hélène’s words.

Since Némirovsky was herself Ukrainian and emigrated to France it would be too easy to attribute this novel to autobiography. To do so would be to deny the novelist’s art. As a depiction of an emotionally deprived childhood, and its effects, The Wine of Solitude is exemplary. It also stands as a reminder that those effects need not be determinative. We can choose how to behave.

The translation renders the area of Hélène’s childhood as “the” Ukraine. While this was the Soviet designation and may have been the one in use when the book was written in the 1930s I believe the inhabitants of that country prefer just Ukraine. A pedant’s heart will be gladdened by the fact that in the Finnish scenes Smith rendered a question grammatically correctly as, “Whom were they firing at?” though it does appear fussy to modern eyes.

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  1. The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirowsky – A Son of the Rock -- Jack Deighton

    […] novels I have now read this is the one that most engages with the Jewish experience. As in The Wine of Solitude the narrative starts in Ukraine (once again the text has “the” Ukraine) and later shifts to […]

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