The Wine of Solitude by Irene Nemirovsky was first published in 1935, the setting is mainly Russia, just before the Great War. Helene is a young girl with a selfish and narcissistic mother, Bella, who is obsessed by her looks and clothes – and young men. Helene despises her mother who doesn’t want her to grow up and makes her dress like a little girl instead of the young woman she is fast becoming. Helene knows exactly what her mother is getting up to with Max, a very much younger relative of hers, but if Boris, her father knows he chooses to ignore it.
Mademoiselle Rose, a servant is the only person who seems to care about Helene, Boris is obsessed with making money fast, gambling on the stock exchange during the day and losing it at the casino at night time. But while the economy is booming due to the war that isn’t a worry and they are living the high life, it’s a different matter when the Russian Revolution comes along and they have to run for their lives.
This is the seventh book which I’ve read by Nemirovsky and almost all of them have had the same theme, they’re very autobiographical and I can’t help wondering what she would have written about if she had not suffered from a ghastly self-obsessed mother. She seems to have spent her writing career getting her own back on her mother, which is understandable under the circumstances I suppose.
Of course Irene Nemirovsky didn’t survive World War 2, she died in Auschwitz after being rounded up by the Gestapo in 1942, apart from having a horrible mother she had two more disadvantages in life as far as the Nazis were concerned, she was Russian and also Jewish and for some reason she didn’t leave France for somewhere safer when she should have.
Her mother did survive however hob nobbing with the people who had murdered her daughter. It’s said that when she did die Nemirovsky’s mother’s safe had copies of her daughter’s books in it. I think that we are supposed to think that her mother was really proud that her daughter had become a successful writer, but I suspect that it was more likely her way of saying: See what I had to put up with from my daughter. How could I be expected to help her when she wrote about me like this. Nemirovsky may have felt that she had got her own back on her mother but to me it seems to have been at the price of her life.
Her books are all beautifully written though with such lovely descriptions, it makes you feel you have climbed right into them. I have to mention the translator Sandra Smith. Translators often get taken for granted I think, but when you’ve read a book which has clunky words in it and you find yourself supplying better alternatives, it makes you appreciate good translations.