The Wine of Solitude by Irene Nemirovsky

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.

Jericho Sleep Alone by Chaim Bermant

Jericho Sleep Alone cover

I was almost at the end of January when it dawned on me that although I’d been getting a lot of reading done, due to being stuck in the house trying to avoid the worst of our weather – but I hadn’t read anything by a Scottish author. So I quickly remedied that by reading Jericho Sleep Alone by Chaim Bermant. Chaim Bermant was a Jewish author who wrote about what he knew, what it was like growing up in a Jewish family in Glasgow.

I read a lot of this author’s books way back in the 1970s but I don’t think I read this one then. Jericho Sleep Alone was first published in 1964. The setting is mainly Glasgow although Jericho does go to Israel for a while. The story begins just before Jericho’s Bar-Mitvah and continues through his school and university days, and on to his attempts to get a suitable job and then his experiences on a kibbutz. Poor Jericho is a disappointment to his parents, he’s a failure at everything he tries out and he doesn’t even have any luck with the girls either.

That makes it sound like a depressing read but there are some funny characters which lift the whole thing and Jericho himself always had my sympathy. Of course Bermant was writing about family life in a Glaswegian/Jewish household and I remember being engrossed in the books, loving the settings and mentions of the Glasgow streets and people going off for their summer holiday to places like Helensburgh, all of 20 miles or so from Glasgow, but a different world from the city.

Jewish/Glaswegian families didn’t seem to be much different from any other Glaswegian families and from my very small experience of the matter it seems to me that Jewish sons just enjoy complaining more about their mothers than anyone else, the mothers themselves seem like many others to me.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to pick up this old copy of the book in a charity shop in Aberdeen, in very good condition with its dust jacket which was designed by Hugh Marshall. I mention this because Jack and I were at an antiques fair a few months ago and we stopped at a book stall. Jack got into conversation with the stall holder about one of his books and the guy said proudly that he had bever read any of the books which he sold because he was only interested in the covers and their artists. Each to their own I suppose!

This novel appears in a list of 100 best Scottish Books.

Although I enjoyed it, I think from my memory his later books are even better.

This is the first book I’ve read for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky

The Dogs and the Wolves cover

The Dogs and the Wolves was first published in 1940, the last one to be published in Irene Nemirovsky‘s lifetime, although several books were published posthumously.

It seems that she returned to her early life for the subject matter of this one, which is unusual for an author I think, it reads more like something which would have been written earlier in an author’s career.

It’s the story of two families with the surname Sinner who live in the Ukraine, they’re distantly related but have had no contact with each other for generations as one family is living in the poor Jewish quarter at the bottom of the town, life is hard for them and things get an awful lot worse when the local army recruits take it into their minds to attack the Jews in the ghetto. The poor Sinner children get caught up in the pogrom and in desperation they make their way up to their rich relative’s house at the top of the town, and so begins a relationship between the children which continues into adulthood as they move from the Ukraine to Paris.

The dogs in the title are the rich Jews and the wolves are the poor struggling Jews and the author writes about them having typical Jewish characteristics but it seems to me that their attitudes are just those of most human beings in that no matter how poor they might be they still have hope that some sort of miracle will happen and they will suddenly be well off. It’s that hope which keeps a lot of people going, no matter what religion they are. A Jewish friend of mine is always complaining about Jewish mothers being so worried about their children but I don’t see any difference to any other mothers, it’s just the territory that you get when you have children. We’re all the same no matter which culture you’ve been brought up with, which of course is just what Shakespeare was saying in The Merchant of Venice.

Anyway, I enjoyed this one, there’s a lot more to the story than I have said (as usual) but it wasn’t as good as Fire in the Blood which is the only other book by Nemirovsky which I’ve read.

Sadly Irene Nemisrovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942.