It’s the latest decade reading club hosted by Simon and Karen. We’re heading back to 1930 this time – a year that doesn’t feature much on my shelves. I have already read and reviewed two prominent books of that year (click on the titles to go to my reviews): Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh and The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. There was just one left on the wiki-list for 1930 that I own a copy of and hadn’t read…
Le Bal by Irène Némirovsky
Translated by Sandra Smith
This edition from Vintage actually contains 2 short novellas. Le Bal from 1930 and Snow in Autumn from 1931 – I’ve only read the former so far. Translator, Smith, in her preface tells us how Le Bal showcases two of Némirovsky’s favourite themes: Family interactions, and foreigners in 1930s Paris. At 48 pages, Le Bal could be described as long short story or a short novella – take your pick, but in that span, it certainly makes an impact.
Alfred Kampf is a German Jew in Paris. Married to Rosine, he converted to Catholicism and they have a fourteen-year-old daughter, Antoinette. Until he struck lucky on the stock market, he struggled to find his place in Parisian society, now part of the nouveaux riches, he struggles differently. (Did the author choose his ironic surname to indicate that – Kampf being German for struggle? Hitler’s despicable anti-Semitic books had been published in the mid 1920s… )
Now they are monied, and live in grander surroundings with servants, Rosine decides to host a ball. She enlists the help of Antoinette, who would normally have gone to bed by now, to help address the invitations. Antoinette, however won’t be allowed to be part of the evening when it comes – this is Rosine’s chance to shine and show off to Parisian society. Antoinette, enraged, seizes a chance to later exact revenge on her mother.
Relationships between mothers and adolescent daughters can always be tricky, but Rosine is a mother from hell, selfish, a snob and ignorant of her daughter’s needs. (She makes Mrs Bennett seem positively angelic by comparison.) The miserable Antoinette lies crying in bed:
No one loved her, no one in the whole world . . . But couldn’t they see, blind idiots, that she was a thousand times more intelligent, more precious, more perceptive than all of them put together – these people who dared to bring her up, to teach her? These unsophisticated, crass nouveaux riches? She had been laughing at them all evening, but of course they hadn’t even realised . . . She could laugh or cry right under their noses and they wouldn’t deign to notice . . . To them a fourteen-year-old was just a kid – to be pushed around like a dog! What right did they have to send her to bed, to punish her, to insult her? ‘Oh, I wish they were all dead,’ she exclaimed.
A superb story that skewers Rosine’s desire for social climbing, it took only a short while to read, but made a great impact. (9/10).