The Wine of Solitude
By Irène Némirovsky
Chatto & Windus – £11.99
Quite why Irène Némirovsky decided to call what is oft considered her most autobiographical novel, The Wine of Solitude, is beyond me, as both wine and solitude (especially) are sorely missing. Okay, so one wouldn’t really know that Slaughterhouse Five is anchored around the bombing of Dresden or A Clockwork Orange around assorted violent thugs in bowler hats – were one to go by their respective titles alone.
But surely there has to be some relative bearing?
Imbued with a morose sadness throughout, this novel – available in English for the first time – explores the rather vexed relationship between Hélène
(an only child) her father (whose only passion in life is gambling), her annoying mother (whose only passion is herself) and her mother’s seemingly gargoyle of an obsequious lover, Max. Set during the Great War as well as the Russian Revolution, one would think a writer of Némirovsky’s reputation and stature might have captured the chaotic, anarchic period perfectly. But what we essentially have here is a snooty, limp-wristed traipse through the park, wherein the dialogue is so horribly saccharine, it makes the likes of Virginia Woolf sound like Paul Weller:
‘’’Do you recognise this road? I can’t see a thing. Mademoiselle Rose! Answer me! What are you thinking about?’
‘What are you saying, Lili? Talk louder, I can’t hear you…’
‘The fog is muffling our voices…’
‘The fog and the cries. It’s funny that you can’t hear the cries… They’re far away, very far away, but so clear… Are you tired, my poor darling? But that doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, let’s hurry up, hurry up,’ she said again anxiously.
‘Oh, but why?’ Hélène said bitterly. ‘It’s not as if anyone is waiting for us.They couldn’t care less. She’s with her Max. Oh, how I hate her…’
‘Now, now!’ Mademoiselle Rose said quietly. ‘You mustn’t say that. It isn’t nice…’’’
No, it really isn’t nice, especially having to read such mild’n’marshmallow-induced pisch. The sort of which is so considered, so ultimately void of gravitas, that it’s ultimately akin to having to endure Russell Brand reciting King Lear. In and of itself, this is surprising as well as disappointing. Reason being, Némirovsky’s posthumously published Suite Française was a most magnificent piece of work; one of the most powerful novels depicting wartime France I have ever read in fact.
There are admittedly some memorable lines scattered throughout The Wine of Solitude: ‘’Life is bad […]. God is terrible. Men are harsh,’’ ‘’in this world, human passions were hidden behind playing cards and bitterly disputed small winnings,’’ ‘’Government officials, it seemed, could only understand business matters when surrounded by food or women.’’ Along with a few wonderful descriptions: ‘’The air was thick with dust and smelled of dung and roses.’’ ‘’[…], with her Irish tweed jacket, her polka-dot veil, her skirt sweeping across the dead leaves, as she walked with all the plumed aplomb of, according to the popular expression of the day, a ‘horse pulling a hearse’ to meet an Argentinian with cigar-coloured skin.’’
But a collection of terrific lines doesn’t necessarily make for a great book. Or even a good one come to that. They merely entice the reader into perhaps investigating the author’s other works.