French writer Irène Némirovsky has been revered for years as the author who achieved immediate success with the publication of David Golder, the story of a Jewish banker’s troubled relationship with his daughter. But she is perhaps best known for the unfinished Suite Francaise, two novellas written during the period of the Nazi occupation of Paris, notable for their reflections on what was happening at the time rather than being a record of the events.
Now, more than 70 years after its initial publication, there is a translation of Le Vin de Solitude, the story of a young would-be writer who blossoms into a strong-willed woman, hardened by life, who seeks revenge on her cruel, uncaring mother. The Wine of Solitude is an ethereal work--- grave, lucid and beautiful in its many fine details.
The novel begins in a fictionalized Kiev and follows the Karol family through the Great War and the Russian Revolution. Young Hélène is not a materialistic, clueless or unintelligent child but a confused one who can’t understand why her father must always be leaving for business. When her mother decides to take Max as a lover to compensate for her husband’s prolonged absences, Hélène vows to find a way to make her suffer for her apathetic attitude toward her.
Hélène longs to be a writer, finding in writing a way to say things she keeps to herself because she can’t say them to her parents. It’s a visceral experience for her, a game she plays with herself because she lives on the sidelines among people who treat her with indifference, as if she were a pet. Only her governess, Madame Rose, treats her with loving, kindness and respect. Madame is “ the only pure, peaceful woman she had ever known, a woman free from the stain of desire, whose eyes seemed only to have looked upon smiling, innocent faces.” But this relationship is not enough to compensate for Bella’s neglect of her daughter.
Hélène chooses a shocking way to make her mother suffer: by attracting the attention of her young boyfriend. Max finds Bella exciting, yet he is enamored with Héléne’s intense zest for life. Eventually, the slow, perfect seduction between Hélène, Bella and Max turns sour, with the three of them stumbling around the pitiful Boris, the obsessed gambler who seeks only the allure of the green gaming table.
The result of all this unhappiness is a gloomy tale of family dysfunction, loneliness and ultimately heartless revenge, a portrait of the empty home of a neglected daughter and two self-absorbed adults too weak to resist the material pleasures of the world. In the end, the family finds a necessary if faulty solution to its own misery. Hèléne, whose heart is as hard and heavy as stone, becomes a reckless young woman determined to find success.
“I’m not afraid of life,’ she thought. “The past has given me my first experiences of the world. They have been exceptionally difficult, but they have forged my courage and my pride. And that immutable treasure is mine, belongs to me. I may be alone, but my solitude is powerful and intoxicating.”