The Wine of Solitude

Written by Irène Némirovsky
Review by Janet Hancock

First published in France in 1935 yet only available in English since 2011, The Wine of Solitude is the most autobiographical novel of Irène Némirovsky, the Russian Jew born in Kiev in 1903, who in 1919 fled civil war via St Petersburg and Helsinki to the rootless rich in France. As in several of her novels, the theme of this introspective book is a girl’s revenge on her mother. ‘Only the blood of an old wound,’ Némirovsky wrote, ‘can give colour to a work of art in the right way.’ The fictional Irène is Hélène daughter of Boris Karol, a peasant who has made good, and his lustful, spiteful wife, Bella, who resents her only child. Lonely, neglected, Hélène turns to her French governess for affection. When Bella discovers what her teenage daughter has written about a dysfunctional family, the governess is blamed and dismissed, and dies soon after. Hélène plans, and ultimately achieves, her revenge.

There is beauty in Némirovsky’s atmospheric, descriptive prose: the cold and snow of Finland; the light and spring leaves in Paris. Historical references are brief: Reds and Whites fighting near the town; sewing money and valuables into clothing; the Romanov heir ten thousand francs in debt to Boris Karol in Biarritz. Nothing detracts from the cruel, melancholy relationship between Hélène, Bella, Boris, and Bella’s lover Max. The ending is profound. Twenty-one-year-old Hélène faces a future alone with her cat and a suitcase of belongings, ‘but my solitude is powerful and intoxicating.’ Had Irène Némirovsky not perished in Auschwitz in 1942, she might have become the finest French novelist of the 20th century.