Irene Nemirovsky was a prophet. In 1936 she published Jezebal, a novel about a woman on trial for the murder of her young lover. Neither the trial nor even the crime are the real subjects of this novel; they are, rather, the outward signs of a life’s obsession, the inevitable results of an unrestrained need.
Not sexual need, per se. Jezebel is a termed now used interchangeably (when it’s used at all) with words like whore or tart, etc. But Jezebel, in the bible, was infamous for worshipping false idols, not for sexual immorality. Nemirovsky’s protagonist, Gladys Eysenach, is in thrall to the most fleeting, if not the most false, of all idols: youth, and its attendant beauty, power, pleasures, and freedom.
As a teenager, Gladys realizes she is incredibly beautiful and that there is profound power in this. She decides to wield that power for all it’s worth and so begins a life in which all meaning and happiness are drawn from the adoring attention bestowed upon her by men; the jealous attention directed at her by other women has its pleasures too. She is selfish, shallow, and as she ages, increasingly desperate, deceptive, and pathetic. But Nemirovsky is too smart, too aware of the complexities of the human mind and our flawed morals, to allow Gladys to be an easy object of comfortable condemnation.
No, from the beginning–the novel begins at her trial and then skips backwards to Gladys’s early life and leads us back to the trial again, so we may know both what actually happens and why–Nemirovsky makes it clear that Gladys exists as she does in part because the world is designed to accommodate people as shallow and single-minded as she is. Her trial is described in terms of the theatrical–although, and this is where my claim about the prophetic comes in–it’s immediately recognizable now as the same lurid desire for salacious details that gives rise to reality TV and celebrity trials now:
A woman stepped into the dock.
She was still beautiful, despite her paleness and her drained, distraught appearance. Her sensual eyelashes were pale from crying and her mouth drooped, yet she still looked young. Her hair was hidden beneath a black hat.
Out of habit she placed her hand on her neck, no doubt feeling for the long strand of pearls she had worn in the past, but her neck was bare; she faltered; slowly, sadly, she wrung her hands and a soft whisper ran through the crowd of people as they followed her every move.
‘The gentlemen of the jury wish to see your face,’ said the Presiding Judge. ‘Remove your hat.’
She took it off and, once again, all eyes were drawn to her perfect, small, bare hands….
Her hair was fine and light blonde; she was dressed in black. ‘She’s very good-looking,’ one woman whispered, sighing with pleasure, as if she were in the theatre.
The audience’s interest in Gladys is devoid of compassion, almost even of curiosity, for what brought her there; rather, the spectacle itself is paramount and the spectacle is twofold: A woman on trial, and a woman who was once extremely beautiful. She is still beautiful, we’re told, but the interest shown in that is really about how she’s clearly somehow defying the passage of time and is still beautiful (how much she’s defying it, no one realizes).
For Gladys, youth and beauty have been the terrible idols that have defined the whole course of her life, but it’s clear in this brief scene that they are the idols everyone around her worships too. The jurymen don’t need to see her face to judge of her guilt or innocence–in part because the evidence is so damning and in part because she’s already admitted to having killed the young man. But like the gossiping ladies in the audience, their need is both real and entirely unrelated to matters of guilt and innocence. For them, she is a fading idol of youth and beauty.
Like modern audiences interested in the salaciousness, the luridness, the baseness with which their favourite famous role models rise only to quickly crash, Gladys’s audience here quickly loses interest in her:
The very people whose curiosity had been so painful to her a few hours earlier now looked away; they were already weary, morose, indifferent. The crowd was beginning to feel the excitement and tiredness that comes at the end of a trial. Through a badly closed door, waves of noise from the corridor occasionally reached the courtroom, like a sea washing against a little island. The members of the public coldly examined the trembling, pale, haggard face of the accused, like people looking at a wild animal, imprisoned behind the bars of its cage: savage but confined, its teeth and nails pulled out, panting, half dead…
The line between idolatry and dehumanization is very fine in Jezebel, which is part of the terrible point, of course. Interest in others last only so long as their projection of youth lasts, which Gladys knows all too well. Indeed, as much as this novel is a close look at a cultural obsession with youth distilled down into one individual, it is also about the pain of that individual knowing all along that her power is fleeting, false, fragile, and doomed. The tragedy is that Gladys can’t help but play it for all it’s worth anyway; she sees, and really has, no other choice.
Not that, I think, we’re meant to see her as a victim; rather, all of the other characters in Nemirovsky’s novel are as shallow and selfish as Gladys is, and so I think we’re meant to see her as just one player in a game that must inevitably be played–by everyone. Or, which everyone feels must be played, and really that amounts to the same.
Gladys is a murderer, she confesses as much; she is self-absorbed to the point of being truly dangerous to others. But so is everyone else, and she is the only one with even a modicum of self-awareness, and so she is also the moral centre of Jezebel. This is why Irene Nemirovsky was a genius–and a scourge to readers’ self-satisfaction and complacency. I could certainly identity at points with Gladys’s bruised awareness of all the changes her body goes through as she aged, and my life has certainly not one that’s been lived on my looks (because, as Ogden Nash and various hair-dressers over the years have reminded me, “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses”).
I think this is a very smart book and very well written, as all Nemirovsky’s novels are in my experience so far. But it’s also my least favourite. The writing was excellent but somehow didn’t have the energy of The Misunderstanding or Fire in the Blood or Suite Francaise. And while I think the approximately one million times the narrator begins a sentence with something to the effect of “All women do/think/want/need…” is meant to reflect the sick society she’s portraying, it starts to seem as though either the narrator and/or Nemirovsky really thought women were irredeemably shallow and stupid. I would like to think that a woman so obviously neither shallow nor stupid wouldn’t fall into such a trap, regardless of the era in which she lived, but I don’t know.
That said, Irene Nemirovsky at her worst is still better than almost everyone else at their best, and I anxiously await the release of more translations by the lovely and amazing Sandra Smith.