One From the Archive: ‘The Courilof Affair’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

‘The Courilof Affair’ by Irene Nemirovksy (Vintage)

I absolutely love Nemirovsky’s work, and will happily read any of her novels or novellas.  In fact, I will happily read anything which she turned her talented hand to.  Throughout The Courilof Affair, her writing is beautiful and its flow is marvellous, even in translation.  Sandra Smith, who was responsible for rendering the novel into English, has done a wonderful job.

The premise of The Courilof Affair would have attracted me even if I had not read any of Nemirovsky’s other work.  It begins in 1903, and deals with the son of Russian revolutionaries, who is given the responsibility of ‘liquidating Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the notoriously brutal and cold-blooded Russian Minister of Education…  Insinuating himself into Courilof’s household by becoming his physician, Leon M takes up residence at Courilof’s summer house in the Iles and awaits instructions.  But over the course of his story he is made privy to the inner world of the man he must kill – his failing health, his troubled domestic situation and, most importantly, the tyrannical grip that the Czar himself holds over all his ministers, forcing them to obey him or suffer the most deadly punishments’.

The Courilof Affair is protagonist Leon M’s autobiography of sorts, and it is told in retrospect from his own perspective.  His narrative voice flows well, and feels ultimately believable.  Nemirovsky gets across the fact that he is an anguished soul from the very beginning.  One of Nemirovsky’s strongest skills, as far as I am concerned, is the way in which she captures scenes and characters.  With one sweep of her pen, she creates the most vivid of images, and builds up beautiful and striking views before the very eyes.

The Courilof Affair is a novel about terrorism and its effects.  It has been based upon real-life events which have been fictionalised.  It is certainly well imagined in this respect, and has a definite ghostly echo of the awful, repressive situations which occurred in Russia both at the time in which the novel was written, and earlier.  As Nemirovsky does so marvellously in all of her books, she challenges perceptions throughout.  Her use of dual identity works well, and the book is rendered in an eminently human manner.  The story is a wise one, and it is entirely relevant to the world in which we live.

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