Irène Némirovsky has long been a favourite author of mine. Sadly, I am now coming to the stage in my reading of her oeuvre where I have only a handful of books outstanding. I have been trying to ration myself by not buying and consuming them immediately, but sometimes hers is the only writing I feel like reading. It was at one of these points that I purchased a copy of Jezebel, first published in 1940, and translated from its original French by Sandra Smith in 2010.
Jezebel focuses on the trial of a woman, Gladys Eysenach, in a French courtroom. She is ‘no longer young, but she is still beautiful, elegant, cold.’ She is on trial for the murder of her lover, twenty-year-old Bernard Martin, a man far younger than she, who was killed in December 1934. As the case begins to unfold, Gladys reflects on her life, which culminates in the ‘final irrevocable act.’ This novel, says its blurb, is suffused with ‘the depth of insight and pitiless compassion we have come to expect… Némirovsky shows us the soul of a desperate woman obsessed with her lost youth.’
Translator Sandra Smith contributes a short introduction to the volume. She says: ‘”Jezebel”… the very name immediately conjures up a host of impressions, all negative: seductress, traitor, whore.’ She then goes on to write about Gladys as a protagonist, and the way in which she worships her own beauty: ‘To her, beauty is power; it defines her life and her worth. As Gladys ages and her fears turn to obsessions, Némirovsky explores the fine balance between victim and criminal, and the reader is torn between sympathy and horror.’
We first meet Gladys when she is on the stand during her trial. We are therefore launched immediately into the story. She admits, very early on, to shooting Bernard, as she feared that he was going to reveal their relationship to her other, more official lover, Count Monti. The initial description given of her is as follows: ‘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.’ We learn that she is a woman of immense wealth, who has travelled extensively, and made her home in many countries. She is widowed, and lost her only child during the First World War.
From the outset, Némirovsky captures Gladys’ fear and uncertainty of her situation: ‘The defendant slowly clasped her trembling hands together; her nails dug deep into her pale skin; her colourless lips opened slightly, with difficulty, but she uttered not a word, not a sound.’ Those in the public gallery ‘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…’. In the trial, ‘only the accused woman was exciting; the victim was no more than a vague ghost.’
We learn a great deal about Gladys not from her own account, but through the testimonies of others. One of her friends, Jeannine Percier, for instance, tells the court: ‘I’m only telling you what everyone knows. Gladys was excessively flirtatious. She enjoyed nothing more than compliments, adoration, but that’s not a crime.’ Jeannine goes on to remark: ‘It always seemed to me that there was something deeply tragic within Gladys.’
There is such gorgeous prose within the novel. When we are taken back to Gladys’ early adulthood, Némirovsky recounts a sumptuous ball which she attends. Here, Gladys ‘knew that she would never ever forget that scent of roses in the warm ballroom, the feel of the night breeze on her shoulders, the brilliant lights, the waltz that lingered in her ears. She was so very happy. No, not happy, not yet, but it was the expectation of happiness, the heavenly desire and passionate thirst for happiness, that filled her heart.’ At this point for Gladys, ‘Everything was bewitching; everything looked beautiful to her, rare and enchanting; life took on a new flavour she had never tasted before: it was bittersweet.’
As she moves into adulthood, we learn a lot about her relationships with various husbands and lovers, as well as the unsettling way in which she and her young daughter, Thérèse, interacted: ‘She lived in the shadow of her beautiful mother and, like everyone else who knew Gladys, she strove only to please her, to serve her, to love her.’ She goes as far as pretending her daughter is far younger than she is, so that nobody can consider her old.
Gladys’ vanity is at the forefront of her mind at all times; her first act each morning is to reach for a mirror and study her face. She sees the world as her playground, and the men within it hers to do with as she pleases. Whilst her wealth allows her to be a lady of leisure, Gladys is not as content with this as one might expect: ‘She would visit one friend after another. With them, time would pass more quickly, but eventually she had to go home and still it was daytime. There was nothing left to do but buy a dress and visit the jewellers… Finally, night would come and she would feel as if she had been reborn. She would go home to Sans-Souci, get dressed, admire how she looked. How she loved doing that. Was there anything better in life, was there anything more sensual than being attractive?’
Jezebel is a rich and fascinating psychological study, taut and tightly written. Némirovsky achieves a great deal in less than 200 pages. She demonstrates such depth, and one of the real strengths in this novel is the way in which the conversations between characters feel so realistic. The novel is atmospheric from beginning to end, with striking scenes, and flesh-and-blood characters. Jezebel is richly evocative, as all of Némirovsky’s books are. Gladys’ story has been vividly realised. She is not at all a likeable character, but the astute and perceptive insights which Némirovsky gives into her imagined life are fascinating. One cannot help but feel sorry for her at points, particularly when the extent to which her own self-absorption has harmed her is revealed. Jezebel is a captivating novel, which has a rather sad quality to it, and it offers far more in terms of plot than I was expecting.