Irène Némirovsky’s Look at Life Between the Wars

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  • UnknownThe Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith (Vintage International, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Through the lives of three interconnected families, the many changes to France’s working- and middle-class from WWI to the early days of WWII are shown. Némirovsky’s keen eye for the import of social status carries the story.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Primarily Paris
  • Time: 1912-1941
  • Read this for a character-driven tour of the vast changes in daily life over the quarter-century between WWI and WWII.

Irène Némirovsky came to fame in the US more than 60 years after her death in Auschwitz in 1942. Russian and Jewish by birth in 1903, she fled to France after the Revolution and saw herself as French, though never accorded citizenship. Némirovsky converted to Catholicism in 1939. She received acclaim for her novels during her life though some were criticized as anti-Semitic. While three novels were published posthumously in France after the war, the discovery of the manuscript of Suite Française by her daughter in the late 1990’s led to the publication of it, and many of her other works, both in French and in translation.

The Fires of Autumn, written as World War II loomed, is reflective of the many changes in the early decades of the 20th century. Three families, the Jacquelains, the Bruns, and the Humberts, all have children whose choices are altered by the advent of WWI. Rather than opening his medical office, Martial enlists as a military doctor on the front. This “heroic” choice leads to an unexpected engagement with Thérèse. And Bernard, the scion of the Jacquelain family, destined for the university, enlists as soon as he is of age, shortly after Martial’s death.


Bernard returns jaded from the war, disinterested in his family’s aspirations or concerns for him. Quickly caught up in the hedonism emblematic of the 1920s, he connects with wheeler-dealer new style businessman changing the course of his life. He marries Thérèse and through their relationship and the interaction with their families and childhood friends, the fracturing of many societal norms are seen.

Having found Suite Française overwhelming, I was hesitant about reading The Fires of Autumn. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Némirovsky tells a good story and her characters are well-formed. The strength of The Fires of Autumn is the timing of the telling of the story. As seen in her life choices, Némirovsky knows all too well that politics can alter fortunes in mere moments and that choosing sides can exact a heavy price. While at times the dramatics of Némirovsky’s life receive more attention than her writings, The Fires of Autumn is a good reason for her inclusion among noteworthy writers of pre-WWII France.


‘The Muralist’: Historical Fiction and Art Appreciation in One Package

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  • Unknown-12The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro (Algonquin Books, November 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: At the cusp of WWII, a young French-American artist pursues her art as her family tries to escape Europe. Seventy-five years later, her great-niece works to solve the mystery of her disappearance and secure her place in the art world.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: New York and France
  • Time: 1939/40 and 2015
  • Read this for a gripping story filled with insights into the world of art and the machinations of the US government as the Jews of France sought to escape Nazi Europe.

RELEASE DATE – Tuesday, November 3. The Muralist, B.A. Shapiro’s second novel, brings together a young French-American artist with the luminaries of the fledgling Abstract Expressionist movement. In 1939, when the story begins, many soon-to-be-famous artists were working for the US government as part of the WPA project which commissioned realistic paintings and murals depicting life during the Depression. Alizée Benoit was born in America, leaving to live with relatives in France after the death of her parents when she was twelve. Seven years later she returns to advance her art career, aware that the situation in France for her Jewish family is becoming perilous. Her goal is to find a way to bring them all to the US, whatever it takes.

Alizée’s day job is drawing and painting murals intended for libraries, post offices and other civic buildings in a huge warehouse along with Lee Krasner and other artists. Their free hours are spent painting, drinking and arguing art and politics with Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and others in their group. Separated from his wife, Rothko takes particular interest in Alizée, both personally and professionally. Barely subsisting, the artists are often consumed by self-doubt, alcohol and depression, creating at times a toxic mix.

Seventy-five years later, Danielle Abrams is recasting her life assessing art work for a major auction house. Inspired by brief stories of her great-aunt, Alizée, and the two paintings of hers that survived, Danielle had been a painter before her divorce and held out hope she could solve Alizée’s disappearance in late 1940. When a group of paintings by the likes of Rothko and Pollock appear at work for evaluation with small related squares secreted on the back, Danielle sees hints of Alizée’s style and sets out to find out more.

Unknown-13 As Alizée struggles to acquire visas for her family she runs up against nativism and isolationism as typified by Lindbergh and Kennedy, and anti-Semitic and obstructionist policies in the State Department spearheaded by Breckinridge Long. Eleanor Roosevelt’s genuine interest in the WPA art projects serves to bring  Alizée a patron and ally. Throughout The Muralist, Alizée is receiving evermore frightening letters from her relatives in France describing the roundups and tightening restrictions on the Jews. Alizée keeps from her artist friends her activities to circumvent US visa restrictions and take down Breckinridge Long.

Danielle comes into her own as she works to establish the hidden squares as Alizée’s. As with many Holocaust survivors, her grandfather chose not to discuss his experiences before resettling in America. In pursuit of her quest, Danielle comes to terms with her family’s experience in France.

Shapiro is emphatic in the afternote that is this a work of fiction weaving in historical figures and situations consistent with the times, taking liberties to serve the story. It doesn’t purport to be a telling of history with fictional characters added.

The beauty of modern historical fiction is the research that authors put into framing the story. While historical accuracy may be sacrificed for the plot, one of the great benefits of these books is whetting the reader’s appetite to discover aspects of history or art which may be relatively unfamiliar. Having read The Muralist I learned that the Abstract Expressionist movement emerged from artists involved in the WPA artist project. (see Similarly, while it is now fairly well-known that tens of thousands of visas were unused annually during WWII, the name Breckinridge Long was unfamiliar. Two clicks on the web and his role becomes all too clear.

With this second novel, B.A. Shapiro is setting a high bar for others seeking to inform the reader about art world while telling a complex and well-structured story.  It is refreshing to see strong women artists as protagonists, well-drawn and wrestling with their imperfections and moral choices as they pursue their art in a male-dominated field. Her inclusion of historical events and figures moves the plot along and her clear acknowledgement of the liberties she takes with history are most welcome. The Muralist is a fine novel to share with a friend or in a group. Note: The Muralist tops the Indie Next List for November.




‘The Girl You Left Behind’ captures the evocative power of art

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  • Unknown-10The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Penguin Books, 2012)
  • In 40 words or less: A portrait ties together two young women and their absent husbands. A thought-provoking story of love, art, ownership and restitution.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: France and London
  • Time: 1916 and Present
  • Read this for a classic story interwoven with contemporary issues of ownership, morality and the transformative power of art.

Jojo Moyes first made a splash on the US book scene in 2012 with her novel Me Before You. With a longstanding reputation in Great Britain, two additional titles were released here later in 2012, The Girl You Left Behind and its prequel novella, Honeymoon in Paris. Were it not for a book group requesting a discussion on The Girl You Left Behind, I might have missed it. I’m glad I didn’t.

Moyes immediately immerses the reader in the life of Sophie Lefèvre, a young woman struggling with her sister and brother to get by while the Germans occupy their French village in October 1916. Sophie, strong and independent, had lived in Paris, meeting her artist husband, Edouard, there while she was a shopgirl. When he left for the Army, she returned to the village to help her sister whose husband was goners well. The Germans commandeered almost everything, leaving the residents with little to eat and few possessions. The sisters’ inn, stripped of almost all furniture, was required to prepare and serve meals to the troops billeted in the town. While charged with preparing the food, the family, which included a baby and the daughter of a woman taken by the Germans, had to account for every morsel of food served.

The only item of value left in the home was a painting of Sophie by Edouard, an Impressionist. The portrait was imbued with all the love Edouard felt for his wife and served as a promise of their future together. The Kommandant was taken by the painting and was prepared to go to great lengths in the hope of acquiring it. And Sophie would put herself in great peril for the chance to reunite with Edouard.

The story shifts to present-day London where Liv Halston is a young widow, living in the Glass House designed by her late husband David, a renowned architect. Liv is frozen in her grief, the only softness in her life is the portrait David purchased for her while they honeymooned in Paris. A chance meeting with an ex-pat American involved in art restitution sets off a chain of events upending both their lives and demanding that the fate of the Lefèvres be known.

Don’t for a minute think this is merely a story of time-linked romances. Moyes presents the legal and emotional issues associated with art restitution, carefully facebook_placeholdermaking the Holocaust a minor player. By doing so the visceral attachment people have to art, as contrasted with its possible market value, is elevated. Moyes is acutely aware that most restitution claims arise from German confiscation of art owned by Jews and brings that into the story as a means of bringing moral gravitas to the debate about ownership and redress.

With carefully constructed plot twists, The Girl You Left Behind held my interest to final page. Moyes’s deft hand in tackling fundamental issues rises well above many popular novels.

Small books can leave big impressions

IMG_2929While you can’t tell a book by its cover, it certainly can encourage you to look inside.  Deborah Levy-Bertherat’s The Travels of Daniel Ascher, newly translated from French and published on May 26, certainly piqued my curiosity. The cover resembles an old-fashioned valise, promising mysteries within.

We meet Hélenè as she moves into her great-uncle’s home in Paris where she is studying archeology. Her great-uncle, Daniel Roche, is an author and adventurer writing under the nom de plume of H.R. Sanders.  Through words and sketches, Daniel created an extensive series of world-traveling adventures, capturing the hearts of legions of young boys and girls. Hélenè is quite disinterested until she realizes their impact on those around her.

Daniel’s life is eccentric at best, disappearing and reappearing on his travels with no notice.  And his home is reflective of his unusual and secretive life. Bit by bit, Hélenè begins uncovering the layers of Daniel’s life as if it were an archeological excavation. Some of the family secrets Hélenè uncovers harken back to WWII.

Despite having the size and typography often found in YA novels, the revelations at times presume an understanding of world affairs and are handled with a very subtle hand not in keeping with the style of YA works. The sketches interspersed with the text help draw the story along.

Regardless of his name, Daniel is a complicated figure, imaginative, considerate in many ways but with a pervasive air of mystery and unexplained detachment. Levy-Bertherat brings the reader along with Hélenè on a journey of discovery. It was definitely worth the trip.

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  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Paris
  • Time: 1999-2000
  • Book Group Potential: Better suited for sharing with friends than a full-blown discussion.


IMG_2930Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation topped many “Best of” lists for 2014. Unusual in style and format, the entire book is the interior voice of an unnamed woman as she moves through the trials of early adulthood. It is almost as if the reader jumps into her skull and wanders among her thoughts as she explores the early days of her marriage, the arrival of her daughter and the travails of developing a career as an untenured academic and writer.  Each of these bits of information is gathered through her silent dialogue and classic quotations that give voice to her internal conflicts.

As  the book progresses, the tasks of daily living often appear overwhelming. She becomes suspicious of her husband’s inattention and concludes, correctly, that he is having an affair. Offill captures the anger, fear and self-doubt while reporting on the progress and dissolution of the affair. While distinctly modern in tone, this is not a feminist work by any means. In fact, there is little interaction with the world beyond her immediate challenges.

And then there is a shift, a detachment, as her life veers off course once again and the narrative shifts to the third person. There is an odd juxtaposition of emotional distancing despite more normal interactions as the family relationships move to a new equilibrium. Throughout, our narrator seems alone with her thoughts.

While it is not so unusual to jump into a story with both feet, a la double-Dutch jump roping, there is often a flashback or recap to catch the reader up.  Offill does a good job of keeping the reader as off-balance as our nameless woman, with constant forward motion, except for an occasional memory as in real life. The language pops in short bursts of sentences and paragraphs.

Far more than the story itself, I am impressed by the design of the novel. I kept turning the pages to see the progress and transitions of the work. While I could marvel at the brilliance of the literary conceit, I finished this short book so sad for a woman whose private thoughts were spread out for every reader to see.

  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: New York (I think)
  • Time: now
  • Book Group Potential: Great for groups interested in literary construction/analysis or feminism (or the lack thereof) in contemporary literature.