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Book 136: Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Book 136: Jezebel.
Author: Irène Némirovsky, 1936. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith, 2010.
Genre: Period Fiction (early 20th century). European Lit.
Other Details: Paperback. 208 pages.

'Gladys may have been older and in decline, but she was still beautiful. Time had touched her reluctantly, with a careful, gentle hand...' - from 'Jezebel'.

Keep young and beautiful
It's your duty to be beautiful
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved
- Al Dubin (lyrics) and Harry Warren (music), 1933 film Roman Scandals.

Irène Némirovsky is said to have been taken with the glamorous Hollywood movies of her day and it is tempting to wonder if she might have seen this Busby Berkeley-choreographed number before she wrote this scathing portrayal of a woman's obsession with her own youth and beauty. It also has a very old-fashioned movie, dramatic style that could easily seem out of date if Némirovsky was a less talented writer.

Jezebel opens in the summer of 1935 at the trial in Paris of Gladys Eysenach, a wealthy, glamorous older woman, accused of murdering her twenty-year old lover Bernard Martin. Evidence is given by those who knew her as to her character. Gladys also testifies though is hardly forthcoming in her own defence. She appears a somewhat tragic figure, an ageing beauty caught up in a quest for love; a woman of great privilege but without family or home.

Having shown the proceedings and outcome of the trial in the first 42 pages, Némirovsky then takes us back in time to witness key events from Gladys Eysenach's life, allowing us a closer look at the influences that shaped her and a more intimate view of her personality. In doing so she exposes the soul of a desperate woman obsessed with her lost youth.

This slim novel was originally published in English in 1937 as A Modern Jezebel and is widely acknowledged as a damning portrayal of Némirovsky's own mother. The new translator of Némirovsky works, Sandra Smith, opens with a short introduction that gives some background to this bitter relationship between mother and daughter and how it influenced a number of Némirovsky's female characters.

I read this powerful and compelling character study in a single sitting, which wasn't difficult given its length. It is a cautionary tale that exudes the drama and glamour of its period and yet remains relevant today as our TV screens (at least in the UK) are filled with adverts for anti-ageing creams and lotions and the cult of youth and beauty reigns supreme. It also illustrates that society's perceptions haven't changed all that much even if these days a sexually active older single woman like Gladys is branded a 'cougar' rather than a vamp or femme fatale.

Aside from the great enjoyment at Némirovsky's prose and depth of her characterisation, it was a book that gave me pause to consider the relationship that I have to my own ageing and the inevitable changes that brings.
Tags: drama, european, period fiction (20th century), recommended book, translation
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