Friday, 13 September 2013

Book Review: The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky is a huge country with a rich history. Lamentably, it has also been a history of recurring violence. Already before the Russian revolution of 1917 Communist and other activists used terrorism as a means to force political change and the tsarist government answered all those attempts with rigorous actions tightening its grip on the population. Outside Russia little is known today of those forerunners of the revolution and the victims on either side. I think that The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky is an excellent novel to shed a little bit of light on this forgotten period of history.

Irène Némirovsky was born in February 1903 in Kiev, then Russia, now Ukraine. When she was fourteen, she and her wealthy family fled from the terrors of the October Revolution raging in the tsarist capital St. Petersburg and settled down in France two years later. Irène Némirovsky studied literature at Sorbonne University, while already working on her career as a writer. After several short stories and novellas, the author’s first novel, The Misunderstanding (Le Malentendu), was published in 1926. The best-selling novels David Golder and Le Bal followed in 1929 and 1930 respectively. Until Nazi-Germany invaded France in 1940 the prolific writer, who was refused naturalization due to her Jewish origins, brought out a new novel almost every year, one of them The Courilof Affair (L’affaire Courilof) in 1933. Irène Némirovsky continued writing until she was arrested by French police and deported to Auschwitz where she died from typhus in August 1942. Several of her works have been published posthumously, among them the biography A Life of Chekhov (La vie de Tchekhov: 1946) and her most famous, yet unfinished work Suite française (2004). 

The Courilof Affair is a fictitious novel based on real events of Russian history. In 1931 the first-person narrator León M., who lives in Nice, France, and faces death from pulmonary tuberculosis, feels the urge to write down the true account of a fatal bomb attack in St. Petersburg in which he was involved in 1903. He is the son of Russian revolutionaries deported to Siberia, but grew up in exile in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was raised to be a revolutionary and an assassin. In January 1903 León M. is twenty-two and the revolutionary committee to which his mother belonged until her death more than ten years earlier charges him with the liquidation of Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the much despised Minister of Education under the last Russian Tsar Nikolai II. He travels to Kiev to meet Fanny who is his liaison with the local revolutionaries and full of hatred against the ruling classes. At Easter they move on to St. Petersburg together where he is supposed to spy out Courilof and to wait for further instructions. He lives under the name of Marcel Legrand, a doctor of medicine from Geneva, and goes into service with Courilof for the summer. Soon León M. learns that the minister is not only a feared, but also a hopelessly ill man who is the target of political intrigues at court. The more he knows about the real Courilof the more he perceives him as a human being, moreover as just another poor fool like everybody else and one whom he likes in a way. By the time when the date for the assassination is finally fixed, he’s in inner conflict about his task, but there are still a few months left to sort things out.

To write the invented autobiography of a political assassin in tsarist Russia without demonizing or canonizing anybody along the way is a challenge which Irène Némirovsky mastered brilliantly in The Courilof Affair. The first-person narrator isn’t emotional about the events which he unfolds. On the contrary, he – thus the author as his mastermind in the background – tells the whole story in the matter-of-fact language of someone who has long done with the past. The depicted characters are human beings with strengths and weaknesses like people in the real world around us. They have hopes and fears, they have desires and aversions, they have a conscience and they have a past which moulded them. Each one of them acts according to his or her nature and knowledge. The atmosphere of tsarist St. Petersburg just after 1900 feels very authentic and the plot which is modelled after history seems very realistic.

All things considered, The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky has been an interesting and rewarding read. It’s the author’s sixth novel and not her most famous one, but it’s the only one which I had the pleasure to read so far. I put her other works on my list of books to read although I have no idea when I’ll get to them. So many books, so little time! In any case, Irène Némirovsky deserves more room in my shelves. She was a great author. How many more wonderful novels could she have finished, hadn’t she been deported to Auschwitz by the blind followers of fanatics and hadn't she died a senseless death in the concentration camp like too many others.

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