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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Irène Némirovsky

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To purchase Jezebel

Title: Jezebel
Author: Irène Némirovsky
Genre: Novel
Written: 1936 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 201 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Jezebel - US
Jezebel - UK
Jezebel - Canada
Jézabel - Canada
Jezebel - India
Jézabel - France
Jesabel - Deutschland
Jezabel - Italia
  • French title: Jézabel
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Sandra Smith
  • Previously translated into English by Barre Dunbar and published as A Modern Jezebel (1937)

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Our Assessment:

B : melodramatic overkill, but quite well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 19/7/2010 James Urquhart
FAZ . 6/9/2006 Hannelore Schlaffer
Independent on Sunday . 4/7/2010 Lesley McDowell
NZZ . 17/3/2007 Thomas Laux

  From the Reviews:
  • "Némirovsky’s subtle twist and typically jewelled prose presents the glittering enormity of Gladys, an unsympathetic but vividly realised character who dominates this tale in a fascinating portrait of paranoid self-absorption." - James Urquhart, Financial Times

  • "Tatsächlich entpuppen sich die Figuren dem Leser, der sich gegen ihre Trivialität wappnet, bald als Marionetten, die in einem Welttheater agieren. Jesabel läßt sich auf drei Ebenen lesen: als Geschichte voller Liebe, Haß, Mord; als Mysterienspiel, das Vanitas und Vergänglichkeit symbolisch darstellt; und als Staatsroman, der den Untergang der französischen Bourgeoisie vorführt." - Hannelore Schlaffer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "She's a vamp, a femme fatale and dangerously self-centred, but also vulnerable and lonely. Nemirovsky shows no love for her fellow women in this often bitchy tale" - Lesley McDowell, Independent on Sunday

  • "Némirovsky verfolgt die neurotischen Momente dieses schleichenden Wirklichkeitsverlustes minuziös, immer wieder geht sie auch noch den leisesten Verdachtsmomenten von Selbstverleugnung und Irrationalisierung nach. (...) Dabei fällt auf, wie einsam Némirovskys Figuren sind und wie lange sie sich schon in ihrer jeweiligen Einsamkeit eingerichtet haben." - Thomas Laux, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The introductory section of Jezebel, the first fifth of the book, describes the trial of Gladys Eysenach, "accused of killing her lover, Bernard Martin, aged twenty" on Christmas Eve, 1934. There is little suspense here -- there is no doubt that she killed him, and she even admits as much -- but the facts have to be presented, the circumstances described, her guilt proved, a sentence passed. It's a modestly sensational trial, but quickly brought to its conclusion -- and Gladys finds:

She had played her part. It had been a rather banal part, in the end. A crime of passion ... A somewhat modest sentence ... What would become of her ? No one cared about the future; no one cared about her past.
       It's an interesting case: Gladys, widowed since 1912, is "extremely wealthy", and she had spent much of her life travelling the world, belonging to that: "transient circle of socialites who have no home or ties in any one particular place", but for several years now has had a devoted lover, Count Monti, who wished to marry her. Her dissolute background means no one is surprised that she might also be juggling a twenty-year-old lover, but there's still the question of what could drive her to kill him in a fit of passion.
       The novel then goes back and describes how Gladys reached this point, beginning with when she was still just Gladys Burnera. A great beauty, she has always easily exerted a strong influence on men -- a power that appeals to her. It is once she realizes the extent of her power that she really comes into her own. She does marry -- "a famous financier of dubious origins", who: "found sharp, sensual pleasure in treating her like a child" -- but already then also kept a lover.
       Gladys had one child, Marie-Thérèse, and slowly that becomes a problem: Marie-Thérèse grows up, from baby to child to young woman. When the girl is eighteen her mother is still passing her off as fifteen, but adulthood can't be kept at bay, and when Marie-Thérèse announces her engagement the cracks in Gladys' carefully built-up edifice begin to show. Immediately she worries:
Soon, some young man will talk about Gladys Eysenach and say, "My mother-in-law ..." One day, very soon, you will be saying, "My grandchildren." Oh ! No, no, it isn't possible. God would not be so cruel.
       The ultra-vain Gladys can't bear the thought of being seen as old; her life, her entire identity is based on being young and desirable, and if she is a grandmother ..... So she tries to thwart her daughter's plans, getting the couple to put off any official announcement and the wedding itself. The war intervenes, and Gladys' secret -- her true age -- appears safe for a while longer; then Marie-Thérèse dies tragically -- and Gladys no longer even has to worry about being seen as a mother, much less a grandmother: she can pass for younger than she is for years -- indeed, decades -- longer.
       The obsession with keeping up (false) appearances only worsens with age. Eventually, she's practically raving:
I'm free. And besides, what could they say ? That I'm depraved ? Ah, they can say I'm depraved, or mad, or a criminal, as long as they don't say I'm old, that I can no longer inspire love, anything but that abomination, that horror !
       It's the fear of her true age coming out that keeps her from accepting Count Monti's proposal, too, since the poor guy has no idea that she is so much older than he is. Apparently exceptionally well-preserved, she nevertheless lives in constant fear of exposure and the shame that would come with it -- and when twenty-year-old Bernard Martin enters the picture, when Gladys is sixty, it appears the lie will no longer be sustainable. Bernard's very existence threatens complete exposure, and it's too much for Gladys.
       In one of the scenes pitting mother and daughter against each other Gladys had argued:
     'Can you imagine the scandal ...'
     'Yes, I can,' said Marie-Thérèse, smiling slightly.
       It's a typical Némirovsky-touch. Marie-Thérèse has to wait some two decades after her death for satisfaction, but scandal finally overtakes Gladys. Still, she manages to make it on her own terms: the scandal that ruins her is merely murder, not exposure of her true self (and her true age).
       Like many of Némirovsky's characters, Gladys is weak, petty, unsympathetic -- yet she is also all too human. Philosophically, she realizes early on:
     Life is sad, when all is said and done, don't you think ? There are only moments of exhilaration, of passion ...
       Gladys lived for those moments, unable to imagine something richer and deeper and lasting. The prosecutor at her trial acknowledged that: "from her early childhood she had no family, no home, no example of morality" and she is unable to establish these for herself later in life. Epically self-centered, she destroys many around her, but ultimately also herself; she suffers quite a bit along the way as well.
       Jezebel is almost pure melodrama, but Némirovsky's raw, searing depiction of this woman who evermore desperately lives only to keep her secret makes for melodrama a cut above the usual. The society that Némirovsky depicts is a shallow, ugly one, but fascinating nonetheless. There's also a great twist in the plot here, that lifts the story beyond the usual murder-in-a-fit-of-passion story. Sure, it's all a bit stock and simple, but it also has an undeniable appeal; a fine minor novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 May 2012

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Jezebel: Reviews: Irène Némirovsky: Other books by Irene Nemirovsky under review: Books about Irène Némirovsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Irène Némirovsky was born in Russia in 1903. Her family moved to France, where she became a successful and popular author in the 1930s. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.

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