One of my reading plans this year is to get back to reading short stories. I have many collections of stories on the tbr shelves – 53 of them if you can believe Library Thing – & I want to read some of them this year. Another of my plans for the year is to read my unread Persephones. I don’t have many of those, only 10, but the new books for Spring will be out next month & I would like to read my Persephones when they’re published rather than see them slip down the reading pile as so many books tend to do. As there are several collections of short stories on the Persephone shelf, they will be the first stories I read.
Irène Némirovsky’s work was rediscovered some years ago when her wonderful novel, Suite Francaise, was published. Irène Némirovsky died in Auschwitz & her daughters carried the manuscript of her final work around with them in an old suitcase for years without being able to bring themselves to read it. When it was published, it was a sensation & several more of her novels have been translated & reprinted since.
Writing about collections of short stories is difficult. It’s hard to write a review of a story without giving away too much plot so I’m going to concentrate on one story in each collection. My favourite story here was also the longest, Liens du sang (Flesh and Blood).
This is the story of Anna Demestre, a widow with three grown-up sons & a daughter, Mariette. Anna is a demanding old woman, dismissive of her daughters-in-law & clinging on to the tradition of the weekly Sunday dinner which all her family attend, more out of a sense of duty than out of love. Albert & Augustin are in their 50s, reasonably well-off & reasonably happily married. The youngest son, Alain, is the most dissatisfied. He has married Alix, whose sister Claire is married to Augustin. Alain has never been in love with Claire & he feels increasingly stifled by his life. He has a plan for escape that needs financial help from his brothers. Albert & Augustin are dismissive, telling Alain to grow up. Augustin also realises that he will be left to pick up the pieces, caring for Alain’s wife & children if he leaves. Mariette has led a sad life. She married an older man, divorced him &, now in her 40s, has begun to look faded after a series of unhappy love affairs.
She was one of those delicate blondes who, on reaching forty, appear to wither overnight, like a corsage of flowers worn to a party.
The Sunday lunches follow their usual course. Anna loves finding fault with her daughters-in-law & only gives a compliment if she can also undermine it,
Claire and Alix exchanged looks. It was always like this: when their mother-in-law was invited to dine at one of their houses, when they had carefully cooked one of her favourite dishes, she would immediately look suspicious and disappointed. Even if she thought it was excellent, and said so, she only recovered her serenity and her appetite after declaring, ‘There’s too much cream, my dear’ or ‘It’s very good pastry, but too heavy.’
The siblings are always pleased when their weekly duty is over & they can return to their own lives. However, when Anna falls ill & suddenly takes a turn for the worse, they are brought together through one long night as they wait by their mother’s bedside. Throughout the night, memories are revived, secrets are disclosed & promises are made.
I loved this story. The picture of the dutiful children & the miserable old woman was beautifully presented. The daughters-in-law sitting together on the same sofa every Sunday emphasized their fate as outsiders. The brothers reverted to their childhood roles. Albert & Augustin, the older, more responsible & boring pair, lecturing Alain on his thoughtlessness & lack of prudence. Alain’s expectation that he has the right to ask his brothers for financial help no matter the consequences & their assumption that Mariette, as the daughter & the one without family ties will come back home to look after their mother should she survive her illness. Alain’s desperation as he tries to grab happiness no matter how uncertain it might be. There were so many telling moments when the facades of their lives cracked & the truth peeped out.