Saturday, 1 October 2016

Book of the Month: The Courilof Affair (Irene Nemirovsky)

Irene Nemirovsky was a novelist of Jewish origin, who was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz, in 1942. A popular and prolific writer, Nemirovsky had published several successful novels in the decade prior to the German occupation of France. Banned from publishing her books because of her Jewish origin, Nemirovsky went into hiding in the small village called Issy-l’Eveque, together with her husband (a banker who was banned from working) and two young daughters. There, she began writing what she planned to be a five-part epic (inspired, according to some experts, by Tolstoy) even though she was banned from publishing. In July 1942 she was arrested and interred as a ‘stateless person of Jewish origin’—despite being a successful author Nemirovsky, whose family hailed from Russia (her father, a successful banker, had fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution), was denied French citizenship—in Pithiviers concentration camp, from where she was immediately deported, along with a thousand other Jews, to Auschwitz, where she died a month later, whether of Typhus or at the hands of the Nazis is not clear. Her husband, who tried frantically for his wife’s release upon her arrest, was himself arrested in front of his daughters, and was transported to Auschwitz where he was gassed to death. The two daughters owed their lives to a French Gendarme who asked them to grab whatever they could and run, when he came to arrest their father. The eldest daughter, who was 13 at the time, took a suitcase of her mother ‘because I knew it was important to her’. The daughters survived the war, and the suitcase remained in possession of the elder daughter for the next sixty years, unopened, as the daughter could not bring herself to go through what she believed was her mother’s personal diary. What the suitcase in fact contained was Irene Nemirovsky’s unfinished novel—she had managed to complete two of the five parts she had in her mind—which was published to great acclaim in France, and soon became international bestseller. It was inevitable that, in the wake of its success, Nemirovsky’s earlier novels would be re-issued, and, in due course, a slew of them arrived, one of which was The Courilof Affair, first published in 1933.

The backdrop of The Courilof Affair is the turbulent times in the Russian Empire that eventually led to the 1905 revolution and the establishment of the State Duma and the Russian constitution. The narrator of The Courilof Affair is Leon M—not his real name, we are told—who has kept a journal. In the journal, written almost thirty years after the event, Leon M tells of his part in the assassination of Valerian Courilof, the dreaded and much hated Minister of Education in the court of the Tsar Nicolas II. Leon M is a revolutionary, as were both his parents. Both his parents die before Leon M is ten—her father in prison, her mother in Geneva, of tuberculosis—and he is raised by the revolutionary party. Leon M does not tell the name of the party, but drops more than enough hints that he belonged to the revolutionary party that believed in the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and aimed to destroy the House of Romonovs. Keeping in with the philosophy of end justifying means the party approved of violence and killing as legitimate weapons against the oppressor. The assassination of Courilof, who is nicknamed ‘Killer Whale’ because of his brutality, is part of the party’s strategy to strike terror in the hearts of Imperialists. Towards this end, his assassination must take place in a public place and a very dramatic manner. Leon M is the person chosen to kill the ‘Killer Whale’.

Using false Swiss passport and identity, Leon M infiltrates Courilof’s inner circle and becomes his junior physician. He spends several months in the house of the Minister of Education, and discovers that the man he must kill when the final go-ahead comes from the party via his contact—a Jewish woman called Fanny—is dying. His liver is failing; the cancer, as Courilof himself describes at one stage, is eating him from inside as a crab. The minister can be irritatingly pompous and hypocritical at times, but he is a troubled soul. The intrigues in the court of the Tsar Nicholas II are at their peak, and the ministers are backstabbing each other to advance their careers and curry favours with the emperor. Courilof’s position has become precarious because of his second marriage to a French woman of low repute (of whom the Tsar disapproves), the love of his life, with whom he has had a long-standing affair before the death of his first wife. The more Leon M is made privy to the private world of Courilof, the more he comes to realise that the man who is depicted in the revolutionary circle as some kind of tendentious chimera is, in real life, an insecure, troubled, even pathetic, man, who, like his other colleagues in the ministry, is in thrall of the Tsar, and who, far from being nonchalant, is deeply upset by the deaths of young students who are agitating for political reforms and establishment of constitution. Leon M is therefore secretly relieved when in a palace coup Courilof is removed from his post by the Tsar, and is no longer the high-profile representative of the establishment whose very public killing would further the revolutionary party’s political goals. However, Leon M’s relief does not last long. In the intrigue-leaden world of the Tsar Nicholas II where there are more coups and countercoups than you or I have hot meals Courilof’s successor is soon removed from the post, and the Killer Whale is reinstated. In one last desperate bid, Leon M tells his party superiors very clearly that he no longer wishes to kill the Minister of Education seeing as he would not be living for more than a few months anyway because of his cancerous liver. Leon M’s request is denied and the novel moves inexorably towards its violent ending.

The Courilof Affair is not a thriller, even though it reads like one at times. Indeed, the entry of Leon M into Courilof’s inner circle, the event which helps to move the novel forward, is described unconvincingly, as are the descriptions of Leon M’s secret meetings with other revolutionaries as well as his contact. What Nemirovsky seems to be interested in is the study of human nature and character. When people are driven by ideas, they find it easy to view the world in black and white. The moment you start dealing with the human beings behind the ideas shades of grey begins to seep in. As Leon M wisely remarks (wisdom, no doubt, afforded by hindsight) ‘Each of us has weaknesses . . . One cannot even say with certainty whether a man is good or evil, stupid or intelligent. There does not exist a good man who has not at some time in his life committed a cruel act, nor an evil man who has not done good . . .that’s what gives life its diversity, its surprises.’ Thus, while Leon M, sees no reason to give up his ideological opposition to what Courilof and his ilk represent, he comes to see the futility of the assassination.

Valerian Courilof is not an endearing character. He is a pompous and vain man who is addicted to power, although he always couches it in a grandiose talk of serving his country and his emperor. That is the reason why he stays in the country after he is removed from his post, even though he knows that he has only a few months to live and his second wife is begging him to live in France, and successfully machinates to reclaim his position. However, he is also capable of surprising his detractors by having qualities such as loyalty, courage, and even empathy: when faced with the choice of standing by his second wife or incurring Tsar Nicholas’s displeasure, he chooses the former, even though he knows that it would spell doom for his political ambition. When his wife asks him to do what he can for the mother of a sixteen year old Jewish boy who has been denounced by an agent provocateur, and put in prison where he dies, Courilof gives the woman monetary aid, in the full knowledge that his detractors at the court would use the gesture as a handle to beat him with.

The Courilof Affair is a densely atmospheric novel that is translated extremely well. In few, but effective, words Nemirovsky conveys the darkly sinister atmosphere that surrounds Courilof, which adds to the intended oppressive tone of the novel.

Irene Nemirovsky has been criticised by some as a ‘self-hating Jew’. Her stereotypical and unsympathetic portrait of the Jews in her debut novel, as also her decision to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1939 and publish stories in right wing journals with anti-Semite tendencies, are cited as examples supporting this theory. Her most famous novel, Suit Francoise, does not have any Jewish characters. The Courilof Affair has one Jewish character, Fanny, Leon M’s contact. It is Fanny who would eventually kill Courilof. This is how Nemirovsky introduces Fanny: ‘She was a young woman of twenty with a stocky built and black hair pulled over her cheeks like great side-burns; she had a long straight nose, a strong mouth whose lower lip drooped and gave her an obstinate, scornful expression. Her eyes were unique to women in the Party, eyes whose harshness and determination was inhuman . . . she was the daughter of a watchmaker in Odessa and sister of an extremely wealthy banker in St Petersburg who financed her education and wanted nothing more to do with her. Because of this her hatred of the wealthy classes took the concrete form of this little Jewish banker with his fat stomach.’ Fanny hates her brother not because he is Jewish, but because she feels abandoned by him. As for Nemirovsky’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1939, it can be seen as an attempt by an increasingly insecure woman to safeguard the future of her family rather than a sine qua non of her hatred towards the religion of her birth.

The Courilof Affair, according to the translator’s afterword, is based on an historical event: in 1901, a student named Karpovitch assassinated the former Russian minister of Education, Nicolai Bogoliepov. There were some other high profile killings around the time. Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus wrote a novel and a play respectively on the same theme, years after The Courilof Affair. By that time Nemirovsky was dead and her novels unavailable. It would remain forever a matter of conjecture whether Sartre, who would have been 28, and Camus, who would have been 20, when The Courilof Affair was published, were aware of the novel, and if so, were influenced by it. Probably not, as neither made a mention of Nemirovsky, and their treatment of the subject was different from that of Nemirovsky.

It is interesting how the same subject matter, in the hands of different artists, is treated differently. Though written more than seventy years ago, The Courilof Affair approaches the matter of terrorism, idealism, and the attendant moral issues, in a manner that will resonate with the modern minds.