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Le Bal

Le Bal

by Irene Nemirovsky, Sandra Smith

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From the acclaimed author of Suite Française comes Némirovsky’s third novel, a masterpiece of French literature, available for the first time in Canada.

Le Bal is a penetrating and incisive book set in early twentieth century France. At its heart is the tension between mother and daughter. The nouveau-riche Kampfs, desperate to


From the acclaimed author of Suite Française comes Némirovsky’s third novel, a masterpiece of French literature, available for the first time in Canada.

Le Bal is a penetrating and incisive book set in early twentieth century France. At its heart is the tension between mother and daughter. The nouveau-riche Kampfs, desperate to become members of the social elite, decide to throw a ball to launch themselves into high society. For selfish reasons Mrs. Kampf forbids her teenage daughter, Antoinette, to attend the ball and banishes her to the laundry room. In an unpremeditated fury of revolt and despair, Antoinette takes a swift and horrible revenge. A cruel, funny and tender examination of class differences, Le Bal describes the torments of childhood with rare accuracy.

Also included in this volume is Snow in Autumn, in which Némirovsky pays homage to Chekov and chronicles the life of a devoted servant following her masters as they flee Revolutionary Moscow and emigrate to a life of hardship in Paris.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Le Bal established Némirovsky as one of the most talented and celebrated authors of her day.”
The Guardian (UK)

Product Details

Knopf Canada
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.39(d)

Read an Excerpt


Madame Kampf walked into the study and slammed the door behind her with such force that a gust of air made the crystal beads on the chandelier jingle with the pure, light sound of small bells. But Antoinette didn’t stop reading; she was bent so far forward over her desk that her hair brushed the pages of her book. For a moment, Madame Kampf watched her daughter without saying anything; then she went to stand in front of her, arms crossed over her chest.

‘You know, Antoinette, you could stop what you’re doing when you see your mother,’ she barked. ‘Is your bottom glued to that chair? What refined manners you have! Where’s Miss Betty?’

From the adjoining room came the sound of a sewing machine, punctuated by snatches of song, crooned in a youthful but rather poor voice: ‘What shall I do, what shall I do when you’ll be gone away . . .’

‘Miss Betty,’ Madame Kampf shouted, ‘come in here.’

‘Yes, Mrs Kampf,’ the young woman replied in English, slipping through the half-open door. She had rosy cheeks and soft, frightened eyes; her hair was gathered in a honey-coloured bun that sat low on her neck, framing her small round head.

‘I believe I hired you,’ Madame Kampf began harshly, ‘to look after and educate my daughter, and not so you could make yourself dresses. Does Antoinette not know she is meant to stand up when her mother comes into the room?’

‘Oh, Ann-toinette! How can you?’ said Miss Betty in a kind of sad twitter.

Antoinette was standing up now, balancing awkwardly on one leg. She was a tall, lacklustre girl of fourteen, with the pale face common to girls of her age — a face so thin and taut that it seems, to adults, like a round, featureless blotch. Dark circles were under her lowered eyelids, and her mouth was small and tight. The fourteen-year-old body . . . budding breasts that strain against the tight schoolgirl’s uniform, that are painful and embarrassing to her delicate, childlike body; big feet and long arms like sticks of French bread that end in red hands and ink-stained fingers (and which one day, who knows, might turn into the most beautiful arms in the world); a spindly neck; short, dull hair that is dry and fine . . .

‘Don’t you see, Antoinette, that your manners are driving me to despair? Sit down again. I’m going to come back in, and this time you will do me the honour of standing up immediately, understand?’

Madame Kampf took a few steps out of the room and once again opened the door. Antoinette stood up so slowly and with such obvious reluctance that her mother clenched her teeth.

‘Perhaps you can’t be bothered, is that it, Miss?’ she asked sharply, her voice threatening.

‘No, Mama,’ replied Antoinette quietly.

‘Well, then why have you got that look on your face?’

Antoinette attempted a smile, but with so little effort that it merely distorted her features into an unfortunate grimace. Sometimes she hated grown-ups so much that she could have killed them, mutilated them, or at least stamped her foot and shouted, ‘No! Just leave me alone!’ But her parents frightened her. Ever since she was a tiny child, she’d been afraid of her parents.

When Antoinette was small, her mother had often held her on her lap, cuddled her, and kissed her. But Antoinette had forgotten all that. Instead she remembered what it was like to hear the roar of an angry voice above her head: ‘You’re always under my feet, Antoinette . . .’; ‘Don’t tell me you’ve dirtied my dress with your filthy shoes again! Go and stand in the corner, do you hear me? That will teach you, you little idiot!’; and one day on a street corner — the day when, for the first time, she had wanted to die — a shout so loud, during one of their scenes, that passers-by had turned round to stare: ‘Do you want me to smack you? Do you?’ Deep in her heart she remembered how that slap burned her face. Right in the middle of the street! She had been eleven then, but big for her age. The passers-by, the grown-ups, she didn’t care about them . . . But some boys had been coming out of school, and they’d laughed when they’d seen her: ‘Oh you poor thing!’ Their sniggering had followed her as she walked, head down, along the dark autumn avenue, the street-lamps a blur through her tears. ‘Haven’t you finished snivelling yet? You’ve got no character! You must know I punish you for your own good! And I’m warning you . . . You’d better not annoy me again, or else.’ People were horrible . . . And, even now, she was hounded from morning to night, as if deliberately to torment her, torture her, humiliate her: ‘Look at how you’re holding your fork!’ (in front of the servants, for God’s sake); and ‘Stand up straight. Or at least try not to look like a hunchback.’ She was fourteen years old, a young lady — and, in her dreams, a woman who was beautiful, adored . . . She turned men’s heads. They caressed her the way Andrea Sperelli caressed Elena and Maria in D’Annunzio’s Il Piacere, the way Julien de Suberceaux caressed Maud de Rouvre. Love . . . She trembled at the thought of it.

‘And if you think that I’m paying an English governess so you can have manners like that, you are very much mistaken, young lady!’

Madame Kampf lowered her voice.

‘You keep forgetting that we’re rich now, Antoinette,’ she said, pushing back a lock of hair that had fallen on to her daughter’s face.

She turned to the Englishwoman.

‘I have a lot of errands for you to run this week, Miss Betty. I’m holding a ball on the fifteenth . . .’

‘A ball,’ murmured Antoinette, her eyes opening wide.

‘Yes,’ said Madame Kampf, smiling, ‘a ball . . .’

She looked at Antoinette with pride, then frowned, indicating the Englishwoman with a slight twitch of the eyebrow.

‘I don’t suppose you’ve been talking, have you?’

‘No, Mama, no,’ Antoinette quickly replied.

She knew all too well her mother’s constant worry. At first — two years ago now, in 1926, when they’d left the Rue Favart after her father had made a killing on the Stock Market (first on the devaluation of the franc and then of the pound) and they’d become rich — Antoinette had been called into her parents’ bedroom every morning. Her mother would be lying in bed polishing her nails; in the adjoining dressing room, her father, a dry little Jew with fiery eyes, would be shaving, washing, and getting dressed, all with the same breakneck speed that characterised his every action and which, in the past, had earned him the nickname ‘Feuer’ amongst the German Jews, his friends at the Stock Market. For years Alfred Kampf had haunted the great steps of the Stock Market without getting anywhere. Antoinette knew that he used to be an employee of the Banque de Paris and, long before that, a doorman at the bank, wearing a blue uniform. Shortly before Antoinette was born, he’d married his mistress, Mademoiselle Rosine, the manager’s secretary. For eleven years they had lived in a small, dingy apartment behind the Opéra Comique. Antoinette remembered how the maid would crash about in the kitchen washing the dishes while she sat at the dining-room table doing her homework, Madame Kampf reading novels beside her, leaning forward to catch the light from the large gas-lamp with the round frosted glass shade that hung above them. Now and again Madame Kampf would let out an angry sigh so loud and sudden that it made Antoinette jump. ‘What is it now?’ Kampf would ask. And Rosine would reply, ‘It makes me feel sick when I think of how some people have such an easy life, how happy they are, while I’m stuck here, in this dirty hole, spending the best years of my life darning your socks . . .’

Kampf would simply shrug without saying anything. At this point Rosine would usually look at Antoinette and shout bad-temperedly, ‘And why are you listening? Is it any of your business what grown-ups are talking about?’ rounding off the reprimand with, ‘Yes, that’s it, girl. If you’re waiting for your father to make his fortune like he’s been promising to ever since we got married, you’ll be waiting a very long time, you’ll watch your whole life slip by . . . You’ll grow up, and you’ll still be here, like your poor mother, waiting . . .’ When she said the word ‘waiting’, a certain look came over her tense, sullen features, an expression so pathetic, so deeply pained, that Antoinette was often moved, in spite of herself, to lean forward and kiss her mother on the cheek.

‘My poor baby,’ Rosine would then say, stroking her daughter’s face. But once she had shouted, ‘Oh, leave me alone won’t you! You’re annoying me. You can be so irritating! Yes, you as well . . .’ And never again had Antoinette given her mother a kiss, except in the morning and at night — the kind of kiss parents and children give each other automatically, like two strangers shaking hands.

Then, one fine day, they had suddenly become rich. Antoinette had never understood how. They had come to live in a vast white apartment, and her mother had suddenly appeared with her hair dyed blonde. Antoinette had glanced furtively, fearfully, at the flaming gold tresses which she hardly recognised.

‘So tell me again, Antoinette,’ Madame Kampf would order from her bed each morning, ‘what do you answer if someone asks you where we lived last year?’

‘You’re an idiot,’ Kampf would say from the dressing room. ‘Who do you think is going to talk to her? She doesn’t know anyone.’

‘I know what I’m talking about,’ Madame Kampf replied, raising her voice. ‘What about the servants?’

‘If I catch her saying a single word to the servants, she’ll have me to deal with,’ said Kampf, coming into the bedroom. ‘You understand, Antoinette? She knows she just has to keep her mouth shut and learn her lessons, and that’s the end of it. We ask nothing more of her . . .’ Turning to his wife, Kampf added, ‘She’s not a fool, you know.’

But as soon as he had left, Madame Kampf started in again.

‘If anyone asks you, Antoinette, you’re to say we lived in the Midi all last year. You don’t need to go into detail as to whether it was in Cannes or Nice, just say the Midi . . . unless they ask for details, in which case it would be better to say Cannes, it’s more sophisticated . . . But, of course, your father is right, it’s best to say nothing at all. A little girl should speak as little as possible to grown-ups.’

And she sent her away with a wave of her beautiful bare arm, a slightly thick arm, sparkling with the diamond bracelet her husband had just given her and which she only ever took off in the bath.

Antoinette was remembering all this when she heard her mother ask the Englishwoman, ‘Does Antoinette at least have nice handwriting?’

‘Yes, Mrs Kampf.’

‘Why?’ Antoinette asked shyly.

‘Because,’ explained Madame Kampf, ‘you can help me write out the envelopes this evening. You see, I’m sending nearly two hundred invitations. I’ll never manage it alone . . . Miss Betty, I’m giving Antoinette permission to go to bed an hour later than usual tonight. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’ she asked, turning towards her daughter.

But as Antoinette was once again lost in thought and said nothing, Madame Kampf shrugged her shoulders.

‘That girl has always got her head in the clouds,’ she remarked quietly. ‘Doesn’t it make you proud to think your parents are giving a ball?’ she asked her daughter. ‘Well, doesn’t it? I fear you don’t have much feeling, my poor girl,’ she concluded with a sigh, as she turned and left the room.


Antoinette was usually put to bed by the English governess at nine o’clock precisely, but that evening, she stayed in the drawing room with her parents. She was so rarely allowed in there that she stared at the white panelling and gilt furniture as if she were visiting someone else’s house. Her mother pointed to a small pedestal table laid out with ink, pens, and a packet of cards with envelopes.

‘Sit down over there. I’ll dictate the addresses to you,’ she said, then turned to her husband and asked loudly, ‘Will you be joining us, my dear?’ The servant was clearing away the dishes in the adjoining room, and for several months now, the Kampfs had made a point of addressing each other with great formality in front of him. But as soon as Kampf got close enough, Rosine whispered, ‘For heaven’s sake, get rid of that flunkey, will you. He’s so annoying . . .’

She noticed the look on Antoinette’s face and blushed.

‘Will you be much longer, Georges?’ she asked imperiously. ‘You may go as soon as you’ve finished putting those things away.’

The three of them then sat in silence, frozen to their chairs. When the servant had gone, Madame Kampf let out a sigh.

‘I can’t stand that Georges, I don’t know why. As soon as I sense him behind me at dinner, I lose my appetite . . .
And just what are you smirking about, Antoinette? Come on, let’s get to work. Do you have the guest list, Alfred?’

‘Yes,’ replied Kampf, ‘but first let me take off my jacket. I’m hot.’

‘Just make sure that you remember not to leave it lying around in here like the last time,’ said his wife. ‘I could tell from the looks on their faces that Georges and Lucie found it odd that you were in the drawing room in your shirtsleeves . . .’

‘I don’t give a damn about the opinions of the servants,’ Kampf grumbled.

‘Well, you’re very wrong, my dear. It’s the servants who make or break reputations, going from one place to another and talking . . . I would have never known that the baroness on the third floor . . .’

Meet the Author

Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903. In 1918 her family fled the Russian Revolution for France where she became a bestselling novelist, author of David Golder, Le Bal and other works published in her lifetime, as well as the posthumous Suite Française. She died in Auschwitz in 1942. The first French publication of Fire in the Blood, by the publishers who discovered and published Suite Française, is in March 2007.

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