Written between 1934 and 1942, these ten gem-like stories mine the same terrain of Némirovsky's bestselling novel Suite Française: a keen eye for the details of social class; the tensions between mothers and daughters, husbands and wives; the manners and mannerisms of the French bourgeoisie; questions of religion and personal identity. Moving from the drawing rooms of pre-war Paris to the lives of men and women in wartime France, here we find the beautiful work of a writer at the height of her tragically short career.
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Dimanche and Other Stories
By Irene Nemirovsky
VintageCopyright © 2010 Irene Nemirovsky
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[ Sunday ]
In rue las cases it was as quiet as during the height of summer, and every open window was screened by a yellow blind. The fine weather had returned: it was the first Sunday of spring, a warm and restless day that took people out of their houses and out of the city. The sky glowed with a gentle radiance. The birds in Place Sainte-Clotilde chirped lazily, while the raucous screeching of cars leaving for the country echoed in the peaceful streets. The only cloud in the sky was a delicately curled white shell that floated upward for a moment, then melted into the ether. People raised their heads with surprise and anticipation; they sniffed the air and smiled.
Agnes half-closed the shutters: the sun was hot and the roses would open too quickly and die. Nanette ran in and stood hopping from one foot to the other.
“May I go out, Mama? It’s such nice weather.”
Mass was almost over. The children were already coming down the street in their bright sleeveless dresses, holding their prayer books in their white-gloved hands and clustering around a little girl who had just taken her first communion. Her round cheeks were pink and shining under her veil. A procession of bare legs, all pink and gold, as downy as the skin of a peach, sparkled in the sunshine. The bells were still ringing, slowly and sadly as if to say, “Off you go, good people, we are sorry not to be able to keep you any longer. We have sheltered you for as long as we could, but now we have to give you back to the world and to your everyday lives. Time to go. Mass is over.”
The bells fell silent. The smell of hot bread filled the street, wafting up from the open bakery; you could see the freshly washed floor gleaming and the narrow mirrors on the walls glinting faintly in the shadows. Then everyone had gone home.
Agnes said, “Nanette, go and see if Papa is ready, and tell Nadine that lunch is on the table.”
Guillaume came in, radiating the scent of lavender water and good cigars, which always made Agnes feel slightly nauseated. He seemed even more high-spirited, healthy, and plump than usual.
As soon as they had sat down, he announced, “I’ll be going out after lunch. When you’ve been suffocating in Paris all week, it’s the least . . . Are you really not tempted?”
“I don’t want to leave the little one.”
Nanette was sitting opposite him, and Guillaume smiled at her and tweaked her hair. The previous night she had had a temperature, but it had been so slight that her fresh complexion showed no sign of pallor.
“She’s not really ill. She has a good appetite.”
“Oh, I’m not worried, thank God,” said Agnes. “I’ll let her go out until four o’clock. Where are you going?”
Guillaume’s face visibly clouded over. “I . . . oh, I don’t know yet . . . You always want to organize things in advance . . . Somewhere around Fontainebleau or Chartres, I’ll see, wherever I end up. So? Will you come with me?”
“I’d love to see the look on his face if I agreed,” thought Agnes. The set smile on her lips annoyed her husband. But she answered, as she always did, “I’ve got things to do at home.”
She thought, “Who is it this time?”
Guillaume’s mistresses: her jealousy, her anxiety, the sleepless nights, were now in the long-distant past. He was tall and overweight, going bald, his whole body solidly balanced, his head firmly planted on a thick, strong neck. He was forty-five, the age at which men are at their most powerful, dominant, and self-confident, the blood coursing thickly through their veins. When he laughed he thrust his jaw forward to reveal a row of nearly perfect white teeth.
“Which one of them told him, ‘You look like a wolf or a wild animal when you smile’?” wondered Agnes. “He must have been incredibly flattered. He never used to laugh like that.”
She remembered how he used to weep in her arms every time a love affair ended, gulping as if he were trying to inhale his tears. Poor Guillaume . . .
“Well, I . . .” said Nadine.
She started each sentence like that. It was impossible to detect a single word or a single idea in anything she thought or said that did not relate to herself, her clothes, her friends, the ladders in her stockings, her pocket money, her own pleasure. She was . . . triumphant. Her skin had the pale, velvety brightness of jasmine and of camellias, and you could see the blood beating just beneath the surface: it rose girlishly in her cheeks, swelling her lips so that it looked as though a pink, heady wine was about to gush from them. Her green eyes sparkled.
“She’s twenty,” thought Agnes, trying, as so often, to keep her eyes closed and not to be wounded by her daughter’s almost overwhelming beauty, the peals of laughter, the egoism, the fervor, the diamondlike hardness. “She’s twenty years old; it’s not her fault . . . Life will tame her, soften her, make her grow up.”
“Mama, can I take your red scarf? I won’t lose it. And, Mama, may I come back late?”
“And where are you going?”
“Mama, you know perfectly well! To Chantal Aumont’s house in Saint-Cloud. Arlette is coming to fetch me. Can I come home late? After eight o’clock, anyway? You won’t be angry? Then I won’t have to go through Saint-Cloud at seven o’clock on a Sunday evening.”
“She’s quite right,” said Guillaume.
Lunch was nearly over. Mariette was serving the meal quickly. Sunday . . . As soon as the washing-up was done, she, too, would be going out.
They ate orange-flavored crêpes; Agnes had helped Mariette make the batter.
“Delicious,” said Guillaume appreciatively.
The clattering of dishes could be heard through the open windows: it was only a faint sound from the dark ground-floor flat where two spinsters lived in the gloom, but it was louder and livelier in the house across the way, where there was a table laid for twelve with the place settings gleaming on the neat folds of the damask tablecloth and a basket of white roses for a first communion decorating the center.
“I’m going to get ready, Mama. I don’t want any coffee.”
Guillaume swallowed his quickly and silently. Mariette began to clear the table.
“What a hurry they’re in,” thought Agnes, as her thin, skillful hands deftly folded Nanette’s napkin. “Only I . . .”
She was the only one for whom this wonderful Sunday held no attraction.
“I never imagined she’d become so stay-at-home and dull,” thought Guillaume as he looked at her. He took a deep inward breath and, proudly conscious of the sense of vigor that surged through his body, felt his chest expand with the fine weather. “I’m in rather good shape, holding up surprisingly well,” he thought, as his mind turned to all the reasons (the political crisis, money worries, the taxes he owed, Germaine—who cramped his style, devil take her) why he could justifiably feel as miserable and depressed as anyone else. But on the contrary! “I’ve always been the same. A ray of sunshine, the prospect of a Sunday away from Paris, a nice bottle of wine, freedom, a pretty woman at my side—and I’m twenty again! I’m alive,” he congratulated himself, looking at his wife with veiled hostility; her cold beauty and the tense, mocking line of her lips irritated him. He said aloud, “Of course, I’ll telephone you if I spend the night in Chartres. In any case, I’ll be back tomorrow morning, and I’ll drop in at home before I go to the office.”
Agnes thought, with a strange, weary detachment, “One day, after a lavish lunch, just as he’s kissing the woman he’s with, the car he’s driving will crash into a tree. I’ll get a phone call from Senlis or Auxerre. Will you suffer?” she demanded curiously of the mute, invisible image of herself waiting in the shadows. But the image, silent and indifferent, did not reply, and the powerful silhouette of Guillaume came between it and her.
Excerpted from Dimanche and Other Stories by Irene Nemirovsky Copyright © 2010 by Irene Nemirovsky. Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
The questions and discussion topics included here are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about this collection of never-before translated stories by Irene Némirovsky, author of the internationally bestselling novel Suite Française.
1. Dimanche / Sunday
• Why is Agnes isolated in her roles as mother and wife? What does Agnes know about life that her daughter Nadine doesn’t realize she knows?
• What insight into the two women’s lives is gained when Némirovsky juxtaposes the mother’s thoughts and memories with the daughter’s ongoing experience with Rémi? What larger point does the story make about women’s vulnerability and men’s infidelity?
2. Liens du sang / Flesh and Blood
• What details in the early part of the story convey a sense of weary repetition and frustration in the family’s weekly Sunday dinner?
• The daughters-in-law “knew, or thought they knew, that their husbands belonged to them alone; they had eroded the bond between the sons and their mother so cleverly and effectively, so worn it down, that it hardly existed any longer. . . . But within the affectionately tolerant way they looked at her, there remained a repressed animosity and a longing for revenge” (p. 73). How does the story make clear that the mother is more powerful than her daughters-in-law assume she is?
• The brothers pull together when their mother seems to be on the verge of dying. During this time, they realize that in their marriages they are truly alone, and yet they feel a true bond with each other and with their sister. How does the story’s title resonate throughout? What, if anything, changes in the course of the story for the family members? What happens when the mother recovers?
3. Fraternité / Brotherhood
• The main character, Christian Rabinovitch, is described as delicate, melancholic, weak, “constantly anxious, timid as a rabbit” (pp.125–26). He is an assimilated French Jew whose son is soon to marry into the French aristocracy. Does the story suggest that there is some underlying reason to explain Rabinovitch’s constant anxiety?
• Discuss the exchange between Christian Rabinovitch and the man he meets at the train station, whose name also happens to be Rabinovitch (p.133). Given the title of the story, does he see the man as a brother (p.138)? In what ways does Némirovsky use irony throughout the story?
4. La femme de don Juan / Don Juan’s Wife
• The story is told in a series of letters from Clémence, a dying woman who was formerly a chambermaid in the home of a couple whose marriage ended when the wife shot and killed her philandering husband. With whom is Clémence’s sympathy, and why? What is the secret she has long kept about her ex-mistress?
• What aspects of Clémence’s writing style help the reader to imagine what she is like as a person? The technique of telling a story solely through letters is called “epistolary” narration, which was popular in the eighteenth century. What is unusual about a story told in this way?
5. Le sortilège / The Spell
• This powerful story about childhood memories centers on the narrator’s memory of what seems to have been a spell of witchcraft, which resulted in a young woman falling in love with her mother’s lover. Are we meant to believe that Klavdia actually cast a spell that caused the abrupt departure of Lola and Uncle Serge from the family (pp.187–90)? Or are we to understand that their affair was imminent, or already under way, and that the “spell” was only a sort of game that made it public (p.196)?
• How does the fact that the story is narrated through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl affect the reading of this passionate tale?
6. Le spectateur / The Spectator
• How does the story let us know that Hugo is an aesthete and a narcissist? If you have read Suite Française, what character does Hugo bring to mind?
• Discuss the paragraph at the bottom of page 202, in which Hugo thinks about his suffering. Considering what happens at the end of the story, how do you respond to Hugo’s thought that “Europe has the charm of those who are going to die. . . . It was the same in Salzburg before the Anschluss” (p.203)?
7. Monsieur Rose / Mr. Rose
• This story, like the previous one, centers on an older man who is single, rich, and extremely self-involved. “His greatest concern was where to invest his money and how to avoid heavy taxes” (p.222). Mr. Rose stays too long in Paris in the spring of 1940 and becomes a refugee along with thousands of others as France falls to the invading German army. Why does he stay with Marc instead of taking a ride in the car?
8. La confidente / The Confidante
• As in “Don Juan’s Wife,” a character in this story discovers a secret about a loved one who has died. Why is the response of Roger Dange to the revelations Mademoiselle Cousin makes about his wife a surprising one? What was most important to him about Flora?
9. L’inconnu / The Unknown Soldier
• This tale is based on a shocking discovery by the elder brother, who kills a German soldier in an ambush situation. How does this discovery change how the two brothers feel about their father, and about their parents’ marriage? How do you interpret the recurring dream the elder brother has (p.292)?
10. General questions:
• One of the startling aspects of some of Némirovsky’s stories is the way they seem to express a foreknowledge of the murderous fate approaching the Jews. What is the effect of reading a story like “Brotherhood” knowing that Némirovsky would herself face deportation and death as a Jew?
• In several stories, wives suffer from their husbands’ pursuit of other women. Do women, for Némirovsky, seem to be at a disadvantage in love and marriage? If so, what recourse do the stories suggest women have for reclaiming some degree of happiness?
• Do you find the stories that have a more historical aspect more powerful than those that focus on more personal and domestic observations, or vice versa? What, for you, are the best stories in the collection?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Marvellously written short stories . This is one of the best writers of the 20th century. Her words are art, magically descriptive. I will readd all of her works !!!
These ten stories, written from 1934 to 1942 and translated from French are about relationships. Three stories deat with relationships forced on the characters by WWll, but the others are a slice of everyday life. Nemirovsky explains her characters by just allowing them to be themselves. She writes beautifully about a family whose beloved mother is ill; they reminisce and mourn, but the readers slowly realizes that while they pray for her recovery, their lives would be less complicated if she died. A young soldier kills another young soldier and then may have discovered a horrible secret. A famous musician is forced to face the truth about his much younger wife. I enjoyed these sensitive stories, especially the ones dealing with the ordinary families living in Paris just before the war. A satisfying read.
Dimanche and Other Stories is a collection of 10 of Irene Nemirovsky’s stories that were written between World War I and World War II, and during WWII. They provide a behind-the-scenes look at life in France during these periods. The author died in Auschwitz, and the stories were published posthumously. The stories are well-written, and knowing the fate that so soon lay ahead for her, makes them even more poignant.