Ever since I read Suite Francaise, I’ve been rationing my Irene Nemirovsky books. Her life was short and tragic and she didn’t get to write nearly as large an oeuvre as she should have; but what we have is, in my experience so far, literature of the highest order.
The Courilof Affair is no exception. This novel tells the story of one Leon M., a “retired” Russian radical responsible for multiple political assassinations during and after the Russian Revolution; more precisely, it comprises his memoirs of a particular mark – one Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the Russian Minister of Education famed for his cold brutality when dealing with protesters and dissidents of even the mildest sort.
Welcomed into Courilof’s house as a doctor for the iron-willed but seriously ailing minister, Leon quickly learns that there is a difficult and fuzzy line between theory and practice when it comes to being willing to do anything for a cause, between loathing a system and killing an individual. Indeed, as Courilof himself tries to negotiate the complex, mysterious, and ruthless game of political power and royal favour, Leon comes to feel sympathy for him and to question the meaning of his own actions and beliefs.
Of course, he eventually does his job and kills the minister in grand and lurid fashion. But Leon's memoirs reveal a deep ambivalence toward the life he’s led, and his time with Courilof seems more real to him than any of the ideologies that have dictated his life’s actions. Leon is filled with a strangely innocent nostalgia for a victim he ended up caring for in spite of that victim's myriad cruelties and faults, never mind his own loyalties.
A simple premise, yes, but Nemirovsky’s delicacy, patience, and tact in teasing out the personal implications of political actions simply cannot be underestimated. And Sandra Smith’s graceful translation made this novel a joy to read for the writing alone. A very short example to tittilate you:
The idea of killing this man filled me with repulsion and horror. He was a blind creature already living in the shadow of death; his face looked ghostly, yet he was still preoccupied with vain dreams and futile ambitions. How many times during that period did he say over and over again, ‘Russia will forget my enemies, but she will not forget me.’ (p. 112)
This was Nemirovsky’s gift: to be able to humanize the most monstrous of individuals, to create compelling points of contact between enemies. It bespeaks a fairness and, if not optimism, then at least an open-ness to human subtlety and complication lacking in most books and, if I’m going to be snarky, most real political discourse.
If you haven’t read any of Nemirovsky’s work yet, do yourself a favour and grab something now. I wholeheartedly recommend both The Courilof Affair and Suite Francaise, while hubby positively gushes about Fire in the Blood and thinks less of me for not having read it yet.