The Ball by Irene Nemirovsky

For many readers, the name of Irene Nemirovsky first came to their notice with the rediscovery of her lost work, “Suite Francaise” (now being turned out as a blockbusting feature film). However, during the inter-War years of the 20th century, she had a flourishing career as a novelist, publishing books regularly during the 1930s. However, during WW2 her Jewish ancestry became an issue within Paris and she was eventually deported to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus. Her husband was sent there shortly afterwards and gassed. It was not until the late 1990s that Nemirovsky’s daughter realised that the notebooks her mother had left behind were the unfinished novel “Suite Francaise”, and publication of this brought Nemirovsky back into the public eye.

the ball

I read “David Golder” some years ago, and enjoyed it. However, I struggled with SF, and never finished it, though people have been telling me ever since that I really should try again. But I picked up a lovely hardback collection of four shorter works recently in the Samaritans Book Cave, and decided that some shorter works might be a good way to rediscover Irene Nemirovsky.

And “The Ball” is certainly brief – halfway between a short story and a novella, it tells of Antoinette Kampf, a 14-year-old living in Paris with her mother and father. The family is nouveau riche – the father has made money out of business and the mother is from a somewhat dubious background, with pretensions to mixing in higher society. To this end, she’s decided to hold her first ball, with all the complex planning that goes with it. Of course, young Antoinette is desperate to attend, but that’s unlikely, as her relationship with her mother is not a good one.

I’ve read that Nemirovsky is particularly adept at portraying hideous mother-daughter relationships, and the one here is a doozie! Madame Kampf is the mother from hell – harsh, uncaring, cold and domineering, she leads her daughter a dog’s life. The poor girl is farmed out to a governess, a nanny and an unpleasant piano-teaching relative, with no love or warmth from her parents. She’s obviously reaching that sensitive adolescent age, neither child nor adult, and there is no-one to help her through this time. Instead, she’s scolded, disciplined and forbidden to take part in the ball. So it’s no surprise that when the chance comes for devastating revenge, Antoinette takes it…

“The Ball” is a powerful little tale and it’s convinced me of the strength of Nemirovsky’s writing. Her portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship is convincing and very chilling. In beautiful prose, she lays bare the pretensions of the mother and her underlying weakness; the pomposity and uncertainty of the couple; and the anguish and anger of teenage years. The resolution of the story is entirely convincing and it’s a testament to Nemirovsky’s skill that she manages to pack so much into such a short but impressive story. As the excruciating events take their course and a kind of role-reversal occurs, it’s hard to read on…

I’m *so* glad I picked this one up in a whim in the Samaritans, as it’s really rekindled my interest in Nemirovsky’s writing – and I’m now very much looking forward to the other stories in the book!