The Most Beautiful Country
in the World
But those were legendary times, those distant times when the gardens of the most beautiful city in our Homeland were the preserve of a young, carefree generation.
Then, yes, then the conviction took root in the hearts of this generation that their entire lives would be spent in purity, serenity and calm; the dawns, the sunsets, the Dnieper, the Kreschatik, the sunny summer streets and, in winter, snow that did not bring with it cold weather or a harsh climate, a snow that was thick and gentle . . . And it was the very opposite that happened.
—Mikhail Bulgakov, “The City of Kiev,”Nakanune
(On the Eve) newspaper, 6th July 1923
In Kiev, in about 1910, a florist at the sign of La Flore de Nice was selling hydrangeas and Christmas roses. Was the business prosperous? In the Ukrainian capital, “there were so many lime trees [along the streets] that in springtime, you walked beneath an archway of blossom and on a carpet of flowers.” Once winter was over, hyacinths and dandelions defied the last gusts of snow. In a few days’ time, the lime trees in the old Revny park would take on a fresh pale plumage and the Marinsky park, poised upon the red clay cliffs that crumble down into the river, would be filled with copses of mauve. After that came an explosion of pollens, that covered the Kreschatik, the principal thoroughfare of the city, in a carpet of pale yellow.
There is no writer who has not been struck by the mass of vegetation that every year floods the Pechersk district, perched high in the heart of Kiev. When he went back there in 1923, to find it ravaged by four consecutive years of onslaughts and pillaging, Mikhail Bulgakov, who was born there thirty years earlier, had not forgotten the joyful eruption of spring: “The gardens were white with flowers, the Garden of the Tsars was covered in green, the sun pierced all the windows, setting them ablaze.” And Irène Némirovsky: “How beautiful it is in springtime, in this land! The streets lined with gardens and the air giving off the scent of lime trees, lilacs, sweet moisture rising from the lawns; these trees, in clusters, release their sugary perfume into the night.” So what need was there for a florist from Nice in the city of Kiev, which was so saturated with perfumes that every evening, before the open-air concert in the Kupechesky park, they had first to spray the beds of stocks and tobacco flowers in order to reduce the fragrance and ward off coughing fits?
The Smell of the Plains
It was in this vast botanical garden, traversed by wide avenues, and adorned with bandstands and balconies with striped awnings, that a little girl, given the name Irma for the synagogue, and Irina, after the Tsar’s niece, was born on 11th February 1903. Of the countless bastions of greenery maintained in the heart of the city, this little girl, who became a novelist, listed four: “Nicholas Square, the Botanical Gardens, and, up on the hills, the Tsar’s Garden and the Merchants’ Square.” The second of these, vast and gullied, with its own pond, and criss-crossed with pathways lined with hundred-year-old lime trees, made the strongest impression on her, possibly because it was the closest to Pushkin Street where her parents lived when she was seven years old. “It was a rather isolated, overgrown spot. Some sleepy animals lived in iron cages: an eagle from the Caucasus crawling with vermin, some wolves, a bear panting with thirst.” And there was Nicholas I Square, the centenary park of Lycée No. 1, as well as the verdant terraces perched above the Dnieper, the Dvortsovy and the Kupechesky, which afforded a view over the lower town of Podol. Not forgetting the bridges lined with numbered trees, or those areas of open ground preserved in the heart of the city, as if out of nostalgia for the steppe from which a smell of honey blew in on gusts of wind.
But Irotchka, as her family called her, was asthmatic, a hereditary condition. Her attacks were frequent and violent. A bunch of flowers was enough to affect her. At home there would only ever be a single tulip in a vase or some sweet peas on the balcony. In Paris, she was obliged to import inhalers from Switzerland. And her sensory memories of her native city would be those of a child capable of analysing instinctively “the unique aroma of the air,” an acuity that would make her so receptive to Proustian distillation. Thus the narrator of The Wine of Solitude (Le Vin de Solitude)
, “a poorly disguised autobiography” written in 1933, recalls that in Kiev “the air misty with dust smelled of dung and roses.”
Despite the rococo cupolas of St. Andrew and the Marie Palace, which the younger Rastrelli had designed in 1762, the profusion of theatres, the trolleybus lines, which were inaugurated in 1892, it was impossible to forget that Kiev was the capital of an immensely vast field of buckwheat and rye. In the evenings, at harvest time, the dust from the straw in the ploughed fields stuck in one’s throat. “A cloudy red light drifted down from the sky; the wind carried the smell of the Ukrainian plains to the city, a mild but bitter scent of smoke and the coolness of the water and rushes that grew along the riverbanks.” The Dnieper, pausing over this landscape, flowed through it in huge meandering bends. The breaking ice drove back the opposite bank far beyond the horizon. From the hilltop where the statue of Prince Vladimir held aloft his cross, studded with light-bulbs, to guide the boatmen, stretched a sea on which the sun never shone. The journalist Bernard Lecache, who in 1926 had come to record the testimonies of Jews who had survived the 1,300 pogroms of the civil war, could not help contemplating for a moment the splendour of Kiev, “full of trees, and undulating, like a woman’s body, as beautiful as a city can be.”
For the little girl who was short of breath, this botanical paradise would for ever be a stifling greenhouse, an olfactory variation on the well-known Russian excess. “The hot summer days, the bells of the ice cream seller, the flowers crushed under foot, crumpled in people’s hands, too many plants, too many flowers; a perfume that was overly sweet, that troubles and lulls the spirit; too much light, a savage glare, the songs of birds in the sky: this was her land.”
The Ukraine. In Kiev, its capital, the Russia of the Tsars was born. Even Andréi Bely, a Muscovite by birth, but a St. Petersburger at heart, for whom other Russian cities were nothing but “a miserable heap of wood,” acknowledged this unreservedly: “The mother of Russian cities is Kiev.” Prince Oleg, at the conclusion of a victorious siege, established the first rus dynasty there in 882. Converted to the Orthodox faith a century later, under the reign of Vladimir, who had all his people baptised through immersion in the Dnieper, Kiev experienced wars and pillaging, but never neglect: a natural waterway from the Baltic to Constantinople, the river had never stopped replenishing the city with men and maintaining commerce there. And thus its status as the cradle of Russia, albeit the ancient and backward Russia, has never been contested.
To See Paris Again
Was this really her cradle? In October, the departure of the ships for their winter dry docks heralded the frosts. The Némirovskys then packed their bags for a distant land. Vichy, Plombières, Vittel, Divonne . . . The spa towns, where their little daughter could be treated for her asthma, offered Irina’s parents, Anna and Leonid, the supreme benefits of the casino. But they themselves preferred one of those communities in Nice among which Paul Bourget had just set his novel Le Piège
, and had no qualms about travelling on to the Côte d’Azur, leaving the child in the care of a governess. Irène Némirovsky remembered that when they all returned to Kiev her wheeler-dealer of a father “played and juggled or became engrossed in an old roulette wheel, brought back from Monte Carlo,” a symbol of his gambler’s personality. As for her mother, a photograph of her in a satin dress, with a tight-fitting waist, her arms and her hair strewn with black pearls, and an aigrette on her forehead, suggests the desire for approval that she sought in the palaces and gambling rooms: she wished other people to gaze at her apart from her husband, who sparkled with intelligence and determination rather than lust. A satisfied smile betrays her desires. It is this same portrait that her daughter would describe in 1928: “Little mother, all dressed up for the ball, her shoulders bare, with a naïve, triumphant smile that seemed to say: ‘Just look at me! Aren’t I beautiful? And if you only knew how much pleasure that gives me!’ ” All in all, an “exquisite doll.”
Sometimes these French “winters” lasted four seasons. They began in Paris where Irina, their only child, alighted from the train with her parents and the servants. “From the age of four, up until the war, I went there regularly every year. The first time, I stayed there for a year. I was in the care of a French teacher, and I always spoke French with my mother.” And one cannot help smiling when Henri de Régnier, upon closing The Wine of Solitude (Le Vin de Solitude)
in 1935, felt able to say that “Némirovsky writes Russian in French.” For she was a French writer whom fate had caused to be born in Kiev, and her Russian, less innate than bookish, would remain imperfect. For Irène Némirovsky (“a Russian name, very difficult to pronounce”), Russian would always be that uncivilised “wild, sweet language” of the East, where she was born. By comparison with the excitement of Paris, the non-stop theatre of the Riviera, and the variety of the French landscape, the Ukraine, whose very name conjures up boundaries, appeared to her as a desert of ploughed fields or snow glimpsed through a car window, “a very flat land, where one’s gaze is not immediately blocked, as in France, by some hill or the rooftops in a village.” You could swear that Chekhov was thinking of the Némirovskys when he wrote: “for them, Paris is the capital, the home, whereas the rest of Europe is merely a boring, incoherent provincial world you can only look at through the lowered blinds of Grand Hotels.” In France, on the other hand, it was eternal springtime. And so the first known words written by her, scribbled on the back of a badly faded postcard at Vichy railway station, on 12th or 13th August 1912 or 1913, are in French: “I am sending you the Chomel spring where I go to drink each morning. Maman thanks you for your letter but I think we are going to Biarritz. See you soon. Irène Némirovsky.”
In Kiev, there was the memory of sensations; in Paris, nostalgia of the soul. For “Kiev was a small provincial town then, peaceful and dismal,” whereas Irène “felt her heart melt with tenderness at the memory of Paris, the Tuileries Gardens, the yellow moon that rose slowly above the column in the Place Vendôme.” In Kiev there lay vague, mysterious, even worrying memories: “The shouts of the chouroum-bouroum,
the carpet seller . . . The little red-headed children, the acrobats who came to perform outside the windows in winter . . . And the crazy old man who had sung at the Opera and thought he was still a singer, draping himself with faded fine clothing, a crown of dried leaves on his head, making grand gestures and imagining that he was singing, though not a sound escaped his lips . . .” Of the Paris of her childhood, in 1934 Irène Némirovsky retained a no less misty memory “of the monkeys in the Jardin des Plantes and their scarlet genitals”; but above all, it was there, at the Tuileries or the Champs- Élysées, that she had played with little French children. “Maman, it’s not possible,” her daughter Denise would object in 1936. “You could not have experienced that in the old days, because you were a foreigner . . .” And so her life, “like everyone’s life, had its haven of light. Every year, she returned to France, with her mother and Mlle Rose . . . How happy she was to see Paris again! . . . She loved it so much!”Zézelle
Mademoiselle Rose? In giving her this delicate name, Irène Némirovsky pointed out in 1936 that she had wanted to draw “as faithful a portrait as possible” of her former governess. “I say ‘as faithful as possible,’ because this character drawn from reality has caused me much more sadness than if I had invented her.” Not that the memory had to be coaxed out, but she was afraid of sullying the memory of her poor French governess, whom she had fallen out with ultimately. How she would come to regret her ingratitude! “Deliberately, and for many long years, I did not utter her name. My clumsy lips refused to speak it. . . . I no longer want to call her Zézelle, it’s too sacrosanct. I shall see. Mademoiselle Rose is good, too . . .”
Perhaps Zézelle had a brother. Perhaps she had grown up in the Ursuline convent. Perhaps her skin was soft: if, in The Wine of Solitude
, invention comes to the aid of memory, it does not betray it. Of southern origin, “she was tidy, precise, meticulous, a Frenchwoman through and through, a little ‘aloof,’ somewhat scornful. Never a fuss. Rarely kissed anyone.” She was so tiny that by the age of twelve Irotchka had almost caught up with her. Anna Némirovsky, as was the fashion at the time, had engaged this fragile upright woman from the French Home in Kiev, an agency that provided the Kiev middle classes with young French nannies.
Marie—to give her her real name—taught the rudiments of her own language to the child who was entrusted to her. “She sang in a quiet voice, but so clearly and so tunefully. She taught me: ‘La tour, prends garde,’ ‘Marlbrough’ and ‘Les bas noirs, les bas noirs . . .’ and also ‘Nous n’irons plus au bois,’ ‘Valsez, fillettes, valsez coquettes, marionnettes du gai Paris.’ ” But also French sayings: “Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera
[God helps those who help themselves].” A crumpled photograph shows her dressed in black, a Paris newspaper on her knees, although her hands were rarely idle. We cannot see her gold watch and chain on her breast, but her waist, “whose measurements were those of an earlier age” is of the kind that Irène Némirovsky—whom we can see behind the governess’s right shoulder, wearing an apologetic smile, and with two ribbons in her hair—would try to describe twenty years later:
Nearly always wearing a little blouse with small tucks, fine linen and broderie anglaise, and sometimes a black sateen apron, her delicate feet clad in black boots with buttons. A velvet ribbon around her neck . . . A face that must have once had the graceful, delicate beauty of a grisette, with “a youthful glow” that passes quickly, but which still retained her extremely pretty, cheerful, kindly, heart- shaped mouth. Small teeth like those of a mouse. The rest of her features were fine and irregular, and, at the age of fifty, revealed small, delicate “lines,” dark, tired eyes, and hair that in spite of her age was a light, deep-chestnut colour, dark with bluish reflections, assembled in smoky ringlets, in the old-fashioned way, over her uncovered head.
The face of France, virtuous and reserved.
Excerpted from The Life of Irene Nemirovsky by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt. Copyright © 2010 by Olivier Philipponnat. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.