In (a Desperate Paranoid Panic-Fueled) Search of Lost Time: Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel

jezebelIrène Némirovsky’s Jezebel might be the greatest book about the dark side of beauty ever written. If that sounds like an exaggeration, trust me, it’s merely a fact.

First, while Némirovsky is justly praised for her great novel Suite Françoise, I urge you to not only read her most well-known novel. She wrote many masterpieces, and Jezebel is the most intense.

Second, like John Fowles’ The Collector (the subject of my previous blog post), the greatness of Jezebel lies in the stunning psychological portrait of its main character, Gladys Eysenach. On the surface, Gladys is nothing but a shallow monster, someone obsessed with her own beauty and incapable of loving anyone except herself. But as much as her vanity and selfishness hurts those around her, no one in the novel is more damaged than Gladys herself. She is constantly haunted by the fact that she cannot stop time, and her constant inner monologues cursing how cruel time is become more aggressive and borderline psychotic as the novel goes on. There is a hint of Peter Pan here, where time is seen as an enemy, something chasing after us. At least, it would be, if we only saw the story from Gladys’ perspective. But we don’t – Némirovsky lets us see through the eyes of Gladys’ friends, family, and lovers, all of whom easily see through Gladys.

Jezebel is an extremely claustrophobic book. The cast is small, but we rarely feel like we are anywhere else except inside Gladys’ paranoid mind. Again, her self-absorption would be easy to dismiss as merely ugly (which it is), but Némirovsky isn’t interested in judging her. Némirovsky wants to understand Gladys, and by exploring the character with an incredible level of realism (to the point where the novel sometimes feels more like a case study), Gladys’ despair takes on the pathos of a Greek tragedy.

Némirovsky’s novel is an increasingly-rapid spiral downward, which is all the more painful because we see every step of Gladys’ journey. We see her grow from an arrogant child to a manic woman in her 60s who desperately tries to convince everyone she’s in her 30s. Although “grow” might not be the right word, since her tragedy is precisely that she never grows at all.

In the end, while Gladys cannot, of course, turn back time, we can simply by flipping the pages back to the beginning and starting over. But no matter how often we might retreat back to happier times in Gladys’ life, Némirovsky makes it clear from the outset where her tortured protagonist’s will, and must, end.

Reading Jezebel is one of the most intense literary experiences you will ever have.

So go read it. Now.

 

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