"‘Old Fontenelle used to insist that no sorrow, however wretched, could survive an hour’s reading. But for me it isn’t books or works of art that console me, it’s the contemplation of our imperfect world.’
Reading the work of Iréne Nemirosky (1903 to 1942) is an exquisite experience. One of the character types brought to perfection in French Literature is that of the older never married wealthy man of the world, a man who dines at the finest restaurants of Paris in the company of a countess from an ancient family after a night at a theatrical performance of a work by Racine. He ends his evening either at home alone or in a brothel. He is spectator at the game of life. We find his beginnings in Balzac and maybe his ultimate refinement in Proust. He is related to the Dandy. (The definitive reference on this is probably The History of the European Dandy by Theodora Boussweau, 1946)
I love the beginning of this story. A very wealthy older man is dining in a wonderful restaurant, a small place known not yet in the world of Parisian gourmands. He is in the company of an older woman, a very intriguing figure. I loved the descriptions of the dinner.
"They had eaten well. The creaminess of the quenelles brought out the truffles’ deep, dark flavour: not too overpowering, but blending in with the tender flesh of the fish and the delicate, white sauce, rather as the deep notes of the cello had mingled with the sound of the piano in the delightful concerto he had heard yesterday. If one used one’s imagination and experience it was possible, thought Hugo Grayer, to extract the maximum pleasure from life, and innocent enjoyment. After the exquisite and complex taste of the quenelles, the Châteaubriand steak with potatoes had an austere simplicity reminiscent of classical design. They had drunk a small amount of wine –Hugo had a delicate liver –but it was a 1924 Château Ausone. What a bit of luck it had been to discover such a rare wine in an apparently simple restaurant."
This story is the most directly Anti-Nazi work of Nemirosky with which I am acquainted. It depicts a city waiting to be invaded by the Germans. Hugo thinks with great despair of the possible bombing of Norte Dame. The thoughts of Hugo, one of the richest men in Uruguay, are treasures. He appreciates Paris as the zenith of European culture and is horrified by the prospect of the destruction of the city he foresees.
I find I want to quote more from the story so I can savior the experience.
"It was an August day in Paris, on the Quai d’Orléans by the Seine. Hugo kept congratulating himself that this year he had postponed his departure to Deauville: the weather was fine and Magda quite entertaining. He did not like dining with pretty girls; at his age it was better to keep his pleasures separate. For a lunch like this what he needed was a hardboiled, cynical old American such as Magda, who appreciated her food and had good taste in wine. He had always been admired for his taste, his wealth, his splendid collection of porcelain, his knowledge of ancient Greek writers, his generosity and his intelligence. He did not need other people’s admiration, yet Magda amused him. It was better, and more unusual, to be amused than admired . . . better and more unusual to be amused than loved. ‘Egoist.’ "
Hugo decides he must leave France, he books first class passage back to South America. The story of Hugo takes a terrible turn, rendered beyond perfectly by Nemirosky.