The Prodigal Child by Irène Némirovsky

This novella, written in 1923 when the author was twenty, offers a fascinating glimpse of Némirovsky’s emerging literary talents. The Prodigal Child begins and ends like a biblical parable, but also has a dark fairytale quality: a boy from the ghetto discovers he has a gift for creating songs that move both vagabonds and princesses. But he becomes imprisoned by his own powers, which seem to vanish when he reaches adolescence.

Artwork courtesy of Kales Press

Despite its bleak ending, Sandra Smith’s elegant translation of L’Enfant Génial makes Némirovsky’s words fly off the page, with her frequently sensuous and lyrical prose echoing the poetic flights of its main character. The book also offers enjoyably down-to-earth descriptions of life in a Russian port at the start of the twentieth century. Némirovsky is concerned here with the nature of artistic inspiration, the dark side of being a child genius and adult reactions to it, which can begin to look a lot like child abuse.

10 year-old Ishmael Baruch is one of a large Jewish family living in a large trading port on the Black Sea in southern Russia. Life in the ghetto is hard but Ishmael loves the town and port, with its smells of fish and fruit and its exotic mix of people. He is drawn to “the unclassifiable riffraff that swarmed into the port, people from the Middle East who smelled of garlic, the tide and spices, swept up by the sea from every corner of the world and thrust there like the foam on the waves.”

Asked to sing by one of these tavern-goers, Ishmael finds that he is a natural: “the music worked like wine on all these coarse, dazed men; they listened, astonished by the new song.” The words and music he conjures up “come to life in him like mysterious birds to whom he only needed to give a little nudge.” As his fame grows Ishmael begins to make money, stops going to school, and becomes ‘lost’ to his parents.

By the age of thirteen Ishmael has already been taught how to make love by older women. He has got drunk on every sort of alcoholic drink, from Russian vodka to Turkish raki. He has been denied a normal childhood.

When he meets a rich nobleman and his ‘Princess’, they take him under their wing. She wants to ‘adopt’ him and have him sing to her alone. At first Ishmael resists “this woman who wanted to impose her will on his freedom.” But she is like a fairytale enchantress, with eyes ‘like a bird of prey,’ and he falls hopelessly under her spell.

Artwork courtesy of Kales Press

Soon he is living in luxury in an ancient mansion, “steeped in alcohol and money.” The Princess and nobleman often kiss and canoodle in front of Ishmael. “He seemed to breathe in their passionate love as if it were a poisonous flower,” and his own feverish love for her is making him ill. She even kisses him “on the lips, wickedly, tenderly, the way you bite into the pink flesh of fruit.”

When the Princess travels abroad Ishmael moves to a chateau in the countryside and grows to love nature. But the damage has been done. He has lost his artistic mojo. Now, when he tries to write he feels “a profound numbness, a sensation of emptiness … a kind of painful weariness.”

Reading his way through the books in the chateau’s library doesn’t help. He tries to copy the styles of other writers, then looks for answers in scholarly works of criticism and analysis. Students and blocked writers will nod in agreement as they read Némirovsky’s darkly comic description of Ishmael’s despair: “he was lost in the inextricable forest of literary criticism; he completely lost his mind.”

By the end Ishmael feels that there is no way out except death. The Prodigal Child’s ending seems to offer little in the way of hope, foreshadowing Némirovsky’s own terrible end in Auschwitz. But her own genius lives on, thanks in large part to the work of Sandra Smith, who has translated all the author’s work into English, including Suite Francaise, the WWII masterpiece that brought her to the world’s attention. Kudos to Kales Press, who have honoured Némirovsky’s memory here with a beautifully-produced new edition of one of her first works.