The Prodi­gal Child

Irène Némirovsky, San­dra Smith (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – January 3, 2022

In her nov­el The Prodi­gal Child, Irène Némirovsky paints with great detail and sen­si­tiv­i­ty the dream of assim­i­la­tion through the lens of the young poor Jew­ish pro­tag­o­nist, Ish­mael. The sto­ry unfolds as a moral­i­ty tale, with lan­guage that crys­tal­izes the themes of assim­i­la­tion and aspi­ra­tion, beau­ty, love, and inno­cence lost, as well as avarice and moral decay.

At first, Ish­mael, a poor Jew from the ghet­to of a port town on the Black Sea, catch­es the fan­cy of the Princess (who is actu­al­ly not a princess, but the wid­ow of the for­mer gov­er­nor- gen­er­al of the town) after she becomes enchant­ed by the raw tal­ent of his poet­ic songs. She takes him to her lav­ish man­sion, and he finds him­self quick­ly at home among the tapes­tries and mir­rors paint­ed with birds and flow­ers in the Ital­ian style.” Despite his belief that he has final­ly escaped his hum­ble Jew­ish ori­gins, ulti­mate­ly the Princess tires of him and casts him out, replac­ing him with a set of beau­ti­ful white dogs.

The Prodi­gal Son is a para­ble of assim­i­la­tion that Némirovsky tells with rich sen­su­al lan­guage, a tale that could even be read as a fore­shad­ow­ing of Némirovsky’s own trag­ic fate. Sim­i­lar to Ish­mael, from an ear­ly age Némirovsky enjoyed the warm cul­tur­al embrace of not a Princess, but of France. Her sense of cul­tur­al belong­ing solid­i­fied as she matured into a cel­e­brat­ed writer. She enjoyed lit­er­ary suc­cess at a young age with the run­away suc­cess of her first nov­el, David Gold­er. Like Ish­mael at home with­in the Princess’s beau­ti­ful estate, Némirovsky felt as if she tru­ly belonged in France, iden­ti­fy­ing it as a cre­ative safe haven, a place where she felt the most free, accept­ed, and unin­hib­it­ed. In March of 1940, for an inter­view with the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Les Nou­velles lit­teraires, when asked who she was, a French author or a Russ­ian author writ­ing in French, her response is poignant, giv­en what we know of her fate: I hope and I believe I am more a French than a Russ­ian author.”

Némirovsky believed, up until the absolute last moment, that France would nev­er reject or cast her out, giv­en how deeply the coun­try and the lan­guage ran through her blood, work, and life. And yet, by the ear­ly sum­mer of 1942, one of her jour­nal entries reads, with­out a date: My God! What is this coun­try doing to me? Since it rejects me, let us think about it cold­ly, let us watch it lose its hon­or and its life.”

Per­haps this ear­ly novel’s imagery, in its dream-like sym­bol­ism, is a warn­ing not only to Némirovsky her­self, but also to all of us who attempt to escape our roots and dis­own where we came from in search of anoth­er pre­ferred iden­ti­ty that might offer, for a time, safe­ty and reprieve from per­se­cu­tion and oth­er­ness. It’s dan­ger­ous, Némirovsky seems to be say­ing, to forego and for­get who we are in exchange for false idols.

Alex­is Lan­dau is a grad­u­ate of Vas­sar Col­lege and received an MFA from Emer­son Col­lege and a PhD in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is the author of The Empire of the Sens­es and lives with her hus­band and two chil­dren in Los Angeles.

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