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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Courilof Affair

Irène Némirovsky

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To purchase The Courilof Affair

Title: The Courilof Affair
Author: Irène Némirovsky
Genre: Novel
Written: 1933 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 179 pages
Original in: French
Availability: in David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair - US
The Courilof Affair - UK
in David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair - Canada
L'affaire Courilof - Canada
L'affaire Courilof - France
Der Fall Kurilow - Deutschland
  • French title: L'affaire Courilof
  • Translated by Sandra Smith

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an unbelievable premise, but a decent story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 21/11/2008 Lee Rourke
Haaretz . 13/2/2008 Gerald Sorin
NZZ . 10/5/1995 Ulrich Schmid
The NY Rev. of Books . 20/11/2008 J.M.Coetzee
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/3/2008 Thomas Mallon

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like Sartre and Camus, Némirovsky paints a fictional picture that resonates deep in the contemporary mind, ensuring that terrorism is something more than just a moral and philosophical question." - Lee Rourke, The Guardian

  • "Nemirovsky's protagonists not only fail to make the important distinction between cruelty and evil; they barely mask the incredible brutality of revolutionary terrorists and the reactionary aristocratic establishment, each of which mirrored the other in believing that their respective victims "deserve no more pity than mad dogs." The Courilof Affair is a wonderful example of Nemirovsky's untiring (she published almost one novel a year from 1926 until the start of World War II) dedication to examining, with sympathy, the complex ironies of human interaction and to unveiling the hidden desires and emotions of her protagonists." - Gerald Sorin, Haaretz

  • "The gradual humanization of an assassin brought up in the most blinkered of revolutionary circles is masterfully done: Némirovsky allows herself all the space she needs to trace his erratic moral evolution. Courilof emerges as something like a hero, a complex man, severe but incorruptible, touchingly vain, devoted to the service of a sovereign whom he personally despises. For all his weaknesses, he stands for values that this ultimately elegiac book endorses: a cautious liberalism, the culture of the West." - J.M. Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

  • "The collection’s standout work is The Courilof Affair, in which Némirovsky, ever prone to imitation, goes into a Conradian mode, specifically the dark, political Conrad of novels like The Secret Agent. The result is a subtle mix of Némirovsky’s own determinism, the revolutionary agenda of the tale’s narrator and the messy, sometimes redeeming features of human nature -- the unexpected little complexities that can make an ideologue apply the brakes to theories and zeal." - Thomas Mallon, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The introductory chapter of L'affaire Courilof brings two figures together in Nice who were involved in the Courilof-affair in 1903, the revolutionary Léon M. and an official who worked for the government back then. Years have passed, both are far from Russia, but M. retains his anonymity and refuses to reveal his role in the events.
       Eventually he does offer his account: a notebook found among his effects upon his death in 1932 contains a dying confession cum memoir, and it is this autobiographical account that makes up the rest of the book. The Courilof-affair was a defining one of his life, but he circles around it, first offering only a brief summary, then finally, with some apparent reluctance, revealing what actually happened in detail.
       He was born, in 1881, with only one destiny: to serve the revolution. The son of committed revolutionaries, his father a terrorist he last saw as a young child, his mother dying in Geneva when he was only ten (but already exposing him -- or using him as cover -- in her contributions to the violent revolutionary cause), he could only follow in their footsteps. By the time he reached adulthood he was an ideal candidate to commit a spectacular assault in Russia: unknown to the authorities, he had a better chance of getting to the powers that be, and when in 1903 the executive committee in Switzerland decided to targed schools-minister Valerian Courilof he was the one they sent to Russia to get him.
       Posing as a Swiss doctor, Michel Legrand, the young revolutionary first tries to get an idea of the minister's lifestyle and schedule. It turns out to be fairly easy to get close to him; eventually he even manages to simply get himself invited to serve as a medical adviser at the minister's summer residence. Killing Courilof is the ultimate goal, but the revolutionaries have their own ideas about assassination, and merely getting rid of the man isn't enough, so despite the wonderful opportunity the orders are: hands-off. For one, they want the act committed in front of foreign dignitaries, so that the Russian government can't hush it up and so that the world knows the man was a victim of the revolution. And it should be fairly spectacular, to make an impression. Killing him at his out of the way island estate isn't at all what they have in mind.
       The fake Legrand, however, manages to get close to Courilof, with opportunity to kill him at many moments. And Courilof's medical troubles are enough to do him in as well: he's gravely ill with liver cancer (which no one dares tell him, because no one would think of operating on him, since the consequences of failure -- killing him on the operating table -- would presumably be fatal for them as well). Ironically, the would-be assassin in fact does more to preserve Courilof's life than take it for several months.
       Courilof is more afraid of court intrigues than revolutionaries, in any case, as they seem much more likely to cause him to lose favour and power. He has family problems, too, as his beloved second wife isn't seen to be entirely proper and gives the Czar (and his enemies) reason to keep him from court.
       The revolutionaries finally set a date for the assassination, months ahead, in October, but Legrand -- ever less convinced of the usefulness of killing the man -- warns that Courilof might not even be a minister at that time. In that case, he's told, a new target would be found -- and when Courilof does fall from favour it looks like Legrand is off the hook for the time being. But Courilof can't leave power be, and makes himself an inviting target again.
       The dance between Legrand and Courilof is an interesting one: each has a ruthless side, but neither acts rashly towards the other, tempting fate, allowing this fatal game to move towards its ugly, inevitable end. Legrand has little sympathy for the minister, who has much innocent blood on his hands, but he also sees the futility of striking here. But Legrand is only a tool, there to do as he is told; ironically -- though no one takes much notice (or cares) -- he fails, unable to do what he is supposed to (though it gets done nevertheless). It's enough, in the end, to get him first condemned to death and then, as the revolution triumphs, emerge on the side of the victors (before winding up in exile): such is the revolution and the way of the world, he learns.
       Némirovsky offers an interesting picture of early (pre-Bolshevik) revolutionary Russia, but the book suffers from the bizarre code of conduct of the would-be world-changers. The elimination of the government-evil-doers is not the top priority: Legrand's mission is not simply to kill Courilof, and by not making assassination itself the primary objective they undermine their own larger agenda. Instead of working towards achieving specific ends (ultimately: the overthrow of an unjust government) they seem more interested in being involved in 'revolutionary' acts involving theatre and fireworks (and requiring an audience to be meaningful). Legrand has ample opportunity to kill Courilof (and probably easily get away with it) -- and if he had tried he might even have been able to get some bigger fish -- but instead the revolution demands he bide his time (increasing the risk that he is either exposed or that he comes to sympathise with his intended victim).
       In turning M. into a disillusioned revolutionary who will eventually go on to become an important Cheka figure (but understands that he is only a tool, to be done away with when he no longer serves a purpose), Némirovsky does create an intriguing figure, but the scenario that makes him the man he becomes is simply too hard to credit for the book to be truly satisfying.

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The Courilof Affair: Reviews: Irène Némirovsky: Other books by Irene Nemirovsky under review: Books about Irène Némirovsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Irène Némirovsky was born in Russia in 1903. Her family moved to France, where she became a successful and popular author in the 1930s. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.

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