The Courilof Affair, by Irene Némirovsky
I went through a phase during the my late teens, when I decided that I really loved Russian literature, particularly Dostoyevsky. Of course, I only managed to finish one of them before it was due back at the library. As this was the very short Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it’s not that much of an achievement (I may also have read Crime and Punishment, which I’m fairly sure I skimmed more than I actually read). To this day, as far as I can remember, the only other books I’ve read by Russian authors have been Sergei Lukyanenko‘s Watch Trilogy, an urban fantasy series which owes more to Stoker than Tolstoy, and Master and Margarita.
And now, The Courilof Affair. Which, with it’s moral confusion, class dispute and general nihilistic misanthropy fits very much in with the 19th Century books I failed to read years ago. The foundation of the plot is the planned assassination of Courilof,the aristocratic Education minister under Nicholas II by a Swiss communist. By necessity the murder must be in a place so public that it cannot be ignored by the world’s elites, and thus the assassin, whose name we never truly learn, must ingratiate himself into the ministers household. However once there, and despite the fact that the pitiful Courilof represents everything he hates, the narrator finds himself empathizing with the man.
And then he spends the next hundred or so pages struggling to do what he at once knows he must and he cannot. The problem is, despite the fact the plot is interesting enough, the narrator is difficult to sympathise with, partly because, well, he’s an assassin, and partly because the framing device tells the reader in the prologue that he does indeed go ahead with it.
It’s an interesting work, but it lacks the punch needed to really make an impact or indeed an especially enjoyable read.