The bookshop had no copies of “The Passage,” which is strange since the post-apocalyptic vampire novel hovers at the top of the bestseller’s list. Instead, I picked up a copy of Irène Némirovsky’s “Jezebel,” first published in 1936 and recently reissued through her family’s estate. The author was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942 when she was 39 years old. She wrote seven other books in her short life. Irène Némirovsky’s novel offers an extended meditation on a woman’s experience with her own beauty and the ageing process, more so than what audiences meet when the topic gets treated on the big screen. Bette Davis’ career embodied the very question of how a woman comes to regard her appearance over time, from her perfection as Fanny Trellis in “Mrs. Skeffington,” playing a woman who makes it to her forties as a flawless beauty, until a fever knocks her down and the years crash over her with more force than a fist. Davis gave the consummate female mid-life crisis performance as Margo, an ageing stage actor who worries about the doe-eyed admirer Eve, as well as the eight years she has on her boyfriend Bill. Davis telegraphed every woman’s vulnerability concerning the march of time throughout her career, right up to the macabre turn as Baby Jane Hudson, an old woman in a child’s dress and curls. The cinematic moments of women crippled by time abound, such as with the disgust on Mitch’s face when he holds Blanche under the bare bulb; the taped and trussed Norma Desmond trying to turn back time and calling out to Mr. DeMille for her close-up, Hollywood prizes women for their beauty until they aren’t, and then the gleeful schadenfreude takes over, the spectacle of seeing a beauty lose her looks takes over.
As I wrote before, beauty amounts to another form of privilege, one of those accidents at birth that bestows advantages upon the individual without merit or application, much as with race, gender and nationality. Still, there’s human drama to mine in the type of inner-conflict a character struggles with in the ageing process. Protagonists such as Irène Némirovsky’s Gladys Eysenach do not have the benefit of a portrait hidden away in the attic as did Wilde’s Dorian Gray. On trial for murdering her young lover, Gladys admits her crime in court during the opening chapters. The rest of the novel recalls the power she felt her beauty gave her, an illusion many women fall for. The young Gladys placed her entire self-worth in her appearance: “Was there anything better in life, was there anything more sensual than being attractive? The desire to be alluring, to be loved—a commonplace pleasure that all women felt—to her became an obsession, similar to the profound way men felt about power or money, a thirst that increased with every passing year and that nothing could ever completely satisfy.” Like the author’s own mother, Gladys dresses her teenage daughter as a small child in order to lie about her own age. Her addiction to youth and beauty marks the whole of her existence. She’s completely internalised the cultural dictate that women should strive above all else for a pretty countenance. Gladys is both villainous and tragic because she settled for such a limited vocation. She has to learn that what she regards as ‘power’ lasts just a little while. The Cinderella-princess-at-the-ball fantasy drives many women witless. And no happy endings in sight.
“Jezebel” is a juicy page-turner.