Master of Souls
“Early 20th century writing, especially translated from one language to another, can be challenging to read, but Nèmirovsky’s story and Smith’s translation make Master of Souls fascinating and enjoyable.”
“’I need money!’”
“’I said no!’”
“Dario tried to calm down, in vain.”
And that’s how Irène Nèmirovsky’s 1939 novel, Master of Souls opens and the theme of money rises and carries through to the end.
Set in France in the 1920s, the main character, Dr. Dario Asfar, an immigrant, frets over the fact that he gets very few patients and those who come to him often are unable to pay him. Thus, the worries over money.
Dario’s wife, Clara, is pregnant and gives birth to a boy, Daniel. Another cause for worry.
Early in the story Dario approaches his landlady for a loan, and although she says no, at the same time she has a deed for him that is worth a considerable amount of money. Her daughter-in-law, Elinor, is pregnant but the family can’t afford the child, and Dario performs a requested abortion.
Although this word is not used until far into the novel, the reader has no trouble understanding exactly what is being requested. After the procedure, Elinor is divorced and does not reappear until later in the story.
The theme about money continues to percolate when wealthy businessman Philippe Wardes approaches Dario looking for a cure to his addictions to alcohol and gambling. Wardes knows that his addictions are bad for him: “At moments of fatigue that with him was not only physical but seemed to seep into his very soul, . . .” and he needed help. Thus, the more deeply rooted theme of soul, as seen in the title of the story, rises to the top.
Dario has begun to learn about psychoanalysis and develops his own theory for helping address such problems, and he takes on Wardes as a patient. Now, while such problems are more clearly dealt with in the 21st century, the 1920s addiction problems were less likely to be treated, but Dario is able to apply his theories with some success.
It is while Wardes is his patient that Dario meets Wardes’s wife, Sylvie, with whom he falls in love. The love never progresses to an affair, but the emotional attachment for Dario is clear.
As time progresses, Dario becomes the go-to doctor when something like this arises and needs such attention. “Thirteen years later, Dario was expensive.” Women rave about him, and yet they consider him to be a charlatan as they sit in his office waiting for his attention.
“‘Can you imagine what a fortune all this must cost?’
‘He doesn’t heal bodies,” they would add, ‘he heals souls.’
And Dario knew what his successes had bought him, ‘My title is “Master of Souls.”’ And the theme continues to rise.”
Although Nèmirovsky paints Dario as a successful man, wealthy in his own right, the question of money remains just below the surface, appearing throughout the story.
Clara, in a conversation with Dario about money, tries to convince him how unimportant money is. His retort, “I fear poverty above all else,” makes it clear that she did not convince him.
Wardes divorces his wife, Sylvie (who has disappeared from the story), and he takes a mistress—Elinor, from earlier in the story. They marry, and Elinor approaches Dario with a proposition. “‘I’m prepared to offer you an arrangement, a scheme that will be as profitable for you as for me.’” He must keep Wardes under control while Elinor runs the business and continues to become wealthier.
In the meantime, Dario’s son has become acquainted with Sylvie Wardes and her daughter, Claude, and he learns about his father’s previous relationship with Sylvie. Daniel has also learned about Dario’s part in controlling Wardes. As Daniel learns more about his father’s activities, he grows to hate his father. Daniel’s hatred seems extreme, but Nèmirovsky shows the boy’s love for his mother in tender and caring ways.
In a conversation between Clara and Daniel, when she attempts to defend Dario by telling Daniel that this is none of his business, Daniel’s response is clear. “‘And when people . . . find out that Wardes wasn’t mad and that my father had him locked up at his wife’s [Elinor] request, when they count the money he earned to accomplish this admirable task, then will you tell the police, the journalists, and me that we’re getting mixed up in things that are none of our business?’”
In a scene where Wardes, knowing his destiny, confronts Dario, the recuring theme of the title—souls— is made more evident.
“‘You behaved in a vile manner to me,’ Wardes said softly . . .
‘Why don’t you sue me?’
‘You know very well why. Because once a man is no longer in your hands, he cannot say he owns his own soul anymore.’”
And again later, “Wardes hated and feared Dario at one and the same time . . . In his letters to Dario, Wardes called it a ‘cancer of the soul.’” Wardes eventually commits suicide, and Elinor remains in control of his estate.
At the same time, Clara, who has always been fragile, passes away, leaving Dario and Elinor to draw closer.
While this is a quick overview of the story, it should be noted that a 1939 era story, set in 1920s France, and translated from the French may require some close reading. The premise, however, holds water and is a fascinating read.
Nèmirovsky’s character development throughout, even with those characters who disappear from the story and return later, are well developed and three dimensional.
In creating Clara, Dario’s long-suffering wife, Nèmirovsky shows the reader the dedication the woman has for the man she loves, in spite of his affairs. At the same time, regardless of these affairs, Nèmirovsky describes Dario’s love for Clara as deep and abiding.
Nèmirovsky is clear in her description of even minor characters as seen through Dario’s eyes as he eavesdrops on a conversation between two women, about him. “She was leaning forward, and you could see the tops of her powdered breasts in the low-cut dress made of gold material. Her blond hair was done in a childish style, with little curls at her temples. The woman was tall, thin, bossy, with a long neck trussed up in pearls.”
Nèmirovsky’s story, at times, jumps across decades with little detail as to how Dario became so sought after or what happened to Sylvie from her disappearance to her return, but the story moves forward in spite of some time gaps.
Written primarily in Dario’s point of view, in this book there are moments when translator Sandra Smith converts into an omniscient point of view. Smith is to be applauded for taking on quite a journey in bringing this story from 1939 French to 21st century English and staying true to the story.
Early 20th century writing, especially translated from one language to another, can be challenging to read, but Nèmirovsky’s story and Smith’s translation make Master of Souls fascinating and enjoyable.