Yves Montand never had to say to his wife, Simone Signoret, as Diaghilev did to Picasso: “Surprise me.” She always surprised him with the greatest of ease. Last time, it was with her novel, “Adieu, Volodya.” After reading it, Montand exclaimed with amazement: “But where did you get it all from?” And we want to applaud along with him.
Signoret came very late to literature--and that was after having captivated us in dozens of films and after receiving dozens of awards, including an Oscar. “Adieu, Volodya” is Signoret’s third book, but her first novel. It is a good novel. I don’t say that it’s good because it’s a novel written by an actress, as you’d say of a picture painted by a writer, or a part in a play acted by a businessman on vacation with his old high school friends. This novel is simply good. Good and popular, in the sense that it speaks of the history of peoples with that precision and simplicity that is inherent in a real people who do not worry about questions of identity.
“Adieu, Volodya” is a saga of Jewish immigration to France in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It could also be the story of Jewish immigration to the United States in the same period, so similar are the lives of the immigrants.
The story is framed by two heroic and desperate assassinations of indisputable authenticity: the execution of the assassin of the Ukrainian Jews, the ataman Simon Vassilievitch Petliura, by a Jew, Samuel Schwartzbard, in Paris in 1926, and the murder of the Nazi diplomat Ernst Von Rath by the 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, also in Paris, in 1938.
After having established these two borders delimiting the time and space that she will often happily go beyond, Signoret tells simply what happens to ordinary people, Jews who have just arrived in France, others who are already settled there, their Parisian neighbors, the schoolteacher, the concierges, the classmates . . . people she had met or heard about.
Reading her, I thought of what was said by the famous rabbi of Gur, in Poland, of whom my grandfather was a fervent hassid: “The duty of every man who knows the history of men is to share that history, for every human experience can be useful to all mankind.” And I asked myself why no one before Signoret had thought to tell the story of this period of Jewish history in French--in French, the language of the onlookers and not that of the actors who played their parts in Yiddish. No doubt this linguistic ambiguity was necessary--necessary to maintain the distance that separates witness from literature and necessary to make the two poor Jewish artisans--Guttman and Roginski--into the symbolic representatives of an era and a generation.
Around these two heroes--one a leather-goods dealer from the Ukraine and the other a furrier from Poland--Signoret produces a microcosm of Jews “from somewhere else,” making you want to join hands with them and share the joy of finally being at rest in your adopted country, a country where you have put away the old, ancestral fears that events like Hitler’s coming to power, the Spanish Civil War, the occupation of Czechoslovakia, will reawaken, alas, only too often.
Signoret the writer owes a lot, it seems to me, to film and to its sense of sudden new developments. “What’s so exciting for an actress,” she said, “is suddenly feeling you’re the master of everything: Writing a book, you become your own director, your own set designer, your own make-up artist, your own costume designer--and above all, your own film editor.”
In “Adieu, Volodya,” Signoret, author and director, directs characters and events with a mastery many professional writers would envy. That’s why, contrary to what the reader would tend to expect, Guttman and Roginski do not perish in a Nazi camp. They die in a real train accident, which occurred in 1939 on a train that, as it was reported by the press of the day, derailed because of the unlucky escape of a bull . . . from the cattle car!
The reader also will be surprised to re-encounter Roginski’s daughter, Zara, after the war in 1945, as a technician in Hollywood. Above all, the reader will be misled by the fact that Volodya, Guttman’s Russian cousin, whose name is on the book’s cover, only appears in the story once: on his arrival in Paris in 1926, as a witness at the trial of Schwartzbard, Petliura’s assassin. We will later learn that Volodya was arrested on his return to the Soviet Union and sent to prison in Siberia, a prison that was already being called, even if some people didn’t yet know it, the Gulag.
But the charm of the story lies above all in the narrator’s communicative conviction, her evident pleasure in telling the story, and the amazement of the first author-onlooker before the film scripts that unfold in her mind.
“Adieu, Volodya” is a love song for those Jewish exiles--our fathers, our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers--and for all who, like Signoret herself, are caught by their memory.
You never get over your past, wrote William Faulkner, one of Signoret’s great idols. Signoret died soon after the publication of her book in France. Adieu, Volodya.