Adieu, Volodya

Americans like their movie stars to remain figures of fantasy, so many were surprised to discover, on the death of Simone Signoret last year, that she and her husband, singer Yves Montand, were leading figures in left-wing politics, and had once been denied admission to the United States during the McCarthy era.

In addition to her leftist politics and successful career as an actress, Signoret had recently developed another talent--writing. Her memoirs, NOSTALGIA ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE, were highly acclaimed on publication in 1976, and this first novel was published in Europe in 1985 to instant success.

Indeed, the novel itself is a combination of her politics and her early life, being the story of Eastern European Jews living in a Paris tenement during the 1920’s and 1930’s. As seen through the eyes of their children, the histories of the Roginskis, the Guttmans, and their friends are marked by memories of the past, increasing prosperity, and growing sympathy for the French socialist movement, which arose to counteract the anti-Semitism and Fascism emanating from Germany. A chance involvement in the world of stage costuming leads to a new and independent career for them, and to their recognition of themselves, finally, as French businessmen, surmounting their peasant origins.

Paradoxically, ADIEU, VOLODYA is an entrancing, eminently readable work because of its flaws. As we read, we feel that Signoret knows these people intimately, and that her manipulations of characters and plot are merely designed to further our understanding, even when such techniques are counter-productive. In retrospect, this reaction seems to be a response to Signoret’s explosive creativity and to the force of her remarkable personality, beside which all literary quibbles vanish. Whether she could have sustained the impetus begun by this novel and her autobiography is now a moot point, but the depth of feeling and narrative skill here revealed make this novel a memorable achievement by any criterion.