The Courilof Affair

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9780099493983: The Courilof Affair

From the author of the bestselling Suite Francaise. In 1903 Leon M - the son of two Russian revolutionaries - is given the responsibility of 'liquidating' Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the notoriously brutal and cold-blooded Russian Minister of Education, by the Revolutionary Committee. The assassination, he is told, must take place in public and be carried out in the most grandiose manner possible in order to strike the imagination of the people. Posing as his newly appointed personal physician, Leon M takes up residence with Courilof in his summer house in the Iles and awaits instructions. But over the course of his stay he is made privy to the inner world of the man he must kill - his failing health, his troubled domestic situation and, most importantly, the tyrannical grip that the Czar himself holds over all his Ministers, forcing them to obey him or suffer the most deadly punishments. Set during a period of radical upheaval in European history, The Courliof Affair is an unsparing observation of human motives and the abuses of power, an elegy to a lost world and an unflinchingly topical cautionary tale.

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About the Author:

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker. In 1918 her family fled the Russian Revolution for France where she became a bestselling novelist, author of David Golder, Le Bal and other works published in her lifetime or soon after, as well as the posthumous Suite Francaise and Fire in the Blood. In July 1942 she was arrested by the French police and interned in Pithiviers concentration camp, and from there immediately deported to Auschwitz where she died in August 1942.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

Two men sat down separately at the empty tables on the terrace of a café in Nice, attracted by the red flames of a small brazier.

It was autumn, at dusk, on a day that felt cold for that part of the world. ‘It’s like the sky in Paris . . .’ said a woman passing by, pointing to the yellowish clouds carried along by the wind. Within a few moments, it began to rain, enhancing the darkness of the deserted street where the lamps had not yet been lit; raindrops dripped down here and there through the soaked canvas awning stretched over the café.

The man who had followed Léon M on to the terrace had secretly watched him ever since he’d sat down, trying to remember who he was; both men leaned forward towards the warm stove at the same moment.

From inside the café came the muddled sound of voices, people calling out; the crashing of billiard balls, trays banging down on the wooden tables, chess pieces being moved around the boards. Now and again, you could make out the hesitant, shrill fanfare of a small band, muffled by the other noise in the café.

Léon M looked up, pulled his grey wool scarf more tightly around his neck; the man sitting opposite him said quietly: ‘Marcel Legrand?’

At the very same moment, the electric lights suddenly came on in the street, in the doorways, and outside the cafés. Surprised by the sudden brightness, Léon M looked away for a moment.

‘Marcel Legrand?’ the man repeated.

There was a surge of electricity in the street-lights, no doubt, for they grew dimmer; the light flickered for a second, like the flame of a candle left outdoors; then it seemed to come back again, bathing Léon M’s face, hunched shoulders, gaunt hands, and delicate wrists in a dazzling light.

‘Weren’t you in charge of the Courilof affair, in 1903?’

‘In 1903?’ M repeated slowly.

He tilted his head to the side and whistled softly, with the weary, sarcastic look of a cautious old bird.

The man sitting opposite him was sixty-five; his face looked grey and tired; his upper lip twitched with a nervous tic, causing his big white moustache, once blond, to jump now and again, revealing his pale mouth, his bitter, anxious frown. His lively eyes, piercing and suspicious, quickly lit up and then almost immediately looked away.

‘Sorry. I don’t recognise you,’ M finally said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘My memory isn’t very good these days . . .’

‘Do you remember the detective who used to be Courilof’s body guard? The one who ran after you one night, in the Caucasus? . . .’

‘The one who ran after me . . . unsuccessfully? I remember now,’ said M.

He gently rubbed his hands together; they were getting numb. He was about fifty years old, but he looked older and ill. He had a narrow chest, a dark, sarcastic expression, a beautiful but odd mouth, bad, broken teeth, greying locks of hair spilling over his forehead. His eyes, deeply set, shone with a dim flame.

‘Cigarette?’ he murmured.

‘Do you live in Nice, Monsieur Legrand?’

‘Yes.’

‘Withdrawn from active service, if I may put it that way?’

‘You may.’

M took a puff of his cigarette, without inhaling, watched it burn in his fingers, and threw it down on the ground, slowly stubbing it out with his heel.

‘That all happened a long time ago,’ he finally said, with a wry smile, ‘a very long time ago . . .’

‘Yes . . . I was the one responsible for the inquiry, after your arrest, after the terrorist attack.’

‘Oh, were you?’ M murmured indifferently.

‘I never managed to find out your real name. Not one of our secret agents knew who you were, either in Russia or abroad. Now that it doesn’t matter any more, tell me something — you were one of the leaders of that terrorist group in Switzerland, before 1905, weren’t you?’

‘I was never one of the leaders of a terrorist group, just a subordinate.’

‘So?’

M nodded, a weary little smile on his face.

‘That’s how it was, Monsieur.’

‘Really, and what about later on? In 1917 and after? I know I’m right, you were really . . .’

He paused, looking for the appropriate word; then he smiled, revealing long, sharp teeth gleaming between pale lips. ‘You were really in the thick of it,’’ he said, tracing the shape of a big cauldron in the air. “I mean . . . at the top.’

‘Yes . . . at the top.’

‘The secret police? The Tcheka?’

‘Well, my friend, I did a bit of everything. During those difficult times, everyone lent a hand.’

He tapped out a tune on the marble table with his delicate, curved fingers.

‘Won’t you tell me your name?’ the man said, laughing. ‘I swear I’m also peacefully retired now, like you. I ask out of simple curiosity, professional inquisitiveness, if you will.’

M slowly raised the collar of his raincoat and pulled his scarf tighter with the same cautious gesture he always used.

‘I don’t believe you,’ he said, laughing slightly and coughing at the same time. ‘People are always drawn back to their first love. And, besides, my name wouldn’t tell you anything more now. Everyone forgot it a long time ago.’

‘Are you married?’

‘No, I’ve kept some of the good old revolutionary traditions,’ said M, smiling again; he had a little mechanical smile that made deep ridges at the corner of his mouth. He picked up a piece of bread and ate it slowly. ‘What about you?’ he asked, raising his eyebrows. ‘What’s your name, Monsieur?’

‘Oh, my name? No mystery there . . . Baranof . . . Ivan Ivanitch . . . I was assigned to His Excellency, to Courilof, for ten years.’

‘Oh, really?’

For the first time, M’s weary little smile faded; up until now, he’d been staring across at the harshly lit wax mannequins, the only items on display in the rain-drenched street, but he stopped staring, coughed slightly, looked straight at Baranof: ‘What about his family? Do you know what happened to them?’

‘His wife was shot during the Revolution. The children must still be alive. Poor Courilof. We used to call him the Killer Whale. Do you remember?’

‘Ferocious and voracious,’ said M.

He crumpled the remainder of his bread, started to get up, but it was still pouring; the rain bounced heavily off the pavement in bright sparks. He slowly sat down again.

‘Well, you got him,’ said Baranof. ‘How many others did you personally bag, in total?’

‘Then? Or afterwards?’

‘In total,’ Baranof repeated.

M shrugged his shoulders. ‘You know, you remind me of a young man who came to interview me once, in Russia, for an American magazine. He was very interested in the statistics, wanted to know how many men I’d killed since I’d come to power. When I hesitated, he innocently asked: “Is it possible? Is it possible that you can’t remember?” He was a rosy-cheeked little Jew by the name of Blumenthal, from the Chicago Tribune.’

He motioned to the doorman who was walking between the tables outside: ‘Get me that cab.’

The cab stopped in front of the café.

He stood up, extended his hand to Baranof.

‘It’s funny running into each other like this . . .’

‘Terribly funny.’

M laughed suddenly. ‘And . . . actually . . .’ he said in Russian, ‘how many people did die? “In answer to our prayers”? With our help?’

‘Huh!’ said Baranof, shrugging his shoulders. ‘Well I, at least, was acting under orders. I don’t give a damn.’

‘Fair enough,’ said M, his voice weary and indifferent. He carefully opened his large black umbrella and lit a cigarette on the brazier. The bright flame suddenly illuminated his face with its hollow cheeks that were the colour of earth, and his wide, suspicious dark eyes. As usual, he didn’t actually smoke his cigarette, just breathed in its aroma for a moment, half closed his eyes, then threw it away. He gestured good-bye and left.

Léon M died in March 1932, in the house in Nice where he had spent his final years.

Amongst his books was found a small black leather briefcase; it contained several dozen typed pages clipped together. The first page had written on it, in pencil, the words:
The Courilof Affair
1

Nice, 1931

In 1903, the Revolutionary Committee gave me the responsibility of liquidating Courilof. That was the term they used at the time. This affair was linked to the rest of my life only in a minor sort of way, but as I am about to write my autobiography, it stands out in my memory. It forms the beginnings of my life as a revolutionary, even though I changed sides afterwards.

Fourteen years passed before I came to power, half of them spent in prison, half in exile. Then came the October Revolution (Sturm und Drang Period) and another exile.

I have been alive for fifty years, years that have gone quickly by, and I don’t have much to complain about. But still the final years seem long . . . the end is dragging on.

I was born in ’81, on 12 March, in an isolated village in Siberia near the Lena River; my mother and father were both in exile for political reasons. Their names were well-known in their day, but are now forgotten: Victoria Saltykof and the terrorist M . . . Maxime Davidovitch M . . .

I barely knew my father: prison and exile do not lend themselves to a close-knit family. He was a tall man, with shining, narrow eyes, dark eyebrows, and large, bony hands with delicate wrists. He rarely spoke. He had a sad, scathing little laugh. When they came to arrest him the last time, I was still a child. He hugged me, looked at me with a kind of ironic surprise, moved his lips slightly in a tired way that could pass for a smile, went out of the room, came back to get the cigarettes he’d forgotten, and disappeared for ever from my life. He died in prison, at about the age I am now, in a cell in the Pierre and Paul Fortress, where the waters from the Neva River had seeped in during the autumn floods.

After his arrest, I went to live in Geneva with my mother. I remember her better; she died in the spring of 1891. She was a delicate, slight creature, with fair hair and a pince-nez, the intellectual type of the ’80s. I also remember her in Siberia, when we were going back, after she was freed. I was six years old. My brother had just been born.

She was holding him in her arms, but away from her chest, with extraordinary clumsiness, as if she were offering him to the stones along the road; she shivered as she listened to his hungry cries. Whenever she changed him, I could see her hands shaking and getting tangled up in the nappy and pins. She had beautiful, delicate, long hands. When she was sixteen, she’d killed the head of the Viatka police at point-blank range; he’d been torturing an old woman right in front of her, a political prisoner, forcing her to walk in the fierce heat of the Russian sun, even though she was ill. At the height of summer, the Russian sun batters you to death.

She told me about it herself, as if she felt she had to hurry, but before I was old enough to really understand. I remember the strange feeling I had listening to her story.
I remember her sounding resonant and shrill, different from the weary, patient tone of voice I was used to: ‘I expected to be executed,’ she said. ‘I considered my death to be the supreme protest against a world of tears and bloodshed.’

She stopped for a moment. ‘Do you understand, Logna?’ she said more quietly. Her face and gestures remained cool and calm; only her cheeks had gone slightly red. She didn’t wait for me to answer. My brother was crying. She got up, sighing, and picked him up. She held him for a moment, like a heavy package, then left us alone, and went back to coding her letters.

In Geneva, she was in charge of one of the Swiss terrorist groups, the same one that took care of me and raised me after she died. We lived on an allowance from the Party and from money she earned giving English and Italian lessons; we wore our winter clothes in Mont-de-Piété
in springtime; summer clothes in autumn . . . And so it went.

She was very tall and thin. She looked worn out at thirty, like an old woman; her hunched shoulders crushed her delicate chest. She suffered from tuberculosis, and her right lung was totally non-functional; but she would always say: ‘How could I get medical care when the poor factory workers are coughing up blood?’ (The revolutionaries of that generation always talked like that.) She didn’t even send us away to live somewhere else: weren’t the children of the workers infected by their own sick mothers?

However, I remember that she never kissed us. Besides, we were morose, cold children, at least I was. Only now and again, when she was very tired, would she stretch out her hand and stroke our hair, just once, slowly, as she sighed.

Her face was long and pale, with yellowish teeth and weary eyes that blinked behind her spectacles. She had delicate, clumsy hands that always dropped things in the house, that couldn’t sew or cook, but wrote constantly, coding messages, forging passports . . . I thought I had forgotten her features, what she looked like (so many years have passed by since then), but here they are, resurfacing once again in my memory.

Two or three nights a month, she would cross Lake Léman from Switzerland into France, carrying bundles of pamphlets and explosives. She would take me with her, perhaps to harden me to the dangerous life that was to be mine in years to come, in a kind of ‘revolutionary dynastic tradition’, perhaps to inspire trust in the customs officers, because I was so young, perhaps because my two brothers were dead and she didn’t want to leave me alone in the hotel, the same way that middle-class mothers might take their children with them to the cinema. I would fall asleep on the deck. It was usually winter; the lake was deserted, covered in a thick fog; the nights were freezing cold.

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Book Description Vintage Publishing, United Kingdom, 2008. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the author of the bestselling Suite Francaise. In 1903 Leon M - the son of two Russian revolutionaries - is given the responsibility of liquidating Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the notoriously brutal and cold-blooded Russian Minister of Education, by the Revolutionary Committee. The assassination, he is told, must take place in public and be carried out in the most grandiose manner possible in order to strike the imagination of the people. Posing as his newly appointed personal physician, Leon M takes up residence with Courilof in his summer house in the Iles and awaits instructions. But over the course of his stay he is made privy to the inner world of the man he must kill - his failing health, his troubled domestic situation and, most importantly, the tyrannical grip that the Czar himself holds over all his Ministers, forcing them to obey him or suffer the most deadly punishments. Set during a period of radical upheaval in European history, The Courliof Affair is an unsparing observation of human motives and the abuses of power, an elegy to a lost world and an unflinchingly topical cautionary tale. Bookseller Inventory # AAZ9780099493983

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Book Description Vintage Publishing, United Kingdom, 2008. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the author of the bestselling Suite Francaise. In 1903 Leon M - the son of two Russian revolutionaries - is given the responsibility of liquidating Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the notoriously brutal and cold-blooded Russian Minister of Education, by the Revolutionary Committee. The assassination, he is told, must take place in public and be carried out in the most grandiose manner possible in order to strike the imagination of the people. Posing as his newly appointed personal physician, Leon M takes up residence with Courilof in his summer house in the Iles and awaits instructions. But over the course of his stay he is made privy to the inner world of the man he must kill - his failing health, his troubled domestic situation and, most importantly, the tyrannical grip that the Czar himself holds over all his Ministers, forcing them to obey him or suffer the most deadly punishments. Set during a period of radical upheaval in European history, The Courliof Affair is an unsparing observation of human motives and the abuses of power, an elegy to a lost world and an unflinchingly topical cautionary tale. Bookseller Inventory # AAZ9780099493983

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