California Literary Review

All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky

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January 18th, 2009 at 12:31 pm

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All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky
All Our Worldly Goods
by Irene Nemirovsky
Chatto & Windus, 192 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

In Memory of Lost Things

How might we doubt that any long dead, wholly-forgotten writer, who has re-emerged and within a few short years risen to a second round of best-sellerdom with three newly-discovered novels is a truly remarkable craftsman?

Irene Nemirovsky first came to our attention in 2004, sixty years after her demise at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz, when a novel of hers was found “buried” within her journal entries. Suite Française promptly made her name famous worldwide. Another novel surfaced shortly after, Fire in the Blood. And now, a third work arrives, newly translated from the French.

All Our Worldly Goods was first published in 1947, five years after Nemirovsky was murdered. By then it had already been seen and attributed to a pseudonymous writer, when it was serialized in a French magazine during World War II. Despite the strong anti-Semitic pressures pervading France during the Nazi occupation, and the draconian strictures of Vichy, its editors knew that given her reputation and popularity, they could be certain of an audience.

This book seems to have been first embarked upon in 1940; it was completed just before she proceeded to compose Fire in the Blood and then, Suite Française. It is prescient in its fears for the future, clearly prefiguring her imminent despair and later, all loss of hope. Curiously, there is scarcely a hint in it of the subsequent doomed fate of many of her fellow Jewish countrymen; indeed, her people are not even represented!

All Our Worldly Goods encompasses a span of years in which Nemirovsky, had not accepted the world’s intrusion upon her existence. Even at the late hour of its writing, when so many around her have fled Europe, she remained “in denial,” clinging to a belief that together with the help of “influential friends,” she possessed some power to survive her Nazi oppressors. She argues that during girlhood, she had endured anxious times, lived through pogroms, the crises of the Russian Revolution and managed somehow to live a “normal life”.

Yet with that strange or naïve conviction, she went forward with her life and, above all, her art! She devoted herself to contemplation of her ambitious development as a writer hoping to achieve that special masterwork which could assure her own place in literature—a lasting work of art. Such a persistent aspiration as hers was demonstrated by this novel as the author whirls us through the devastating events of both World Wars, and the first half the 20th Century with her family saga, an intimate human story, and one, preoccupied solely by the fates of two families. Within her chosen small town ambiance, Nemirovsky exposes for us each turn, twist, nuance, and every betrayal, characterizing emotions that gripped her characters as they suffered the anguish and the decay of all potentials.

And the tenderness with which she coats her mockery, the gentle voice she employs is notable, especially considering that she had once referred to her approach to fiction as “frightening,” even “devastating,” to those she depicts. She boasted that she feared very little in her writing. In short, in this novel she remains more detached than usual. As she delineates acts of malice, she manages to deliver them with a degree of sang froid.

Pierre Hardelot, the young heir to the Hardelot fortune, Saint-Elme’s finest paper mill factory located in Northern France, near the Somme River, is in love and engaged to marry, but not to the girl he loves. She is, instead, his parent’s choice, Simone Renaudin, the orphaned daughter of yet another of Saint-Elme’s most affluent families. Agnés Florent, his first and only love, is a childhood friend and merely the daughter of a neighbor. Her newly-widowed mother is a lady of few prospects and with no influential family left to her. Agnés’ dowry would prove far less impressive to his family, and her prospects in life more modest than they could wish. Yet, even Nemirovsky’s opening paragraph indicates the inevitability of that union:

They were together, so they were happy. Even though the watchful family slipped between them, separating them gently but firmly, the young man and woman knew they were near one another; nothing else mattered. It was the beginning of the century — an autumn evening at the seaside, overlooking the English Channel. Pierre and Agnés, their parents and Pierre’s fiancée had all gathered to watch the last firework display of the summer. On the fine sand of the dunes, the inhabitants of Wimereus-Plage formed dark little groups, barely visible in the starlight. The moist sea air drifted around them. A profound sense of tranquility reigned over them, and over the sea, and over the world.

Their devotion to one another and determination to marry, despite every obstacle in their path serves to provoke the wrath of both their families. So it does in this sweeping work, and that enmity persists through generations. We watch its unfortunate consequences play out, starting with the young people’s insistence upon having their way. Pierre Hardelot meets a steely response from his grandfather, Julian Hardelot, the head of family and fortune, who will not relent, demanding that Pierre forfeit his inheritance for this disrespectful act.

Nemirovsky’s magnificent early scenes depict the parents’ relations to one another before the disasters of the upcoming marriage are even reported, already presenting to us the stuff of fine fiction. We watch, for example, their mothers spar diffidently over the nuptials of their coveted offspring. We see these ladies first as they go to the sea to bathe as a pair — to swim in their “black wool swimming suits consisting of a tunic pulled in tightly at the waist with wide, billowing pantaloons.” They share a beach hut they have let. Not only are their costumes reminiscent of earlier works, the narration and following dialogue are worthy of any 19th Century novel of manners. Surely, it could stand up to Jane Austen at her most arch. Here is Madame Florent, Agnés’ mother, changing in their tent:

As Madame Florent got undressed, she glanced every so often at the mirror hanging on the wall; she had managed to arrange for the only mirror available to be on her side of the beach hut. She was feeling rather melancholy. The forthcoming marriage between Pierre and Simone aroused strong emotions in both mothers: one of them felt the sweet satisfaction of having the rich dowry of an orphaned child come into the family; the other felt frustrated. Not that she held out any hope for Agnés. The Hardelots had made it abundantly clear that they consider such a marriage undesirable. But it was upsetting to see other people getting married and not Agnés, upsetting and unfair. Obviously, her mother thought, she couldn’t compete with Simone when it came to money, but there was no comparison as far as her good looks, her figure, her hair were concerned– my figure, my hair, when I was young. Those things count, after all. She looks like a cow, that Simone.

It was then that she spoke out loud:

“Your future daughter-in-law really has a delightful nature. So calm… docile even. What a valuable quality in a wife! I do admit it. I’m exactly the opposite. I live off my nerves. And her lovely skin and beautiful hair!”

“Yes,, she’s a good girl,” said Madame Hardelot, instinctively adopting the modest, satisfied tone of someone with the upper hand. Nevertheless, she couldn’t praise Simone without having some reservation: it wasn’t proper to appear overly happy about having arranged this marriage. Simone would do, of course, but wasn’t her son better?

“I find her rather shy,” Madame Hardelot continued after a moment’s silence, “and her personality isn’t perhaps exactly as you think. . .”

As the novel continues, we see more of such raillery in each incident as the families act in their own interests while maintaining the formalities. These pretences are held to until later, when in the heat of passion, all manners are abandoned to yield to the dramatics of the situation. Nemirovsky is a master of the “fraught” scene, and every confrontation evidences it.

Meanwhile, tumultuous events of those times unfold the horror of that first World War in 20th Century France, while Pierre goes off to fight at the front, and as the town of Saint-Elme is totally demolished, and its citizens must flee to save their lives. We begin to fathom the disasters that war wreaks upon the lives of the Hardelots, their country and Europe!

After the armistice of 1918, Nemirovsky narrates the return of those families evacuated during the War to find only devastation facing them. They rebuild their homes, their towns, and piece together the pattern of their lives. Through all of it, paterfamilias Julien Hardelot will doggedly pursue his commercial interests. He will restore the family fortunes despite losses and lack of funds! For this purpose, he quickly engages with the once rejected orphan, Simone Renaudin, now an enterprising woman of means. She backs his ambitious venture and becomes his ally. Apparently, despite her marriage and the delivery of a healthy girl, she has never let go of her own anger over her abandonment by Pierre Hardelot for his Agnés. She covets her revenge and when the opportunity presents itself she devours the chance for it! Ensuing machinations are worthy of an unhappy family in Tolstoy or Balzac. In All Our Worldly Goods, the reader follows changes and re-alignments with fascination as they progress.

How curiously Nemirovsky continues to develop her novelistic ambitions. She brings Pierre and Agnés’ son into contact with Simone’s daughter after the families’ many years of separation. Much in the manner of earlier great novelists, she aims to mend the ancient feuds besetting them, and to make peace even within the midst of chaos. She is enabled in her opus to examine people bent upon revenge, exposing how little they are willing to make any concession to gain such peace between them.

In this, Nemirovsky views human nature as Greek tragedy: stubborn, inimical and as retaliative as ever it was. In the following passage, she shows us that unbridled lust to destroy. We hear it shouted out from the very character who has never forgiven, and still seeks to avenge her wrong, and this, after many years. Her discovery of the love of her daughter, Rose for her sworn enemy’s son, Guy, spurs her on. She confesses that her life has passed in suffering because of that hateful crime against her. Simone’s violent reactions are let loose as her former suitor comes to plead on behalf of these young lovers:

…he jumped when he saw Simone. He had hardly recognized the heavy woman in her black dress. He walked over to her and took her hand,

“Simone, I understand how angry you are, but…”

She cut in. “More suffering because of you and your family,” she said. She was utterly furious. “You bring me nothing but bad luck. Wasn’t it enough that everything was your fault, everything that’s happened to me all my life?”

She was choking; she covered her mouth with her handkerchief “Tell Rose to stay wherever she is. I never want to see her again. Let her marry your son. She’s never to set foot here again. I will not congratulate you; you won’t have an easy daughter-in-law. …”

And when he tried to calm her down with:

“We’re old Simone, all that is in the past. How can you still be so resentful over something that happened so long ago?”

She continues un-repentant:

“It feels like yesterday,” she whispered.

“You got married. You didn’t mourn for long. You were happy.”

“Married for money, money,” she said bitterly “Cheated on, abandoned, and him, dying with your son’s mistress. I’m telling you, you bring me nothing but suffering.”

What Nemirovsky achieved here is a drama not seen earlier from her, at least not among her newly-discovered books. It is wholly engrossing, novel writing most admirable.

One questioning word, however ought to be entered here. It concerns Nemirovsky’s total avoidance in All Our Worldly Goods at that crucial time of the immediate situation confronting her and her family. This strikes one as rather egregious. It was a time during which they already wore their yellow stars of shame; were watched, censured, and kept as virtual prisoners. All that was transpiring in her special “haven” of little Issy l’Eveque in Burgundy, to which she had removed her family from beloved Paris. In short, it seems too strange that it makes no mention of her own plight as a Jew in the first years of World War II!

This is the point of accusations lately surfacing against Nemirovsky, namely that her own were anti-Semitic inclinations, that she had callously discarded her origins and her people, showing an immoral unwillingness to be identified with them or by them!

At a recent exhibition, for example, presently mounted at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, as reported upon by Edward Rothstein in the New York Times (when it opened in November of 2008), we are reminded that Nemirovsky’s David Golder, the novel that had made her famous early on in her career can be faulted as guilty of just such a sentiment. It ought to be noted too that she and her husband converted to Catholicism. Rothstein’s own interpretation of her attitude seems more pertinent here. She was, he points out, the product of her age, an example of snobbery, ever uncompromising in her upper-class tastes and values. Jews were, in her Paris views, lower-class, Eastern, ghetto types. Rothstein is severe when observing her defects:

The ability to sense the deepest moral flaws of one’s compatriots and the deepest veins of virtue of one’s enemies is the novelist’s gift. And yes, through it we reach new understanding. But it also can become a cocoon, or worse, a perversion. Nemirovsky sees the trees but not the forest. She thought she was writing a historical novel, but there is no sense of history in it. Events take place, but without context. Nemirovsky becomes a novelist of manners, unable to imagine hatreds that go beyond reason; she can understand some forms of rancor but resists the one most justified.

In short, Nemirovsky sees trees, but cannot see them when they are cut down for the great forest they once were. And, the price she paid for her blindness was the supreme one — extermination.

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