As I mentioned yesterday, amongst the hmphing, the trip to London gave me the opportunity to read Irene Nemirovsky’s David Golder (1930), her second novel and the one which propelled her to fame in France. More importantly, given that I had about two hours of travel in which to read it, it’s fairly short. Which is always a plus here at Stuck-in-a-Book. I read Suite Francaise (along with most of the country, it seems) about 18 months ago for my book group, and wrote about it here. About the only things that David Golder has in common with that novel are a) the influence of Nemirovsky’s Jewish heritage, and b) her great writing.
As Patrick Marnham points out in his introduction, David Golder is actually vulnerable to accusations of anti-Semitism – at least it would be if it were published now, in its use of something of a stereotypical central figure. David Golder is ‘an enormous man in his late sixties’, obsessed with accruing money. His ruthless lust for money – which drives a former business partner to suicide in the opening pages of the novel – make uncomfortable reading when one bears in mind the sort of anti-Semitic propaganda was shortly to be used. Since Nemirovsky was herself Jewish, it is less awkward – although (again, as the introduction points out), she was keenly pro-assimilation and considered herself French at least as much as she considered herself Jewish.
But Nemirovsky is cleverer than any initial conclusions about David Golder suggest, of course. We soon learn that Golder is in fact the least mercenary of his family once his wife Gloria and grown-up daughter Joyce are introduced. In one of Nemirovsky’s brilliant little passages, Golder ‘pictured his own wife quickly hiding her chequebook whenever he came into the room, as if it were a packet of love letters.’ Both Gloria and Joyce are forever asking Golder for money, buying expensive jewellery, and all the while declaring that he does nothing for them. And, it appears, even believing it. Gloria happily spends 800,000 francs on a necklace, but begrudges the money he gives his daughter; who, in turn, throws a tantrum when he won’t buy her a car.
David Golder sees the protagonist facing several crises. His businesses aren’t doing well; he realises the disrespect and lack of love his wife and daughter show him; he has a heart attack. All of these are devastating to him, and come to a head when he discovers that he has not much time to live – the novel then follows his final months (as he sees them). Will he forgive his family and try and build a life with them? Will he exact revenge upon them and leave them penniless? Will other avenues open up, other priorities?
Nemirovsky’s portrait is – belying the opening feeling I had – subtle and even wise. She has no heavy-handed point to make, but rather a fascinating individual to delineate. Golder and his family feel real, and his actions feel like real actions, motivated by his realisations and emotions rather than plot direction or authorial intervention. In short, David Golder is a very good piece of writing, and encouragement to me to read more widely in Nemirovsky’s work. Perhaps Suite Francaise did so well because of the true story attached to it – Nemirvosky’s death in Auschwitz and the subsequent discovery of the manuscript over fifty years later. But as Nemirovsky’s daughter Denise, and translator Sandra Smith, stressed at the talk I (almost) attended – we can decide to view Irene Nemirovsky either as a victim or a writer. They – quite rightly, and strongly – believe she should be seen as a writer.