Posts Tagged ‘Irene Nemirovsky’


Translated from French by Sandra Smith

I have been wondering how I would review David Golder for several days. I enjoyed this novel – but it was an enjoyment that felt distinctly uncomfortable.

Irène Némirovsky has become better known in recent years due to the publication of her lost novel Suite Francaise, and the story surrounding its recovery. However, at the time Irène Némirovsky began to write Suite Francaise she was already a well-known writer. David Golder was her second novel, first published in 1929 when its author was just 26, it was a big success. In more recent years the novel has been viewed quite controversially, due its depiction of Jewish characters, some of who could be said to be caricatures. Here we have wealthy Jewish businessmen sacrificing everything in the pursuit of more money, and an elderly Jewish man who walks on tip-toe to save shoe leather. It is such portrayals that have led many people to accuse Irène Némirovsky of anti-Semitism. Born into a Jewish family in Ukraine, she lived most of her life in France, she wrote in French and had converted to Catholicism. None of this was enough to save her under the race laws imposed by the Nazis who occupied France in 1940. Many people seem to believe – and this seems likely to me – that Némirovsky’s antipathy towards Jewishness was turned more inwards than outwards. She did have a famously terrible relationship with her mother. None of that makes reading David Golder any less uncomfortable – and yet, as I said I enjoyed it.

Némirovsky’s characters are so well crafted, that they become far more than caricatures, she is writing about capitalism, the reckless pursuit of money that was so prevalent in the twenties. Despite identifying as a Frenchwoman first and foremost, throughout her writing Némirovsky returns to her roots in the communities and people she portrays. Perhaps in this we see something of the complexity of the woman she was.

David Golder is an ageing businessman – born into poverty in Russia, he has amassed a great fortune. The days of easy money are numbered, and the financial markets of the world are starting to crumble, business is bad. As the novel opens Golder is refusing to help Marcus; his partner of twenty-six years, who is facing bankruptcy.

Days later Marcus is dead, having killed himself – and Golder visits his widow – who he can’t help but notice is wearing an enormous pearl necklace wound three times around her neck. Golder is a hard man; his success has been at the expense of others. Golder gets a train to travel to Biarritz where his wife Gloria and daughter Joyce live in luxurious splendour.

“ ‘Oh!’ Joyce said suddenly, ‘it’s just that I have to have everything on earth otherwise I’d rather die! Everything! Everything!’ she repeated with an imperious, feverish look in her eyes. ‘I don’t know how others do it! Daphne sleeps with old Behring for his money, but I need love, youth, everything the world has to offer…’”

Joyce is Golder’s one Achilles heel – he adores her, and Joyce uses that. Like her mother, Joyce is only interested in the money that her father can give her – and he gives her thousands. Joyce runs around with her boyfriends spending money like water – careless and superficial. Gloria is particularly dreadful, she cares only for the money her husband brings in, she has her own life, her own friends and lovers and no relationship with her husband.

Golder’s health is failing – as he travels through the night to Biarritz – he experiences chest pain. In the loneliness of the long dark night, Golder is briefly afraid – vulnerable, feeling his increasing age.

“The thick darkness flowed into his throat with soft, insistent pressure, as if earth was being pushed into his mouth, as it was into his… the dead man’s…Marcus…And when he thought finally of Marcus, when he finally allowed himself to be taken over by the image, the memory of death, the cemetery, the yellow clay soaked with rain, the long roots clinging like serpents deep inside the grave, he suddenly felt such a tremendous need, such a desperate desire for light, to see familiar, ordinary things round him… his clothing swaying from the hook on the door… the newspapers on the little table…the bottle of mineral water… that he forgot about everything else.”

In Biarritz, in the sumptuous apartment he owns there, Golder is taken ill again. Fearing that her pot of gold may run dry Gloria takes steps to ensure her husband is not persuaded to stop work – for as soon as he does – the money will stop. It is for Joyce though, ultimately that Golder continues to chase money – during days of increasing financial insecurity.

Némirovsky shines a light on a world she would have seen something of through her father – a wealthy businessman in Russia – he had started again as a banker when the family fled the revolution for France in 1917.

There is a chilling atmosphere of dark, claustrophobia throughout the novel. As Golder recalls incidents from his past he travels through Europe, retracing in part the steps he took as a young man setting out to make his fortune. He revisits an old Jewish neighbourhood with an old friend, and finally nearing the end of his life, meets a poor young man, who like he himself once did, is setting out in hopes of a better life.


Némirovsky’s portrait of Golder is not without sympathy, in his ageing ill health – as he struggles to make money for the daughter he loves but who cares not one jot for him, he is vulnerable and rather tragic. However, in her portrayal of Gloria and Joyce – she is merciless.

This became a short though hugely thought-provoking novel for me during this #Witmonth – Némirovsky is a woman I continue to be both confounded and fascinated by.

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Translated from the French by Sandra Smith (2007)

Women in translation month continues apace, and I am always amazed by the array of books and writers that I have never heard of popping up particularly in my Twitter timeline. Just the sheer number of people joining in with this event is impressive.

witmonth2017My second read for #witmonth was a very slender little book I found in a charity shop while out with my sister. Irène Némirovsky the author of the acclaimed posthumously published Suite Française and many other novels and short stories died in Auschwitz in 1942, already a successful author, the two stories contained in this volume were published in 1930 and 1931 respectively.

These two stories are quite different, one the story of family of nouveau riche and the revenge taken by an unhappy teenage girl on her nasty, selfish mother. The second tale tells the story of a faithful Russian family servant, who in her advancing years follows the family she has served, as they emigrate to Paris.

In La Bal, we meet the Kampf family. The Kampfs have recently become very wealthy, and Madame Kampf in particular is keen to join the ranks of Parisian society. She is very aware of her working-class background, eager to shake off the taint of these roots she is very sensitive about her past. Madame Kampf plans to throw a sumptuous ball, to which she will invite all of society, the wealthy and the titled in order to gain the acceptance she craves.

“A ball… My God, was it possible that there could take place – here, right under her nose – this splendid thing she vaguely imagined as a mixture of wild music, intoxicating perfumes, dazzling evening gowns, words of love whispered in some isolated alcove, as dark and cool as a hidden chamber… and that she could be sent to bed that night, like any other night, at nine o’clock, like a baby?”

Antoinette is the fourteen-year-old daughter of the Kampfs, there is little, if any love in her life, her father concerned with business and keeping his fractious wife happy, while her mother; Rosine’s unpredictable moods and obsession with society blind her to her daughter’s unhappiness. Antoinette is desperate to go to the ball, knowing other girls are sometimes presented to society at around her age, but her mother scoffs at the very idea. Antoinette has little joy in her life – daily, hated music lessons with the dreadful Mademoiselle Isabelle – a cousin of the Kampfs, to which she is accompanied by her governess Miss Betty. While Antoinette endures her lesson, Miss Betty goes off to meet her young lover. Antoinette is lonely and bitter and in a fit of teenage pique decides to exact her own terrible revenge.

I have read other mother daughter stories by Némirovsky especially in the collection Dimanche and other stories, and although I rather loved the story and thought it very compelling, it is not the best example of the type from this writer. Antoinette is not explored as well as I would have liked, she is also rather unsympathetic, which I don’t personally mind, but a little more sympathy might have made the conflict work better.

Snow in Autumn transports us to Russia, and the home of the Karine family around the time of the Russian Revolution. Tatiana Ivanovna is the ageing faithful servant who has served the family since the time Nicolas Alexandrovitch was a baby. After fifty-one years, she has seen two generations of the family grow up, watched her beloved Nicolas Alexandrovitch marry Hélène (after she cheated on her first husband with him), and dearly loved the four children born to them.

The revolution brings great change, hardship, tragedy and flight. Tatiana guards the family home alone, while revolutionaries rampage through the countryside, one member of the family is shot, and life changes forever. The family flee to Paris, and despite her years, Tatiana follows them. The life the family lead now is a long way from the life they lived in Russia, poverty is an accepted part of their lives now. As time goes on, the situation begins to take quite a toll on Tatiana, who longs for the snows of her homeland, seeing the landscapes that she loves in her mind, she longs for a time when she will be able to return.

“Back and forth they went, between their four walls, silently, like flies in autumn, after the heat and light of summer had gone, barely able to fly, weary and angry, buzzing around the windows, trailing their broken wings behind them”

This second story is probably the better of the two, certainly it is more nuanced and the character of Tatiana as well as being more likeable than Antoinette, is particularly well explored. However, I enjoyed both very much, and yet again am reminded how much of Némirovsky’s work I have yet to explore.

Currently reading my third Witmonth book Iza’s Ballad by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó which is brilliant.


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Translated by Eoin Bates and Sandrine Brisset.

Kindly sent to me by Sandrine Brisset – one of the translators.

Some time ago I read Dimanche and other stories – a collection of Iréne Némirovsky short stories re-issued by Persephone books. Since then, despite my best intentions I have only read one Némirovsky novel, Suite Française. I was delighted therefore to have to have the opportunity to read In Confidence a new collection of previously unpublished stories.

Famously of course several of Némirovsky’s works have been published decades after the author’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 when she was aged just 39. When she died, Némirovsky was already a published author, and for some a controversial one, due to the depiction of Jewish people in her work. Némirovsky had been baptised a catholic in 1939, but in 1940s Paris her Jewish heritage meant she was forced to wear the yellow star. I shudder now to imagine the fate of this wonderfully talented writer, a fate shared by so many whose talent and names remain unknown to us. Reading Némirovsky is always such a poignant reminder of this.

In this collection Némirovsky explores a variety of characters – mainly women – exposing their secrets and desires. Be it Parisian suburbs or small French towns, in the years between the wars, there is a wonderfully strong sense of place. Némirovsky’s canvases are small, her themes however are not. She examines the human condition, the things which go unspoken, the secrets, unexplained mysteries and histories behind the seemingly ordinary middle aged, middle class people  who we meet in her stories.

I’m sure lots of other people will be reading this collection soon, so I will merely attempt to give a slight flavour of the collection – which I think is absolutely superb.

There are eight stories in this collection, opening with Epilogue, in which an American woman, a pianist, confesses her darkest secret to a fellow regular in a bar she frequents.

An Honest Man, tells the sad story of an ageing man cut off from his once adored son, because the father suspects the son of theft. The father nurses his fury, and his own dark secret, disinheriting his son, and refusing to see him. As the father lies dying, the son arrives at a nearby hotel – hoping that his father will consent to see him one last time.

Lunch in September Thérèse Dallas, a married middle aged woman, is remined of a man she used to have a secret infatuation for, Suddenly, he appears and asks her to lunch.

The title story In Confidence – was undoubtedly my favourite. Blanche Lajunie feels her best years are behind her, approaching middle age she obliged to earn her living teaching the spoiled teenage daughter of relatives – among other pupils. On the morning the story takes place, she visits her doctor, before returning home where she gives lessons. Blanche understands how she is viewed by her pupil. While her pupil can only think about the handsome boy across the street, Blanche wishes only to share the story of her one great romance, when she was a young girl. Blanche Lajunie is a beautifully drawn character, Némirovsky shows us the sad quality of her life, the frustration of her position, equally well drawn is Colette her pupil.

“The indifferent crowd pushed her on. It was noon. All the shops and offices were closing their doors. Everyone was rushing. No one even glanced at her. No one would recognise this supreme effort of the propriety and dignity she was imposing on herself… But she would not give up. She would walk home. At the moment of her death she would be able to think in all honesty, ‘I was my own mistress until the very last day.’”

(In Confidence)

In a rather different little story, Magic tells the story of a man who whilst in Finland as a young man, joined in a group entertainment of ‘table-turning.’ The memory of the resulting magic stays with him for many years. It is a story which considers the question of destiny.

In The Fire Madame Georges and her husband pride themselves on their ability to haggle over the estates they wish to purchase. Their latest acquisition comes with a sitting tenant – who Madame Georges can’t get out of her head.

The Spell takes us to a Ukrainian town in the memory of a woman looking back to her childhood, and the visits she made to the family of her childhood friend Nina. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric tale of friendship, fortune telling and romance.

“On stormy days rainwater was collected in tubs, and all the women of the house washed their hair outdoors and then dried it in the sun; this is how I saw Klavdia Alexandrovna’s hair. It was a cloak of gold. I remained motionless, gazing in admiration at it. Her hair fell to her knees, its radiant colour shimmering in the light. Sofia Andreïevna was there too, half stretched out on a straw lounger. She was wearing a lilac dressing gown, open slightly on her heavy white chest. She caught me looking and started laughing. Her chin quivered slightly when she laughed and she had a kindly, gentle, wise expression.”

(The Spell)

The final story, Nativity concerns two sisters, one the youngest is about to be married, her elder sister about to give birth. Yvonne is blissfully content, her trousseau, the wedding gifts a fond fiancée – Brigitte, has reason to be less happy. Her marriage has been soured by her husband’s debts, infidelities and several pregnancies. Yvonne is shocked when her sister goes into labour – terrified by the sounds from the room next door.

In Confidence was a really excellent collection, Némirovsky’s writing is really very good, clear, insightful with sublime characterisation. I love her writing, and I am (again) determined to read more of her work soon.


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Some novels leave me almost mute with admiration. This is one such book; I feel I can’t possibly do justice to the extraordinary power of this narrative. Written in 1941, not long before Nѐmirovsky was arrested and murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz, Suite Francaise depicts the realities for people living in France under occupation. Of course, one of the things which make it so extraordinary is that it was written while these events were taking place. It is for me, every bit a chronicle of those desperate, frightening times, as it is a brilliant novel.

Suite Francaise is made up of two novellas – linked very slightly – the only two completed parts of a projected four part sequence that Nѐmirovsky had planned to write. The first – Storm in June – is the brilliant depiction of the flight of a disparate group of Parisians on the eve of the German invasion. The second part – Dolce is set in a small French provincial town, occupied by German soldiers who take up residence in the homes of the people they are now the conquerors of.

“Paris had its sweetest smell, the smell of chestnut trees in bloom and of petrol with a few grains of dust that crack under your teeth like pepper. In the darkness the danger seemed to grow. You could smell the suffering in the air, in the silence. Everyone looked at their house and thought, “Tomorrow it will be in ruins, tomorrow I’ll have nothing left.”

In the opening section of Suite Francaise, the citizens of Paris are under threat, the Germans are advancing and the air is thick with rumour and pessimism. The Pѐricands are an old, traditional family, cultivated Catholics, the eldest of their five children is a priest. They are a family used to a certain way of life, and Madame Pѐricand is quite proud of their position, though suspicious of France’s government. While their son Father Phillippe Pѐricand accompanies a group of troubled, teenage, orphan boys out of the city, the rest of the Pѐricand family leave by car. Gabriel Corte is a writer, a cruel, selfish womaniser, determined to preserve his manuscripts, and get out of the city with his mistress Florence.

parisexodusThe Michauds are a middle aged couple both employed by the same bank, they live in a small apartment, although they aren’t wealthy, they are loyal employees, devoted to each other, their only son Jean-Marie is away at the front. When their employer promises to take them with him, by car, to Tours to new bank premises, they are relieved. However their employer’s mistress demands a seat in the car, and the Michauds are left to take their chance on alternative arrangements. With the Paris streets emptying fast, obtaining a seat on a train is no easy task, and so the Michauds join the scores of people leaving on foot. Charles Langelet is a wealthy man with a heart condition, an art collector he is surrounded by beautiful things, things he is loath to leave behind. Langelet also takes to the road out of Paris, joining the hoards already crowding the roads out of Paris. Each of these people face changing fortunes and through their exodus we see the selfishness’, fears and compromises that are brought about by extreme and unusual circumstances. Everyone is revealed in their very humanness, for good or ill.

“He hated the war; it threatened much more than his lifestyle or peace of mind. It continually destroyed the world of the imagination, the only world where he felt happy.”

In the second section – Dolce, the small town of Bussy await the arrival of their conquerors. There is grief and humiliation at France’s defeat, everything is changing and yet so much remains the same. Life must go on, food must be bought and cooked, babies fed, and farms continue to be managed as of old. In the Angellier household Lucile Angellier – wife of a prisoner of war and her bitter, grieving mother-in-law await the officer who will be staying in their home – they have no say in the matter. Theirs is the best house in Bussy and so they will be playing host to the commander. Lucile has not been happy with her unfaithful husband, and her mother-in-law – certain her daughter-in-law in unworthy of her beloved son – resents any pleasure Lucile might find in anything, wanting her to grieve and suffer as she does. When he arrives, Bruno von Falk is young, handsome, an accomplished musician, Lucile recognises that he is a man – like any other, he misses his home and his wife, longs for his overdue leave like any other soldier. Lucile is drawn to von Falk – trying to shield her blooming friendship from the stern and disapproving gaze of her mother-in-law.

Nearby lives Madeleine Sabarie – a young married woman with a young baby, her husband Benoît an escaped prisoner of war, is back working on their farm. Madeleine can’t forget Jean-Marie Michaud the handsome, cultured young man that had hid out at the farm for several weeks before her marriage. She still smooths out the sheets on the bed where he had slept; her husband is nothing like him. The Sabaries too, are to play host to a German officer, and when Bonnet arrives Madeleine is not averse to playing up a bit to the attention he pays her. Benoît is a jealous, unsophisticated man, trouble is sure to follow.

In the midst of war and under occupation, love and friendship can be found in surprising places, and when Benoît Sabarie acts recklessly and murderously, it is to Lucile Angellier that his wife turns to for help. This Dolce section ends in 1941 with the German invasion of The Soviet Union, the German soldiers who have lived among the town’s inhabitants for three months move out, and there is a brief lull as the town await new men who will take their place.

“They’re going!
For several days they had been waiting for the Germans to leave. The soldiers themselves had announced it: they were being sent to Russia. When the French heard the news, they looked at them with curiosity (‘Are they happy? Worried? Will they win or lose?’). As for the Germans, they tried to work out what the French were thinking: Were they happy to see them go? Did they secretly wish they’d all get killed? Did anyone feel sorry for them? Would they miss them? Of course they wouldn’t be missed as Germans, as conquerors (they weren’t naïve enough to think that), but would the French miss these Pauls, Siegfreds, Oswalds who had lived under their roofs for three months, showed them pictures of their wives and mothers, shared more than one bottle of wine with them? But both the French and the Germans remained inscrutable; they were polite, careful of what they said – ‘Well, that’s war… We can’t do anything about it…right?”

One of the most astonishing things for me is that despite what was happening around her, and presumably knowing that she was under threat herself, Nemirovsky was capable of seeing the German soldier as a human being, a man, not just the enemy. She understood the strains put upon people under unparalleled circumstances, and the differences and sympathies that inevitably exist between two groups of people, even when one group is the conquered and one the conqueror.

It is one of the miracles of publishing that this novel came to be published at all – apparently lost – lying unread in a notebook belonging to Irene Nѐmirovsky in her eldest daughter’s possession. This edition contains in Appendixes – Nѐmirovsky’s notes for the remainder of the sequence that she tragically didn’t live to write.


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Translated by Bridget Patterson

Persephone publishes a number of collections of short stories – and they are generally the kind of short stories I love. Dimanche and other stories were all written in the 1930’s and 40’s but not published in English until 2000. This is a truly wonderful collection, beautifully written, atmospheric stories, breathtakingly observed, some are almost like short novels in themselves, and peopled with memorably complex but very real characters.

Short stories as I have said before are very difficult to review. In this collection Irène Némirovsky offers glimpses of French bourgeois life in the years just before and during World War Two. They concern relationships, family life and the individual’s sense of themselves in the world around them. The first two Stories Dimanche (Sunday) and Les Rivages Heureux (Those Happy Shores) concern women of different generations examining one another, highlighting how women envisage their futures with and pin their hopes on men. Dimanche describes one perfect Sunday in spring, a mother and daughter and their different experiences of love. In These Happy Shores – the middle-aged Ginette meets the young Christiane in a bar, while the latter waits for her lover and Ginette tries to attract the attentions of the kind of men on who she must depend on for money.

“The bar was gradually emptying. It was three o’clock. Eventually only she and Christiane were left. With a weary gesture she brushed away the wisps of hair falling over her eyes and stared at Christiane. ‘Some people have all the luck. She’s got lovely skin, that girl. But she looks so pleased with herself! They’re so stupid, young girls. She’s got a good figure. I looked as good as her once,’ she thought, as she remembered what her body used to be like and how Maurice used to stroke her lovely curved hips. It was hard, having to return to this way of life after a ten year relationship, almost a marriage.”
(Those Happy Shores)


The other stories are all just as exquisite – mainly set in France, for me those stories which depict life in those first years of World War Two – obviously written during these years and just before Irène Némirovsky’s death in 1942 at the hands of the Nazi’s, had added poignancy and resonated strongly. Fraternite (brotherhood) is a fantastically well-crafted story of a meeting between two Jewish men. The first is Christian Rabinovitch a wealthy Jewish man who although completely assimilated to the society in which he moves, he suspects that he can never really belong. The other is a poor man with the same surname; he has spent his life moving between different homes, he has lost one son and seen another leave for England. In his badly dressed namesake Rabinovitch sees everything he wishes to disassociate himself from, ultimately he must recognise who he is and where he comes from.

“He did not realise it but, carried away by his thoughts, he was swaying forwards and backwards on the seat in a slow a strange rhythm, in time with the motion of the train; and so it was that, in moments of fatigue or stress, his body found itself repeating the rocking movement which had soothed earlier generations of rabbis bent over the Holy Book, money changers over their gold coins, and tailors over their work-benches.
He looked up and caught sight of himself in the mirror. He sighed and gently put his hand to his forehead. Then it came to him in a flash, ‘That’s what I am suffering from… that’s what’s making me pay with my body and my spirit. Centuries of misery, sickness and oppression…millions of poor, feeble, tired bones have gone towards creating mine.’

This glorious collection of short stories was my first experience of Irène Némirovsky, though it won’t be my last – I am already a firm fan. Irène Némirovsky was a French novelist, born into a Russian family in Kiev – who later fled the Russian Empire at the start of the Russian revolution. Born into a Jewish family, Irène Némirovsky later converted to Catholicism yet under the racial laws of Nazi Germany she was arrested during World War Two and died in Auschwitz in 1942 aged 39. In 1929 Irène Némirovsky had published David Golder which made her famous, during the 1930’s and 1940’s she continued to write, both novels and short stories – many works were considered controversial – and she has even been accused of being anti-Semitic. According to the publishers Afterword in my Persephone edition many of the stories and novels that were published during Irène Némirovsky’s life were not published in English until the 1980’s and 90’s. Then of course came the extraordinary discovery of Suite Francaise in 2004 by her daughter – who had kept the manuscript for fifty years without realising what it was. Now it appears as if her novels are enjoying something of a renaissance – there certainly appear to be quite a number of novels available, and I may have to read them all. These beautiful stories have really whetted my appetite for more.


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