The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -


IRÈNE NÉMIROVSKY’S UN­FIN­ISHED novel Suite Fran­caise be­came a lit­er­ary sen­sa­tion in France in 2004. Its back­ground was dra­matic. Némirovsky’s daugh­ter, Denise, had kept the man­u­script for 60 years af­ter her mother’s mur­der in Auschwitz, in the be­lief that it was a per­sonal di­ary. Its sud­den dis­cov­ery cat­a­pulted it to the top of the world’s best­seller lists. Its telling of France’s war-time des­per­a­tion and de­te­ri­o­ra­tion along with a love story of a Ger­man of­fi­cer and a young French wife, caught the pub­lic imagination and cre­ated a de­mand for the ear­lier Némirovsky nov­els.

San­dra Smith’s su­perb trans­la­tions have served an ea­ger Bri­tish read­er­ship, and con­tinue to do so with All Our Worldly Goods (first pub­lished in 1947). This is more am­bi­tious in scope than Suite Fran­caise, more in­trigu­ing and, as a fin­ished work, con­veys the sat­is­fy­ing shape of a rounded saga.

The nar­ra­tive fol­lows a fam­ily over 30 years, trac­ing the an­guish and ter- ror of the two world wars. It is char­ac­terised by Némirovsky’s now fa­mil­iar de­tached and worldly wit.

While Cham­ber­lain and Hitler make real-time ap­pear­ances, Némirovsky keeps her fore­ground fo­cus on ordi- nary peo­ple and, in do­ing so, holds the reader in thrall. She records, like her idol Tol­stoy, the im­pact of war and peace on in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters.

We first meet Pierre as he pre­pares to wed a young woman whom his wellto-do fam­ily has picked for him. But he de­fies his grand­fa­ther and un­ex­pect­edly mar­ries Agnes, the girl he loves.

How­ever, this is to be no fairy-tale. Némirovsky writes in the tra­di­tion of her Rus­sian writer he­roes. Her on­cepas­sion­ate young lovers walk not into the golden sun­set but through a life of tribu­la­tion in a world where the raw suf­fer­ing of war is in­ter­leaved by the petty hu­mil­i­a­tions of peace­time.

Their wed­ding night in Paris is typ­i­cally am­biva­lent: “He didn’t like this ho­tel room. They were used to the si­lence of Saint-Elme, so the noise of cars, the voices in the cor­ri­dors, the sounds from the street, made them shud­der ner­vously. Their de­sire for each other was paral­ysed by the emo­tions of the day, the strange­ness of the place, ex­haus­tion. Never had they felt less in love.”

But later, when “sit­ting in front of the mir­ror, she took out her hair­pins”, Pierre “felt bolder at once… whis­pered her name, kissed her hair, her lips” and as she lay sleep­ing in bed, he “stud­ied her with such sweet pro­found hap­pi­ness that he said out loud and into the si­lence, ‘how won­der­ful this is, my God how won­der­ful ev­ery­thing is’.”

But life turns out to be far from won­der­ful. Pierre goes off to the hor­rors of the West­ern Front and re­turns badly wounded, sub­ject now both to con­stant pain and to the dic­tates of the new fac­tory owner — his ex-fi­ancée.

But Némirovsky is bril­liant at con­vey­ing the re­demp­tive power of love. And she does so all over again in the next gen­er­a­tion, where sex­ual in­ti­macy res­cues the awk­ward mar­riage of Agnes and Pierre’s son, Guy. And what tri­als they have to face, all of them: no sooner is one dev­as­tat­ing war over than an­other be­gins. Love is their only re­source and their ul­ti­mate refuge.

Némirovsky never lets her dark ma­te­rial cloud her sharp nov­el­ist’s in­sight into the per­ver­si­ties and self in­ter­est of hu­man na­ture, though she still leaves room for hero­ism.

The saga ends in 1941. The fol­low­ing year, the 39-year-old Némirovsky was dead, con­sumed by the tide of hor­ror she so vividly de­scribes.

Anne Gar­vey is a writer and re­viewer

Irène Némirovsky: com­pelling

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