VINTAGE £7.99 (159pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
David Golder, by Irène Némirovsky, trans Sandra Smith
The sins of the father, and the sorrow of the exile
Friday 16 February 2007
Forgotten by the critics, yes. But, far from being the lost and unknown writer that legend depicts, Irène Némirovsky was, in the short span of her career, both popular and prolific. Though her name was only mentioned in passing before the great success of her posthumous Suite Française, several of her prewar novels remained in print in paperback. Inevitably, these dealt either with Russian émigrés in France, or Jewish life in the Ukraine, or a combination of both. A more versatile writer than many realised, she was equally adept at chronicling the changing fortunes of the French bourgeoisie; she also wrote an elegant and perceptive study of her literary model, Chekhov.
Two of her most characteristic works, Le Bal and Les Mouches d'Automne, are set in the privileged Franco-Russian milieu she captures exquisitely. They are proof, perhaps, that her deceptively simple and understated style is best suited to shorter fiction: her touch is light, but with an underlying darkness that bears witness to exile, marginality and existential frustration. Uncaring mothers, resentful daughters, sad governesses people these fictions. By contrast, the longer novels inspired by her Ukranian Jewish background - Les Chiens et les Loups, Le Vin de Solitude - are relatively traditional, teeming with characters and leisurely in their attitude to time and place.
David Golder, the brief account of a Jewish migrant's last and troubled days, was published when she was 26, in 1929. Anecdotal, it dwells on incidental encounters and reflections: conversations with his predatory, adulterous wife, her longtime lover, his fickle, pleasure-loving daughter, a business partner; a tour of the Jewish quarter with an old mate; a trip to his origins which, in a style reminiscent of the mature Némirovsky, ends in a moving portrayal of a final, unrecognised friendship and the picture of another hapless migrant's voyage.
The novel opens in the manner of a thriller, with a suicide offstage. At times it reads like a film script, at others it employs a collagist technique: fragments of satire and gossip, discussions of big business, streams of consciousness which are a confluence of past and present. Its pace is swift, its atmosphere claustrophobic. Though it occasionally shifts perspective from Golder's monologues to a camera's eye view of his wife and daughter and their affairs, its relentless focus is on the revelation of his inner demons.
David, ruthless, venal and ultimately pitiable, dominates the book; its other characters are at best projections of his needs, fears and desires. Possibly the shortcomings of a writer as yet immature, they also bear witness to her unsentimental understanding of the scars of emotional and physical dispossession.
Superficially, David's character bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Daphne du Maurier's monstrous Julius Levi in The Progress of Julius. Both Golder and Levi are Jewish migrants who have fought their way out of adversity; both, paranoid and vulnerable, are obsessed with beautiful, flighty daughters, but with very different outcomes. It's tempting to imagine du Maurier, a frequent visitor to France, reading Némirovsky on holiday and unconsciously appropriating some elements of her work.
Du Maurier's Julius remains a parodic representation of a Jewish parvenu. Némirovsky, however, writing closer to her own preoccupations, strips away Golder's mask, flesh and skin, to reveal the skull of a man damaged by history, prejudice and the failure of love.
In much of her work, Némirovsky's view of the roots her family outgrew is at best cold-eyed and at worst disdainful. It is also self-revealing, and a testament to her refusal to discard any part of her heritage. Francophone, exiled and reassimilated, she continued, in her fiction, to return to the collective past. In this early novel are flashes of the piercing insights that characterise her later work. In his last voyage, in which he sees a replay of the tragi-comedy of his beginnings, David is revealed as much as a victim as a perpetrator. Némirovsky's farewell glance reflects, in her refusal to judge or condemn, its ultimate compassion.
Aamer Hussein's 'Insomnia' is published by Telegram in April
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food