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David Golder, by Irène Némirovsky, trans Sandra Smith

The sins of the father, and the sorrow of the exile

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.

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