ALL OUR WORLDLY GOODS by Irene Nemirovsky

by John Boland

Here is another masterpiece by Irene Nemirovsky, the Jewish emigre from St Petersburg who fled to France with her family in 1919 and became a bestselling novelist there until her capture by the Germans in 1942 and her subsequent death in Auschwitz at the age of thirty-eight. Her posthumous fame is largely due to the 2004 publication of her unfinished novel Suite Francaise, the manuscript of which was discovered almost sixty years after she died, and her reputation was enhanced by Fire in the Blood (Chaleur du Sang), also recently discovered among her papers and published last year.

Both those books show Nemirovsky to be a great writer, with a born novelist’s mastery of narrative and character and a profound understanding of how human beings think and behave, not just as individuals but also in the context of their social lives and in the looming presence of historical accidents and imperatives. And All Our Worldly Goods, published as Les Biens de ce Monde in 1947 but never translated until now, confirms her stature as a writer with the insights and empathy of a Turgenev.

The book begins in the early 1900s at a seaside resort in Northern France where Pierre alienates his middle-class family by breaking off his engagement to well-bred Simone and opting instead for Agnes, the daughter of a social inferior – such are the time-honoured conventions of this rural society that “only a foreigner, someone from outside, would have thought such a marriage possible.” Wealth and respect are all that matter to Pierre’s family, who “would buy land, see their children marry, save their money and die in their beds. Not the slightest doubt or anxiety would trouble their minds.”

Pierre’s action defies this tradition and the rest of the novel follows the repercussions of his marriage through two world wars and a couple of generations, as the rejected Simone takes control of the paper factory that Pierre’s father had owned and old resentments fester.

Yet this is far from a novel about bitterness. Instead, Nemirovsky is intent on showing the lasting power of romantic love and family ties and of the countryside that nurtures such continuity, even in the face of horror and violent death. On leave from the trenches, Pierre reflects that “the war will end, we will all disappear, but these humble and innocent gifts will remain: the cool air, the sun, a red apple, a fire in winter, a woman, children, the life we lead each day. The crash and din of war all fade away. The rest endures.”

And when another war comes round and Pierre’s son Guy is away fighting in it, the constants of life continue on and even old enmities are put aside in the struggle for survival. Indeed, the novel ends optimistically – the family’s village may have been destroyed yet again by German artillery, but a grandchild has been born and life falters onwards in its hopeful way, always in search of a good outcome, even in the midst of war.

There was to be no good outcome for the author, who wrote this novel while hiding from the authorities in the Burgundy village of Issy-L’Eveque, but we should be grateful that she bequeathed to us her wisdom and her humanity. This is an enthralling novel, beautifully translated by Sandra Smith.

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