Review: All Our Worldly Goods

More posthumous power from Némirovsky.

By Anne Garvey, October 30, 2008
Irène Némirovsky: compelling

Irène Némirovsky: compelling

By Irène Némirovsky
Chatto & Windus, £12.99

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 terror 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 ordinary 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 well-to-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 once-passionate 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

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011