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David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2007, 159 p plus xii p Introduction. Translated from the French (Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1929) by Sandra Smith.

David Golder cover

This was Némirovsky’s second novel and in it she was to some extent finding her feet but it still exhibits some of the concerns and influences which were to dominate her work.

David Golder is a financier born into poverty in the Russian Empire but who now lives in France. He has a wife, Gloria, who, despite him lifting her out of the same poverty as his, wants his money but nothing else, indeed is unsatisfied with all he has provided for her. They have an indulged flibbertigibbet of a daughter, Joyce, who also only sees Golder as a source of funds. The crisis of the book begins when his business partner Simon Marcus – whom Golder is tired of bailing out – commits suicide after Golder refuses to help him out of financial trouble again. There was something about this that somehow brought to mind the beginning of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Némirovsky’s intent is very different to that of Dickens, though.

There are some similarities to the work of F Scott Fitzgerald as the book is set in a milieu which presents a far from attractive face. Némirovsky demonstrates well the unthinking lack of proportion which comes with affluence apparently easily gained. Both Gloria and Joyce seem to think Golder has not had to make any effort to garner the largesse they squander so profligately on their gold-digging boyfriends and vacuous pursuits.

For against appearances Golder’s financial times are hard. When he suffers a heart attack his wife conspires with the doctor who attends to conceal it from him so as he will not stop work and the money will continue to flow. His crash comes anyway and wife and daughter both leave him.

In one sense it is not surprising that Némirovsky makes Golder Jewish. It was her inheritance after all and Golder’s family bears some resemblance to hers – though we can assume not the vacuous daughter. In another author’s hands it might have tended only to reinforce the stereotype that many French held of Jews. At the time of writing the Dreyfus Affair, though partially obscured by the legacy of the Great War, still hung over Némirovsky’s adopted country. But Golder has a weak spot, Joyce, whom he continues to indulge even at the risk of his life. We find his driving force towards the end of the book, the crushing poverty and anti-Semitism he had endured in his childhood on the shores of the Black Sea.

David Golder isn’t Némirovsky at her peak but it is still worth reading Once again it is best to leave the introduction (by Patrick Markham) to the end as it discusses features of the plot and of Golder’s character.

Pedant’s corner:- predelictions (the word is spelled predilections,) “now there’s one enemy less” (“one enemy fewer” sounds more natural to me,) “his entire body felt wracked” (racked, it felt crushed, not wrecked,) “‘Once he’d paid for something, he watches over it,’” (either, “once he’s paid for something”, or else, “he’d watch over it”,) “a newspaper that was laying on the table,” (how can a newspaper lay anything? It was lying on the table,) “in the Ukraine” (in dialogue, but the speaker came from there so most likely would have said “in Ukraine.”)

2016 in Books

The best of what I read this year, in order of reading. 13 by men, 8 by women, 1 non-fiction, 5 SF or fantasy, 12 Scottish:-

Ancient Light by John Banville
The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey
Clara by Janice Galloway
A Twelvemonth and a Day by Christopher Rush
Fergus Lamont by Robin Jenkins
In Another Light by Andrew Greig
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst
The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
This Census Taker by China Miéville
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky
Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Young Art and Old Hector by Neil M Gunn
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
Among Others by Jo Walton

The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2013, 162 p, plus iii p Translator’s Note and iv p Preface to the French Edition. Translated from the French Le Malentendu by Sandra Smith.

 The Misunderstanding cover

This short novel, originally published in 1924, when the author was 21, examines the love affair between Yves Harteloup and Denise Jessaint. Yves is a former soldier, a veteran of Verdun, but his family’s fortunes have been ruined by the war and he has been forced to work for a poor living. Denise is married (more out of a sense of duty than love) but she is still sexually ingenuous when they meet. Crucially though, her husband is well off. The mismatch in her circumstances and Yves’s is not so apparent at the holiday resort where in Denise’s husband’s absence on business they first spend time together but comes to dominate their relationship when they return to Paris. Denise is frustrated by Yves’s failure to say he loves her, Yves by her inability to act as submissively and devotedly as he would wish. Their mutual misunderstandings lead to a dissatisfaction on both their parts. A piece of advice from her mother precipitates their relationship’s crisis.

Even at this stage of her writing career Némirovsky had a firm grip on her subject matter. There are parallels with Madame Bovary here of which Némirovsky was undoubtedly conscious. Despite this being a first novel, her insights into character and attitudes are already well developed. Quite how much force there is in Denise’s cousin’s assertion that, “In the end, there’s no woman on Earth you can’t get over ….. We men know that from birth,” is debatable, though probably true in the vast majority of cases.

Once again (though see below) Sandra Smith’s translation flows smoothly but she is working with the best of materials. Any Némirovsky novel it would seem is well worth reading.

Pedant’s corner:- sprung up (sprang up,) “and white peacocks roamed the grounds were planted with” (seems to be missing a which.)

The Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2015, 318 p. Translated from the French Les Feux de L-automne by Sandra Smith. First published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1957. Returned to a threatened library.

 The Fires of Autumn cover

The Fires of Autumn begins in the bosom of the modestly comfortable Brun family, in that pre-First Word War state of well-being that is soon to be shattered. Thérèse Brun marries her doctor cousin Martial but he is killed when a shell hits his first-aid post. Bernard Jacquelain joins up as soon as he can but the war drives any delusions from him. “The world is despicable. Men are stupid, cowardly, vain, ignorant…. I learned lessons in the war that I will never forget.” His attitude to women is coloured by his experiences, “Everyone said (women) had become easy since the war started. But he thought they had always been like that. It was in their nature: man was made to kill and woman to…” His sentence is not finished. After the war he begins an affair with Renée, wife of Raymond Détang, who in turn brings him into the world of commerce and connections. He also sets his eye on Thérèse but she is still of the old pre-war ways of thought, lamenting, “Men don’t chase after women who turn them down. There are too many other women, and they are far too easy.” Still, Bernard gives up the high life and settles down with her to a life of domesticity and three children. But, for him, boredom soon sets in. When ten years later he encounters Renée again they restart the affair and he re-enters Raymond’s world of corruption and greed. When that all eventually falls apart he finds, “Connections were all powerful in times of success, but weakest when it came to failure,” by which time his son, Yves, thinks of his father as “part of an evil set that out of spinelessness, blindness or deliberate treason is causing the downfall of France.” Here, Némirovsky writes that when it comes to failure, human nature puts up insurmountable barriers of hope. The sense of despair has to remove those barriers one by one, and only then can recognise the enemy and be horrified. In this context Bernard’s complicity in the shady deals whose consequence comes back to haunt him is perhaps a little too pat.

Though they are actually incidental to the narrative, The Fires of Autumn is a brilliant evocation of the effects of the Great War on France and the French and of the forming of the seeds of that country’s demise in World War 2. And those fires of autumn? In one of Thérèse’s dreams her grandmother tells her, “The fires of autumn purify the land; they prepare it for new growth. These great fires have not yet burned in your life. But they will.”

Pedant’s corner:- idoform (iodoform, x2,) once there was a Barnard for Bernard, Peach Melba is described as a “layer of smooth, warm chocolate” that “ covers a kind of hard stone of ice,” – that’s not like any Peach Melba I’ve ever seen, there is an opening quotation mark where no piece of dialogue follows, all powerful (all-powerful?)

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

Bloomsbury, 2012, 429 p.

 Waiting for Sunrise cover

Actor Lysander Rief (whose mother is Austrian) travels in 1913 to Vienna (where else?) to seek a cure for his unusual sexual dysfunction from fellow Englishman Dr Bensimon. At his first consultation, Hettie Bull, a sculptor – she corrects him when he says sculptress – bursts into the waiting room, cadges two cigarettes from him and jumps the queue. Her later invitation for him to “sit” for her leads to an affair which is complicated by her relationship with artist Udo Hoff. Bensimon’s treatment according to his theories of parallelism, combined with Hettie’s attentions, cure Rief’s problem. (The setting being what it is it is no surprise that Lysander has a brief encounter with a Dr Freud in a café. This may be thought a gratuitous touch by the author though.) A fine start then but things take a strange turn when Lysander is falsely accused of rape and has to flee Vienna with the help of British embassy officials.

When the Great War starts he enlists as a private soldier. His past catches up with him when he is asked to repay his debt to the UK Government by travelling to Geneva – via an excursion to the Front – to help unravel a spying operation. The Germans have apparently been forewarned about British attacks on the Western Front. (I found myself beginning to question the narrative here. Troop and matériel build-ups for Great War offensives were difficult to disguise from the enemy. Lack of sufficient ammunition and also of knowledge of how to break down defensive positions – this latter applied to the Germans too – was sufficient to explain the failures of attacks.) For the purposes of story we must take the premise as read though.

What Rief finds in Geneva links back to his time in Vienna and entangles his mother in the plot. Of her and in a curious echo of Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel (which I read recently) we had, “Lysander supposed that if you were an attractive woman in your early fifties you don’t advertise the fact that you have a son who is almost thirty.”

The book is sprinkled with musings on the magnitude of the undertaking – for all the belligerent countries – that was the Great War and of its importance. “Something old was going…disappearing… and something new was inevitably taking its place.”

The phrase “waiting for sunrise” appears frequently through the book, but subtly, as if arising from the particular scene’s narrative.

Boyd certainly knows how to tell a story – and tell it well.

Pedant’s corner:-
Elevator; Rief is (half) English, what’s wrong with “lift?” Gratz for Graz, “thistle down” for thistledown, kicked the mud of his boots, a “span” – though it was in dialogue.

Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2010, 199 p. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith. © Éditions Albin Michel 1940. First published in English as The Modern Jezebel by Henry Holt and Company 1937.

Jezebel cover

I hadn’t intended reading a Némirovsky again for a while but the good lady picked this up in one of our local libraries – there are five within easy distance; one walkable (but not as walkable as Kirkcaldy Central was when we lived there) – so I took the opportunity to delve once more into her œuvre.

At the start of the book Gloria Eysenach is on trial for the murder of a young man whom she visited frequently in the weeks before the shooting. The trial is described along with Gloria’s inadequate efforts to explain her actions. Thereafter the novel tracks back to her earlier life and follows the train of events that led to her being in the dock.

For a while I felt that this wasn’t Némirovsky at her best; things seemed to drag, the set-up felt almost banal. However with the circumstances leading up to the death of Gloria’s daughter, Marie-Therèse, my interest was regained; though by that point the exact identity of the murder victim wasn’t too difficult to fathom.

Perhaps the most affecting sentence in the book is, “Life is sad when all is said and done, don’t you think? There are only moments of exhilaration, of passion…”

Jezebel ends up as a fine portrait of a selfish woman, too vain even to be aware – still less take care – of the interests of her own children. This is something of a theme for Némirovsky and she is perhaps better when she avoids it. Jezebel is still a fine novel though.

Le Bal by Irène Némirovsky

Chivers, 2008, 142 p. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith.

Le Bal cover

The good lady noticed this (very) large print book in a local library. As every Némirovsky I have read so far has been excellent I immediately borrowed it. This is a thin volume with very large print but still contains two novellas.

Le Bal © Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1930.
Catholic Rosine Kampf is a selfish would-be social climber with a less than reputable past. Her husband Alfred (a Jew who converted on marriage) made a sudden killing in currency dealings to transform their fortunes. Rosine now sees this as her time and sets out to exploit it. They have a fourteen year old daughter, Antoinette, who is straining on the verge of adulthood. As her mother does nothing but scold and deride her Antoinette harbours intense feelings of dislike and frustration. All this has ramifications for the ball (Le Bal of the title) Rosine is planning to hold to lever up the Kampfs’ place in society. In a story as short as this characterisation could be problematic but Rosine is well drawn, as is Antoinette, and Alfred shows that greater degree of indulgence fathers often have towards daughters.

Snow in Autumn © Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1931 as Les Mouches d’automne.
This is another of Némirovsky’s tales of Russian émigrés covering the years just before and after the cataclysm of the Revolution. The viewpoint is that of Tatiana Ivanovna, the aristocratic Karine family’s nanny. In a statement redolent of the pre-war times she reminds her employer, “You know very well that cockroaches are a sign of a wealthy household.”
Left behind to look after the house when the older family members fled to Odessa, she witnesses the murder of the Karines’ son, Youri, in the revolutionary takeover and then treks after them with their jewels sewn into her skirts. Later, in exile in Paris, she tries to uphold standards that seem pointless to people who have lost everything, who are “like flies in autumn” as the French title has it.

There was one curious piece of translation where the description sleeping room (rather than bedroom?) was used.

Like all Némirovsky’s fiction the two stories in Le Bal do not disappoint.

The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirowsky

Chatto & Windus, 2013, 216 p. Translated from the French Les Chiens et les Loups by Sandra Smith. First published by Éditions Albin Michel, 1940.

The Dogs and the Wolves cover

Of the four Némirowsky novels I have now read this is the one that most engages with the Jewish experience. As in The Wine of Solitude the narrative starts in Ukraine (once again the text has “the” Ukraine) and later shifts to France but the parallels of the main character here, Ada Sinner, with Némirowsky’s own life are less close.

Ada is born into that stratum of Ukrainian society not quite in the ghetto but not elevated from it. Her father is a trader and moves between the milieux. As a girl she catches sight one day of her rich relative Harry and is instantly fascinated. When the inevitable pogrom comes she flees with her cousin Ben and ends up in the richer part of town where the pair temporarily throw themselves on the mercy of their richer cousins, who are horrified by this sudden arrival disrupting their cosy existence.

Years later, in Paris, Ada, now an artist, sketching a party at Harry’s house from afar, mislays the payment for seamstressing work she is taking back to her Aunt Raissa, who throws her out. Ben, besotted with her since childhood, proposes that they marry. Despite her lack of love for him, Ada agrees. On the eve of Harry’s wedding Ada contrives to give him a book in which she knows he’s interested. He in turn is intrigued by her paintings in the book shop window. Eventually they meet as adults and the consequences unfold.

While life in Paris is less on the edge than in Ukraine the sense all the Jewish characters have of never being more than one step away from disaster is brought across firmly. In Ukraine a refrain when any adverse event – drought, famine, disease, political rumblings – occurred the adults would say, “We’re in for it this summer…. or this month, this year, tomorrow,” which I must say is also a very Calvinist, and therefore Scottish, sentiment.

The writing contains the usual bon mots. In one of her father’s trading conversations Ada overhears a nice variation on “fell off the back of a lorry,” in, “What would you say to a batch of ladies’ hats from Paris, just a tiny bit damaged from a railway accident?” Musings during a child’s invented game included, “The grown-ups would be only too happy to be free of all the children! Well didn’t they hear their parents moaning endlessly?” The text also contained aperçus such as, “With that knowing feminine instinct that can aim straight at the vulnerable place in a man’s heart she had sought, and found, the worst insult,” and, of Aunt Raissa’s style in argument, we learn, “Unfortunately she had one fault that was common in women: she loved winning.”

Némirowsky, it seems, never disappoints.

In addition it was again pleasing to see Sandra Smith’s translation, which never felt awkward, utilising the grammatically correct use of whom. “Whom could she turn to? Whom could she beg for help?”

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

Chatto & Windus 2007, 153 + xvi p. First published by Editions Denoël, 2007. Translated from the French Chaleur du Sang by Sandra Smith

Most of the handwritten manuscript for Fire in the Blood had been thought lost (45 pages of typescript had been completed) but turned up, along with her later novel Suite Francaise, in the Némirovsky archive given by her daughters to her friend (and editor) for safe keeping in 1942.

It is a worthy resurrection. Despite being barely longer than a novella there is enough insight into humanity and affairs of the heart, not to mention deceit and betrayal, in its 153 pages to grace many a longer novel.

Set in rural France in an area where people know all about each other’s lives and supposed secrets but don’t talk about them, unless while drunk or there is an advantage to be gained. Within families, “In order to avoid scandal, to make sure no one knows anything, all hatreds are hidden. What they fear most of all is that others might know their business.”

The narrator is Sylvestre, who travelled and returned – “A prodigal son. By the time I got back… even the fatted calf had waited so long it had died of old age” – who now lives alone. The fires of youth, “That love, those dreams…. are strangers.” That burning, “devours everything and then, in a few years, a few months, a few hours even, it burns itself out. Then you see how much damage has been done.”

The story concerns the pitfalls of young women marrying older men for security, of marital infidelities and of secrets maintained for years. The themes are of feelings beyond love, fire in the blood, that compels people to commit acts they might regret, and of forgetting forbidden loves as something necessary, plus the inability to forgive someone else’s happiness.

There are frequent bons mots:-
“Countrywomen are never ones to miss a free show, the kind you get with a birth or sudden death.”
“Who knows the real woman? The lover or the husband?”
“There’s no such thing as uncomplicated emotions.”
“You call out for (love.) The wave crashes into your heart, so different from how you imagined it, so bitter and icy.”
“The flesh is easy to satisfy. It’s the heart that’s insatiable …. that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire.”

For insights into the affairs of the heart, the recklessness of youth, the loneliness of old age, look no further. This is the best book, with the possible exception of an Iain Banks, I have read this year.

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