By Irene Nemirovsky
Translated from the French by Sandra Smith
Vintage Canada, $22, 176 pages
REVIEWED BY CLIVE DAVIS
There is nothing unusual about an author’s work fading from the public consciousness. As we all know, only a very few books are destined to live on, and even fewer have any hope of reemerging from limbo. “David Golder” owes its second chance to the remarkable success of “Suite Francaise,” part of an uncompleted work by the Russian-born Jewish novelist Irene Nemirovsky. A late convert to Catholicism in France, her adopted land, Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942, soon after being deported by the Vichy authorities. When the manuscript of “Suite Francaise” was unearthed in France a few years ago, it caused a sensation.
Not surprisingly, “David Golder” — the book that first established Nemirovsky’s reputation — is now attracting renewed attention. When a translation was first published in the United States nearly eight decades ago, the terse, novella-like acount of an ailing Jewish financier beset by financial and family woes evoked comparisons with Balzac and Dostoyevksy. Has it stood the test of time? Sadly, the answer is no.
When reviewers lavished praise on “Suite Francaise,” it was hard to decide whether they were truly judging the book itself or their sense of what it might have become. Nemirovsky had, after all, only completed sections of what was intended to be a roman fleuve depicting the social and moral consequences of the German occupation. The fact that she was able to create as much as she did is a testament to her courage and tenacity.
But at the back of my mind (and I feel churlish even raising this) was the nagging thought that a good part of the acclaim was a response less to the text itself than to the conditions in which it was written. For all Nemirovsky’s attempts to present a panoramic vision of a country coming to terms with defeat, the characters in “Suite Francaise” possess a two-dimensional quality.
They are too easily recognized as types: the haughty Parisian bourgeois, the cynical author, the grubby-fingered businessman, the narrow-minded farmer. Given the circumstances in which Nemirovsky was working — forced to pursue her vocation in secret because of her Jewish ancestry, constantly wondering if the authorities would track her down — it is astonishing that she succeeded in sculpting the first two installments of her tale, “Storm in June” and “Dolce.”
The appendices to “Suite Francaise” were even more compelling in their tragic way. Alongside the notes the author had made for the construction of storylines that were never completed, we were able to ponder the messages that her despairing husband, Michel Epstein, sent to the authorities and publishers in a vain attempt to discover his wife’s whereabouts after her arrest. Epstein himself was to be deported soon afterwards, perishing in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in November 1942. One especially poignant appeal is addressed to the German ambassador in Paris:
“In none of her books (which moreover have not been banned by the occupying authorities) will you find a single word against Germany and, even though my wife is of Jewish descent, she does not speak of the Jews with any affection whatsoever in her works.”
To read those words is unbearably painful. Can any of us honestly be sure how we would have acted in similar circumstance?
Which brings us to the unrelentingly harsh portraits of Jews in “David Golder,” Nemirovsky’s second novel, published in 1929, a little more than a decade after her well-to-do banking family fled from Russia. Nemirovsky herself was quoted as saying that she would have taken a different approach to the novel had it been written after the rise of Hitler. The reasons for those second thoughts are fairly obvious.