Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith, All Our Wordly Goods (Chatto & Windus, 2008, £12.99)
The ‘worldly goods’ of Némirovsky’s title are the essence of life’s purpose for the novel’s despotic patriarch-figure, Julien Hardelot. The narrative begins in the 1900s, when Hardelot is a French factory-owner and grandfather who hubristically senses a ‘feeling of stability and security [in] his soul. He [feels] sure of himself and sure of everything around him … everything was calm and indestructible’. His forecast of the marriages, business and fortunes that will make up his family’s future is less a prediction than an assertion. But this is a novel first published in French in 1947, and set among two world wars. As readers, we know that Hardelot’s narrative control over his family’s fate is mere delusion, their lives being rapidly subsumed into the metanarrative of twentieth-century history.
Hardelot is incapable of recognising that personal identity is entwined with other histories, including national and international perspectives. Némirovsky’s characters focus on the domestic details of existence: Hardelot multiplies his ownership of those ‘worldly goods’; his grandson breaks the familial mould by marrying for love. The character description can sometimes seem less distinctive and more like representatives of a certain class type at a certain time, but there is beguilingly intense detail of village snobbery and insularity. This, alongside our awareness of the approaching plot of European history, means that the novel becomes a dramatisation of Walter Benjamin’s statement, in 1970s Illuminations, that historical fact ‘becomes historical posthumously’.
The narrative voice shows life carrying on during the events of the First World War with Némirovsky carefully constructing this literary dramatic irony; she couldn’t have known that her characters’ ignorance of their own futures would come to be framed by the tragically real end of her own life. The story of the girl from Kiev whose family fled the Russian revolution for France, where Némirovsky grew up to become an acclaimed novelist before she died in Auschwitz, is now well known. It is a story that acts to further highlight All Our Worldly Goods’ emphasis on history as what Philip Roth would much later describe as the ‘terror of the unforeseen’ in his own (re-)imagining of the Second World War The Plot Against America.
The New Critic intent on looking at text alone and ignoring biographical and bibliographical information, would ignore Némirovsky’s own death while reading All Our Worldly Goods. Tadzio Koelb writes in this journal that such an approach is correct, and then suggests that it might reveal a gaping deficiency of literary merit. Yet the translation of All Our Worldly Goods into English seems to contest Koelb’s thesis. Némirovsky’s focus on the construction of history in the novel ensures that examination of her history is not superfluous but a continuation of her themes.
History prevails as a central premise of Smith’s fluid and lucid translated prose of the novel. The plot traces the Hardelot family growing older and multiplying, the family industry, faltering amidst a difficult economy, then thriving, and the consequences of the conduction of clandestine love affairs. Meanwhile, there are prefiguring scenes to Némirovsky’s unfinished magnum opus Suite Française, as where torrents of refugees enter and then exit on a seemingly unending journey through the French village of Saint-Elme: ‘all they could do was inch forward … in this confusing flow of people.’
The second part of the novel deliberately echoes these scenes; it also repeats observations noted earlier in the novel. When Julien Hardenne begins to finally concede defeat to his ageing body, he becomes ’poor Julien’, ‘already benefiting from the kind of sympathy usually reserved for the dead’. Later, reporting the death of Hardenne’s wife Marthe, the narrator observes ‘she’d died of breast cancer two year’s earlier and so had earned the title of ‘poor Marthe … the epithet reserved for the dead or dying’. This echoing phrasing at first seems like inaccuracy, but such a conclusion is in glaring contrast to the meticulous societal observations included. In this literary context, then, resonating social commentary seems instead to reflect a wider sense of the repetition of history inside — and outside — the novel: we follow the lives of the Hardennes through not one war but two; their hometown, burned in the first war, is rebuilt, only to be devastated again; a father is ordered to leave his life and young baby to become a soldier, then that baby grows up to the same fate. Némirovsky’s recurring events and phrasing foregrounds the proximity of those two periods of world war, and in this novel traumatic events recall earlier traumas — a notion which is further heightened — not sidetracked — by her own death as a Holocaust victim.
That is the chief achievement of this novel: the central tenet of the unstoppable impact of conflict on individual lives provides a narrative that builds up to a page-turning rapidity, but one that is abutted by a contemplative counternarrative. The jarring incongruity that the characters feel continuing daily life while war rages seems to reflect our modern-day concerns, and Némirovsky’s awareness that the only meaningful way to write about trauma is to focus on life’s minutiae prefigures an important theme in Holocaust literature.
All Our Worldly Goods is a book about history. The stories of the individuals within history, Némirovsky reminds us, are subject to greater forces, of military campaigns and ideological conceptions, and literary fashions. Close to the end of the novel, two surviving characters promise each other, ‘We’ll rebuild. We’ll get through. We’ll survive.’ Luckily, Némirovsky’s work has survived those battles too; All our Worldly Goods provides evidence that sometimes, the individual’s story of hope can triumph through literature, even where the storyteller’s life is long extinguished.