Sunday, May 18, 2008

David Golder - Irene Nemirovsky - OT challenge - France

My third book in the Orbis Terrarum Challenge is:

David Golder by Irene Nemirovsky
First published in France in 1929
My copy published by Random House in 2007. 159 pages.
Translated from the French by Sandra Smith
My rating 5/5

This is the story of an elderly, ugly, overweight, thoroughly unlikeable Jewish businessman who has sold his soul to the great god, Money. That doesn't sound very inviting, does it? But, I promise, it is a book that grabs and holds one's attention from the opening sentence to the last.

There are no 'nice' characters in this story. David Golder is representative of the people he deals with in his business; they are all Jews who escaped poverty and persecution in Russia or Germany and, with nothing more than a determination to succeed, found wealth in America and France. Their wealth is all that matters to them, it is more important than love, friendship, family and even life itself.

While the men are driven by the desire to acquire wealth, the women in their lives care only about spending it. Golder's wife and daughter live the glamorous but shallow life of the super-rich in Paris and Biarritz. They have magnificent houses, fast cars, designer clothes and expensive hangers-on; they don't care for each other or for the man whose work makes their lifestyle possible.

Irene Nemirovsky knew all about this world. She was born into a wealthy, privileged family in Russia; her father was one of the few Jews to be accepted at the Imperial Court. But they lost everything in the 1917 Revolution and had to flee the country disguised as peasants. The fourteen-year-old Irene must have seen the ruthlessness that was needed for her father to rebuild his fortunes when they arrived in France with nothing. Like David Golder, Leon Nemirovsky was a financial speculator, with interests in oilfields and Irene's first-hand knowledge is apparent in her descriptions of Golder's business transactions.

Irene was only twenty-six when David Golder was published and it is a tribute to the exceptional quality of her writing that the book was so successful. The characters might be repulsive but they are real and, while I would not have cared to meet David Golder, I found myself caring about what happened to him and wishing that he might make wise or compassionate choices. The story is so well-crafted that those possibilities are kept alive right to the end.

Irene Nemirovsky had an exceptional talent as a close observer of people and events. Here, in one of her earliest works, we see that talent in her depiction of life in the wretched poverty of the ghetto, the dissipated lifestyle of the Biarritz set and in the most convincing description of David's heart attack. The subject matter is unusual but the writing is nothing less than brilliant.

This book was a great success in France in 1929 and the following year an English translation met with equal success in England and America. It was turned into a play and then a film. Nemirovsky was hailed as a successor to Dostoevsky and her central character in David Golder compared to Balzac's Pere Goriot . She had thirteen successful novels published prior to the Nazi invasion of France and their ban on Jewish authors. Then, in 1942, Irene Nemorovsky died in Auschwitz and her work might have been forgotten had her notes for a planned sequence of novels about life in Occupied France not been discovered in the late 1990s and subsequently published as Suite Francaise. The renewed interest in her work, has placed Irene Nemirovsky's name where it rightly belongs, among the greatest writers of the world.


  1. That's an excellent review, M. Suite Francaise has been on my must-read list for far too long - I think it's just moved to the top!

  2. Kudoes on your review. Do you suggest Nemirovsky's works be read in any order?

  3. Thank you both.

    I have only read two of her books so far. I started with Suite Francaise, which is an undoubted masterpiece, then I couldn't wait to read more. I see that several more of her books have been translated by Sandra Smith so I'll be looking out for them. I don't know anything about the others so can't say if they should be read in any order.

    D, I'll bring 'David Golder' with me on Wednesday, if you'd like to read it. Do you already have 'Suite Francaise'?

  4. You are too kind, M. (And no, I don't have Suite Francaise; it's on my wishlist at Greenmetropolis AND ReadItSwapIt.)

  5. I'll bring that one too, although it has seen better days. I knocked my glass of water over it on my bedside table - perfectly readable when it had dried out but no longer perfectly perfect!

  6. Swapping books? Horrors! Whatever would Jeannette W say?!

    I have Suite Francaise in my TBR pile and I've just moved it several 100ft closer to the summit. And then I will get me a copy of David Golder.

    And water is nothing! I'm still fretting over how to mitigate the red wine on the edited manuscript incident!

  7. Not swapping, J, lending to a friend and somehow that is okay by Ms Winterson's illogical reckoning.

    Sorry that I haven't found any remedies for red wine on papers, I can tell you that water is bad enough!

  8. Hope it doesn't sound like a boring thing to say but I love the educational value of book blogging. I'd never heard of this author and now I have and will keep an eye out in the library for anything by her. Suite Francaise sounds like it might be a fascinating read. Thanks for an excellent review.

  9. Not at all a boring observation, Cath. I'm always discovering new books from reading blogs and being reminded about long-forgotten treasures.


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