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.