Women in Translation Month: ‘David Golder’ by Irène Némirovsky ****

Anyone who has been following my reviews for a while will know how much I adore French author Irène Némirovsky, who was tragically murdered at Auschwitz in August 1942. I have been trying to make my way through her works in translation in recent years, but have slowed this project down dramatically, as I know I only have a couple of tomes left to pick up which I can experience for the first time.

David Golder was a novella which I had outstanding, and my library kindly purchased a copy on my behalf. This, Némirovsky’s second book, was first published in French in 1929, when the author was just twenty-six. In 1930, the New York Times wrote that David Golder was ‘the work of a woman who has the strength of one of the masters like Balzac or Dostoyevsky.’

The book’s blurb describes this as an ‘astonishingly mature story of an elderly Jewish businessman who has sold his soul’. Born into poverty, by the 1920s, Golder has managed to catapult himself ‘to fabulous wealth by speculating on gold and oil’. At the outset of the book, Golder is in his enormous Parisian apartment, filled with treasures, whilst his wife and spoilt only daughter, Joyce, are ploughing through his money at their villa in Biarritz. Nothing is quite as it seems, though. Golder’s wealth is volatile, and his health precarious. The intriguing blurb goes on to say: ‘As his body betrays him, so too do his wife and child, leaving him to decide which to pursue: revenge or altruism?’

Golder’s trajectory is, of course, disrupted by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the chaos which consequently ensued all over the world. His wealth is lost almost overnight, and he is forced to make some difficult decisions. At the point at which his health really deteriorates, we realise quite how selfish and awful his wife and daughter are; they talk only about the money they feel they are entitled to, and care nothing about Golder as an individual.

When we first meet Golder, he is described as ‘an enormous man in his late sixties. He had flabby arms and legs, piercing eyes the colour of water, thick white hair and a ravaged face so hard it looked as if it had been hewn from stone by a rough, clumsy hand.’ At this point in the narrative, he has just broken off the relationship with his business partner, who goes on to commit suicide. Whilst at his funeral, Némirovsky describes Golder’s almost entire lack of sympathy, or compassion, for a man with whom he had spent so much time: ‘It was stupid, just stupid… Yesterday Marcus was sitting opposite him, shouting, alive, and now… No one even used his name anymore… “Why did he do it?” he muttered to himself in disgust, “Why kill yourself at his age, over money, like some little nobody…” How many times had he lost everything, and like everyone else just picked himself up and started again? That was how it was.’

I am always, without fail, struck by the realism in Némirovsky’s work. She successfully probes the pressure which comes with wealth, and with keeping up appearances. Golder is constantly lamenting the position in which he finds himself, where so many people expect things from him that he is not always willing to give. He is continually haunted by his loneliness. She writes: ‘How expensive this idiotic lifestyle was! His wife, his daughter, the houses in Biarritz and Paris… In Paris alone he was paying sixty thousand francs in rent, taxes. The furniture had cost more than a million when he’d bought it. For whom? No one lived there. Closed shutters, dust?’

Golder is not at all a likeable character – he is a wealthy capitalist, with many of the clichéd characteristics of such men – but by giving us an insight into his life and thoughts, Némirovsky does something quite remarkable. There are snippets throughout of how mercenary and unhappy Golder’s personal life is: ‘He pictured his own wife quickly hiding her chequebook whenever he came into the room, as if it were a packet of love letters’, for instance. He craves a good relationship with his eighteen-year-old daughter, completely in vain: ‘Every time he came back from a trip, he looked for her in the crowd, in spite of himself. She was never there, and yet he continued to expect her with the same humiliating, tenacious and vain sense of hope.’ His wife and daughter are arguably much worse than he is, and have not been given much humanity; they are truly odious, concerned only with gross wealth and their outside appearances. His wife Gloria, for example, had ‘an aging face so covered in make-up that it looked like an enamelled plate’, and insists on buying very expensive jewellery which she then laments is still not as good as her neighbour’s.

Sandra Smith’s translation is, as always, flawless. I also very much enjoyed reading Patrick Marnham’s introduction to the volume. He writes that after the novella was published by the leading French house, Grasset, it ‘impressed critics’ greatly, and catapulted the author to fame. Translations soon followed, and the story was subsequently turned into both film and play.

Marnham gives good biographical background about Némirovsky, and the autobiographical details which she has woven into David Golder. Born in Kiev to a rich, self-made banker father, she had to watch as her family lost all of their wealth, and were forced into hiding following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The family finally settled in Paris, where her father, Léon, managed to rebuild their fortune – by accepting the position of manager in a branch of the bank which he used to own.

Much of David Golder, indeed, is a consequence of Némirovsky’s firsthand experience. Markham comments that this ‘enabled her to draw such a vivid picture of the extremes to which men like Golder could be driven in order to escape their roots.’ He goes on: ‘Golder now lives in what seems to be an enviable world, a world of large apartments, spacious villas, sumptuous women and fast cars, where he is feared and obeyed. But it is an empty place. In this society of rootless exiles, money transcends all personal values and becomes the measure of everything – love, strength and self-esteem.’ He then compares David Golder to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, suggesting that Némirovsky rewrote the play by ‘showing us the vulnerability behind Golder’s mask, [and] the humanity of a powerful Jewish villain’.

Némirovsky is an incredibly astute author, and David Golder is another highly evocative and atmospheric work in her oeuvre. The narrative has been so finely tuned, and already shows a great deal of the carefully considered characters, and thoughtful storylines of her later work. There is such attention to detail here, and I found Golder’s story so compelling. Némirovsky is highly insightful about his relationships with those around him, most of which are fraught, and filled with tension. The family dynamic portrayed is fascinatingly chaotic and turbulent. Every single character in David Golder is thoroughly unlikeable, but I felt a really compulsive need to read about them. There is immense depth to be found in this novella, and quite masterful storytelling, too.

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