Saturday, 10 January 2009
All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky
Chatto & Windus €22.94
WARS bracket the lives of the characters in All Our Worldly Goods: the Great War, which obliterates their home village, their factories and their fortunes; and World War II, which divides their country.
Irene Nemirovsky never saw this book published - she had died in Auschwitz, probably gassed as she was dying of cholera.
It is absolutely French, absolutely bourgeois.
Nemirovsky's family - Russian Jewish bankers - fled Russia during the Revolution when she was a teenager and settled in France, and she fatally adored everything about her new country.
Yet Nemirovsky's writing is Russian, and Jewish. She writes with the luminous observation of Turgenev, and her subject is family, seen with sympathy, humour and a kind of warm distance.
Here, her subject is the Hardelot family of St Elme, whose factory-owners have been the autocratic patriarchs of the village for generations.
They build nice houses for their workers, educate talented children and employ them at low salaries - but indignantly refuse requests for a swimming pool or a sports stadium.
The same indignation destroys the family, when patriarch Julien sets his face against his grandson Pierre for marrying the woman he loves, not the hard businesswoman Julian has chosen.
In a story that's gripping, funny and sad, this family will be familiar to all lovers of the Irish Big House genre.