Thursday, 7 May 2015

IRÈNE NÉMIROVSKY David Golder (1929)

Le Livre de Poche France, 2011

D'ici là il aligna  des chiffres avec rapidité.  Ces deux dernières années, surtout, avaient été terribles.  La faillite de Lang, l'accord de 1922 Du moins, il n'aurait plus à payer les femmes de Marcus, ses bagues, ses dettesAssez de frais sans lui Tout ce que coûtait cette vie idiote Sa femme, sa fille, la maison de Biarritz, la maison de Paris À Paris seulement, il payait soixante mille francs de loyer, les impôts.  Le mobilier avait coûté plus d'un million à l'époque.  Pour qui?  Personne n'y vivait.  Des volets clos, la poussière.  Il regarda avec une sorte de haine certains objets qu'il détestait plus particulièrement que d'autres: quatre victoires de marbre noir et de bronze soutenant la lampe, un encrier vide, carré, énorme, orné d'abeilles d'or.  Il faillait payer pour tout ça, et l'argent?  Il grommela avec colère: <<Imbécile tu me ruines, et après?J'ai soixante-huit ans Qu'il recommence Ça m'est arrivé assez souvent, à moi>>

From here to therehe quickly lined up the numbers.  These last two years, especially, had been terrible.  The Lang bankruptcy, the 1922 deal At least, he wouldn't have to pay for Marcus' women anymore, their rings, their debts Enough expenses without themEverything cost money in this idiotic lifeHis wife, his daughter, the house in Biarritz, the house in Paris For Paris alone, he paid sixty thousand francs in interest, the taxes.  The building had cost more than a million at the time.  For what?  Nobody lived there.  Closed blinds, dust.  He looked with a sort of hatred at certain objects which he detested more than others:  four winged victories of black marble and bronze holding up a lamp, an empty inkwell, square, huge, decorated with golden bees.  He had to pay for all of that, and hand out still more money?  He muttered in anger: 'Imbecile you ruin me, and afterwards? I'm sixty-eight years old Start again That's happened to me often enough'

Excerpts translated by BR

The Novel:  For international petroleum magnate David Golder his business and the money it earns him –– hopefully at somebody else's risk and expense –– rank as the two most important things in life.  Money is what allows him to maintain his position as one of France's wealthiest tycoons, what pays for his luxurious homes in Paris and Biarritz and keeps his wife Gloria and beloved debutante daughter Joyce clothed, fed and entertained in the style to which they've both become so contentedly accustomed.  Of course, Golder realizes that his wife and 'Joy' –– the nickname he gave his daughter when she was a baby –– view him simply as a money-making machine, a role he plays willingly in their lives and has always accepted without complaint.   

Business is bad, but then his partner, Simon Marcus, adds insult to injury by begging him to sell their mutually owned interests in a Russian oilfield so he can gain access to some urgently required capital.  Marcus hopes to create a run on the stock market by liquidating the shares, an act he believes will, in time, restore his rapidly dwindling fortune –– a fortune eroded, as Golder knows only too well, by the greed of his partner's many mistresses and their incessant demands for cash, jewellery and other expensive trinkets.  But Golder stands firm in his refusal to part with the shares.  The stock might become valuable again, he predicts, if the Soviets can be persuaded to allow foreign investors in to pump out their state-owned oil so his answer, he repeats, must be no, he won't sell.  Marcus protests, citing the deal the Soviets are now poised to sign with a different company as a valid reason to cooperate with his scheme, only to learn that Golder, his friend and associate for twenty-six years, has already done an alternative deal behind his back with one of their rivals, a fellow Jew named Tübingen.  

Marcus is horrified.  Can this be true?  Can his partner really have gone behind his back to Tübingen as he appears to have done?  Although Marcus pleads with him one final time to change his mind about liquidating the stock, Golder refuses to be persuaded.  The partners part on bad terms, Marcus telling Golder before he leaves that his duplicity has ruined him –– a prediction confirmed when Golder receives word next morning that his former associate has shot himself and subsequently died from his wounds.

Golder, sorry that Marcus felt desperate enough to commit suicide but not sorry that he'll no longer have to carry him as a business partner, pays a call on his widow to offer his condolences.  Naturally, he asks Madame Marcus if her husband's death was the result of his refusal to offload the stock her husband had been so desperate to sell.  It was partly due to that, she answers, but she believes the true cause of his death was explained by what proved to be his final words, gasped out to her while he lay bleeding on the floor.   'Fatiguéj'étais fatigué.'  ['TiredI was tired.']  Little does Golder realize, as he takes his leave of her, how these words will come to haunt him in the ensuing months as he begins to question, with steadily mounting urgency, his own relentless pursuit of wealth for its own sake and what it's done to his life.

Shaken but unbowed by his partner's death, Golder continues to pursue what he's confident will be his lucrative Soviet oil deal.  He also eats, drinks and smokes as heavily as ever, yet still can't rid himself, as he socializes with his wealthy Jewish friends, of the image of Marcus being lowered into his grave at the end of his gloomy rainswept funeral.  He begins to experience panic attacks at the thought of his own death, attacks which often awaken him in the night and leave him feeling weak and breathless –– symptoms, did he but realize it, of the heart condition he's been blithely ignoring for so many years.  Once again, he chooses not to heed the messages his body is sending him.  He's too busy to be sick, he tells himself, has far too much to do, too many deals to make, too many vital business appointments to keep.  

Golder's only relief from the pressures, financial and otherwise, which continue to assail him is the love of his daughter, the light of his life and the only person capable of bending him to her will.  Not even Gloria, his wife of more than thirty years, nor any of the mistresses he's taken and casually discarded throughout the course of their marriage, have been able to wield the kind of power over him that his darling 'Joy' wields over him.  Yet it is Joyce –– spoiled, impulsive, reckless and selfish – who sparks the crisis which brings the privileged lifestyle he's created for them crashing down around their ears.

Circulo de Lectores Spain, c 1995
Joyce pleads with her father to give her the money she needs to buy a car, explaining that she needs the vehicle to take herself and her gigolo lover Alec to Madrid for the summer.  Golder, the recent sufferer of a minor heart attack which has finally shown him what a self-perpetuating torment his life has become, refuses her request on the grounds that he doesn't want her flinging her youth and beauty away on a man whose frivolousness, in his opinion, can only cause her sorrow in the end.  Joyce, however, stubbornly refuses to abandon her lover.  Taking advantage of her father's illness and the new attitude of cautious world weariness it's seen him adopt, she persuades her 'Daddy darling' to accompany her to a Biarritz casino while they're on their way to a friend's house for dinner one night, nagging him until he agrees to let her play a few hands of baccarat to see if she can't 'earn' the money she needs to pay for her car.  A few hours later, having lost the small amount her father gave her to gamble with, she's astonished to find Golder himself playing baccarat at one of the tables, gambling with a zeal which, to her and their fellow patrons, appears nothing short of obsessive.  Thinking that he's won a large hand and has had a change of heart about buying her what she wants, Joyce is astonished to hear, as the sun rises outside, that he's lost close to 1.5 million francs –– in other words, virtually everything he owns.  Moments later, he suffers a second, far more serious heart attack and collapses to the floor right in front of her.

Golder's illness does more than physically incapacitate him.  It changes the whole dynamic of his life and the nature of his relationship with his daughter and, very soon, with his similarly spoiled and selfish wife.  Panicked by his doctor's order that he give up his business and take things easy, that complete rest and peace is required for him to have any hope of recovery, Gloria quickly concludes where this advice, if followed, is likely to leave her.  Everything they have, including their Paris and Biarritz homes, is in her husband's name, leaving her without a sou of her own to live on should he eventually succumb to a third and probably fatal heart attack.  Indeed, she feels certain that Golder will leave everything that's purportedly 'theirs' to Joyce, his favorite, rather than to her, the woman who agreed to marry him when he was a poor young immigrant struggling to eke out a living as a porter in New York's garment district.  

Joyce, on the other hand, remains unaffected by what she witnessed when she made her father accompany her to the casino.  As soon as he's well enough to see her, she asks him again for the money he previously refused to give her for her car.  But this time no amount of endearment-laden persuasion can make him change his mind.  Golder, still weak from his illness, remains adamant in his refusal to give his daughter anything.  If she wants to take Alec to Spain, he tells her, then she'll have to pay their expenses out of her own pocket or find another benefactor willing to finance the trip for her.  Denied what she wants for the first time in her life, Joyce declares that she hates him and storms out of the house, vowing to have nothing more to do with him until he comes to his senses and gives her what she wants.

This incident, so uncharacteristic of her husband, further alarms the already frantic Gloria.  Her lover, a playboy named Hoyos, advises her to confront Golder and get things settled before her husband's physical and particularly his mental condition deteriorate any further.  Once Golder is feeling stronger, Gloria takes her lover's advice and asks him what sort of provision he's made for her in his will, only to be told that he's decided to sell the Biarritz property and the long despised contents of their palatial Paris residence immediately.  He goes on to add that Gloria will be entitled to no share of the proceeds of these sales and will hereafter need to rely on Hoyos and her other fancy friends to care for her in her dotage.  Outraged, Gloria tells her husband, before storming out on him as Joyce did, that the daughter he's so proud of, the daughter he's been working all these years to cosset and defend from the threat of future poverty, is not even his child but, in fact, the child of her lover.

Golder becomes a self-pitying recluse following this revelation, living alone in his now-empty Paris mansion, filling his time by playing cards with another tightfisted Jew named Soifer who, like him, is loved by his family, if at all, only for the inheritance they expect to receive upon his death.  Determined to get well again, Golder pushes himself to walk a little further each day, gradually regaining his strength and, with it, his interest in rebuilding his career and his all but vanished fortune.  Yet no matter how hard he tries to rid himself of the image of Joyce and the memory of what he lost, seemingly forever, when Gloria informed him that she wasn't his child, he finds himself unable to completely erase the girl from his mind or, more tellingly, from his heart.

Yet forgiving Joyce remains no easy task for him.  When the girl swallows her pride and visits him, again seeking money –– money, in this case, that will allow her to marry Alec instead of the rich but repulsive old man, a financier named Fischl, she's become engaged to after taking his advice about finding herself an alternative means of support –– all he can do at first is laugh.  It will be smart for her, he says, to marry a 'fat little Jew' like Fischl, someone capable and no doubt willing to give her everything she wants in exchange for her glamor, her beauty and her willingness to publicly play the role of his adoring bride.  But he doesn't feel as bitter towards Joyce as he sounds.  Moved by the girl's tears, Golder eventually asks her if she's willing to wait a year before giving herself to Fischl so she can continue to pay for her affair with the impoverished (and terminally lazy) Alec.  Agree to wait, he explains, and he'll work like a dog to regain his fortune, give her everything she's asked for and more.  But she must be patient and give him the full twelve months he's asked for, no questions asked.

With this promise to keep, Golder gains a new lease on life, personally traveling to Russia to close the oil deal with the Soviets that's now poised, thanks to his shrewd bargaining skills, to restore his fortune and make him, once again, the envy of his peers.  But in his haste to keep his promise to Joyce he pushes himself too hard, becoming sick again in the dirty little Russian town where he's gone to catch the boat to Greece, intending to travel from there to Turkey and then back to France.  Being in this town, with its dirt and poverty and noise, is like being plunged back into his own shameful, poverty-stricken past –– a past he's spent most of his life attempting to forget and put behind him.  Yet he realizes, when he meets a young American-bound Jew on deck one night, that he can't deny what he used to be any more than he can deny the fact that success has transformed him into someone who's been rendered blind to the truth of what his life has become by his own callousness and greed.  His last thought is not of himself, however, but of Joyce, waiting in Paris for what she believes, or at least hopes, will be his triumphant return and the announcement of her long-delayed engagement to Alec.  Golder gives the young immigrant his wallet and makes him promise, before God, to carry out his final wishes to the letter, taking it to his accountant in Paris so his accountant can hand the small amount of money it contains personally to Joyce.  

But it isn't his lost daughter who occupies Golder's thoughts as he lays dying in his cabin on this grubby Russian freighter.  He thinks briefly of Marcus, dead and buried all these months, and then hears the sound of his name being called – 'David, David!' – by his mother in the snow just as she used to call to him when he was a boy.  The voice fades and vanishes and is soon followed by Golder's death, leaving the unknown immigrant he's entrusted with his legacy standing guard over his cold and lifeless corpse.

Vintage/Random House UK, 2007
David Golder was Irène Némirovsky's third novel, published in 1929 when she was twenty-six years old.  It's an astonishingly acerbic book for anyone so young to have written, replete with the kind of damning insights into the causes and consequences of human greed that seem as though they should have sprung from the embittered heart of a novelist twice her age.  Unfortunately, its themes –– wealth, privilege and the recklessness, moral as much as social and financial, that the ungovernable desire to attain them all too frequently inspires – have not dated in the slightest and remain as relevant today as they were in the boom-and-bust culture of the 1920s.

The most confronting thing about David Golder, however, is its blatant anti-Semitism – a quality that puts it in a difficult category when it comes to assessing it strictly as a work of literature.  Golder, Gloria and Joyce, not to mention all their friends and business associates, are Jews.  They are also grasping, selfish, unscrupulous, miserly and lecherous – all the things, in other words, that defined them as 'vermin' in the eyes of the Nazis and their equally virulent, anti-Semitic predecessors.  That the author herself was a Jew, the pampered daughter of Russian immigrants who fled to France in 1918 in order to escape the Bolshevik revolution, only makes the portrait she paints of Golder and his world all the more damning and, in the end, disturbing.  To be a member of a universally distrusted and despised minority is one thing, but to write a novel that gives ammunition to one's would-be oppressors is, as many critics have suggested, another thing entirely.  Némirovsky herself later admitted that she went too far in caricaturing her Jewish characters, that it had been a reckless thing to do given the political climate in Europe in the years preceding World War Two.  She regretted it but by then it was too late for regrets.  Hitler had come to power and the rest, as we know, is history.

The fact that the book appeared in 1929, the first year of the Depression, adds another layer of irony to Golder's story, serving to highlight the terrible price that would be paid by those who had so enthusiastically attended what F Scott Fitzgerald – that other clear-sighted chronicler of wealth and its sometimes catastrophic influence on personal morality –– once described as 'the most expensive orgy in history.'  Golder is a hollow man who has the luck –– or is it the misfortune? –– to recognize his own hollowness and that of the materially successful but spiritually bankrupt life he leads.  His tragedy, as often proves to be the case when the single-minded pursuit of money to the detriment of everything else becomes less a career goal than an end unto itself, is that the knowledge of who and what he's become arrives too late to save him.  He dies as he lived – alone and unloved, mourned, if at all, by a daughter destined to marry a man she despises in order to maintain a lifestyle she can only maintain by prostituting herself.  The implication, which must have been very pleasing to Némirovsky's anti-Semitic collaborationist friends, is that this sort of behavior is only to be expected because Joyce is a Jew and Jews, as was held to be obvious in Fascist circles between the wars, will submit to any form of degradation to get their hands on money.  

While Némirovsky's considerable gifts as a novelist make this and all her other work worth reading, it's tempting to speculate how much more powerful a book David Golder might have been had she chosen to temper her anti-Semitism with a more balanced view of her own people –– a people who would soon find themselves paying the ultimate price for the insanity of Hitler and his henchmen in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Dachau. 

The Writer'Ma pauvre, nous serons bientôt tous morts!' ['My dear, we'll all soon be dead!'] was allegedly Irène Némirovsky's response to the news, which reached her in Paris in January 1933, that Adolf Hitler had been elected Chancellor of Germany.  In the case of herself and her successful banker husband –– a fellow Russian-born Jew named Michel Epstein –– her prediction proved to be tragically accurate.  They would both die at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942 within a few months of each other while their daughters, Dénise and Élisabeth, would escape the same fate with their help of their governess, spending the next three years in hiding, the elder girl carefully guarding the handwritten manuscript of what would be published, in 1999, as her mother's final unfinished novel, Suite Française.

The fact that Némirovsky had converted to Catholicism in February 1939, eight months prior to the outbreak of the war, meant nothing to the Germans or those who ran their puppet government for them in Vichy.  Némirovsky and her husband were not even legally recognized as being French citizens under the new 'Aryanization' laws put in place by the Nazis and so enthusiastically enforced by their collaborator allies.  The writer's decision to convert to Catholicism, while not unusual and in many ways understandable given the political climate in Europe at the time, is now judged by the Jewish community as being irrefutable evidence of her own collaborating tendencies, her willingness to support an evil regime that sent herself and her husband to the gas chamber.  Even her youngest daughter Élisabeth Gilles once described her as being 'criminally blind' to the plight of her fellow Jews, particularly to those who inhabited Europe's many slums and ghettos.

To understand Némirovsky's complicated attitude to her own ethnicity, it's first necessary to understand something of her background.  She was born on 11 February 1903 in Kiev, the only daughter Léon Némirovsky and his much younger socialite wife Fanny.  Léon himself was born in Elisabethgrad, a city where pogroms and similar acts of violence against Jews were common at the time of his birth, as they had been throughout Russia and in many other European nations for centuries prior to it.  The Némirovsky family made its fortune as dealers in grain but it was a financier that Léon truly excelled, becoming an important figure in the world of Russian finance and, in time, a member of the Czar's personal entourage – a distinction that would see a price put on his head by the Bolsheviks, obliging him and his family to flee St Petersburg in 1918 disguised as peasants and seek political asylum in neighboring Finland.  From here they traveled to Sweden and, in July 1919, to what would become their new home in Paris where Léon immediately set about the task of rebuilding the fortune he'd been forced to abandon in Russia while Fanny devoted herself to enjoying the attentions of a series of suave, predominantly Latin American lovers.

Despite growing up as the pampered daughter of rich if emotionally distant parents – they rarely spent time with her when she was a child, preferring to leave her in the care of a French governess while they socialized in Biarritz, Nice and other popular Riviera resorts – Némirovsky was, until her late teens, a solitary and unhappy child who seemed to find more pleasure and comfort in books than she did in the company of her fellow human beings.  By the age of fifteen she was already thoroughly familiar with the work of Joris-Karl Huysmans, Guy de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde, whose 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray remained a favorite book of hers for life.  This early grounding in literature served her well when she entered the Sorbonne in 1920, where for the next few years she combined studying for a degree in this subject with the successful launching of her literary career.  

French film poster, 1930
The early 1920s saw her work appear in print for the first time, with several of her stories appearing in the magazine Fantasio, each of which earned her the princely sum of sixty francs.  More of her work appeared in Matin and Les Oeuvres libres, the latter of which also published her first novel Le Malentendu [The Misunderstanding] –– written when she was just eighteen –– in 1923.  It was around this time that she met her future husband Michel Epstein, who had abandoned a career as an electrophysicist to found and run his own bank.  They were married three years later and lived a life uncannily similar to that enjoyed by Némirovsky's parents, entertaining on a lavish scale and vacationing in the best hotels on the Côte d'Azur.  It was while she was staying in Biarritz, one year prior to her marriage, that she began working on what would be published in 1929 as David Golder –– a novel that was read and admired by, among others, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and pro-Nazi author Paul Morand.  The book made her reputation as a writer and was almost immediately turned into a successful play and then a film, both productions directed by Julien Duvivier with Harry Baur playing the title role.  

The 1930s saw Némirovsky consolidate her position as one of France's most popular novelists, with her fourth novel Le Bal [The Ball, 1930] being followed by Les Mouches d'Automne [The Flies of Autumn, 1931] and L'affair Courilof [The Courilof Affair, 1933].  The following year her work began to appear in Gringroire, a French magazine noted for its popular and provoking anti-Semitic editorials.  Her work would continue to appear in this magazine until 1941, when she was living with Michel and their two daughters in a newly-rented house in Issy-L'Évêque, forced to wear the yellow star despite her conversion to Catholicism and Michel's job as part-time interpreter to the officers of the occupying Wehrmacht.   She would stay in Issy-L'Évêque –– feverishly working on what would be the only completed part of a planned 'suite' of novels about the Fall of France and the country's subsequent Occupation, publishing stories under various pseudonyms because the Vichy government forbade Jews from publishing under their own names – until her arrest by the French police on 13 July 1942.  

She was first sent to Pithiviers, calmly telling her daughter Dénise as she was led away not to be frightened because she was only going on a trip.  She was kept in Pithiviers overnight, writing what was to be her final letter to her husband and children from her prison cell.  'Courage et espoir,' she told them.  'Vous êtes dans mon cœur, mes bien-aimés. Que Dieu nous aide tous.' ['Courage and hope.  You are in my heart, my beloved ones.  May God help us all.']  She was transported to Auschwitz the following day where she was immediately sent to its attached 'extermination' camp Birkenau.  It was here, on 17 August 1942, that she was gassed by the Nazis along with everyone else who had been sent to Poland as part of Transportation Convoy Number Six.  

Michel, who lobbied everyone he knew in the worlds of literature and the government in an effort to secure his wife's release, was himself arrested in October after writing to the German ambassador to explain that Irène should not have been sent to a concentration camp because she was a writer, a Catholic and suffered from fragile health.  The couple were survived by their daughters, with Élisabeth going on to write a fictionalized memoir of her mother titled Le Mirador [The Watchtower] that was published to widespread critical acclaim in 1992.

Click HERE to read Scandale Française, a long (and very critical) article about IRÉNE NÉMIROVSKY by US literary critic RUTH FRANKLIN which originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of The New Republic.  

In addition to her daughter's memoir, two biographies of IRÈNE NÉMIROVSKY have been published in recent years –– Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works (2006) by JONATHON WEISS and The Life of Irène Némirovsky (2011) by PATRICK LIENHARDT.  Both books remain widely available –– as do the author's novels, most of which have been translated into English and many other languages –– and can be obtained via your local library, bookstore or preferred online retailer.  Click HERE for a list of what's currently available.

You might also enjoy:
BRIGITTE HAMANN Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship (1999)
CARLO LEVI Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945)
SINCLAIR LEWIS Babbitt (1922)

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