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Book Review: All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Némirovsky

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After the tremendously successful publication of Irene Némirovsky’s posthumously discovered Suite Française, and despite charges of self-hating anti-Semitism in her portrait of the money grubbing businessman in Daniel Golder, there has been a renewed interest in getting more of her work out in this country. In 2007, Fire in the Blood — which she was working on when she died in Auschwitz — became available, and in 2010 a collection of her stories, Dimanche and Other Stories, was published. And now comes another of Némirovsky’s novels, All Our Worldly Goods, published in France in 1947, five years after her death and for the first time in this country.

The novel is a shorter version of one of those multi-generational multi-volume family sagas that were a staple of European fiction through the first half of the 20th century. Némirovsky manages to pack as much melodramatic action into her 250 odd pages as some authors got into their three volumes. There are young lovers agreeing to marry against the wishes of their parents, a broken engagement and a vindictive heiress, an attempted suicide, an autocratic patriarch, and all of this is set around two of the cataclysmic events of the era, World War I and World War II.

The essence of  All Our Worldly Goods is the examination of bourgeois values in a changing society and under the duress of modern warfare. It begins with a kind of sepia view of the old values with two families on a beach watching fireworks and a day later the two warring matriarchs riding out to swim in a horse drawn bath cabin. It is a world where parents tell their children what to do and the children do what they’re told. It is a world where convention rules and everyone understands their place and what is expected of them, but it is a world on the verge of change. Young people have minds of their own. They don’t feel the same kinds of obligation to family, to business, to the social status quo, and their rebelliousness is only increased by the horrendous conflicts reordering their world. It is not as though Némirovsky entirely rejects old world values; in the end there remain those like the responsibility the upper classes feel to set an example for those beneath them and the duty to one’s family and country.

In what is a kind of foreshadowing of the epic civilian refugee’s retreat from the advancing German army’s invasion of Paris during the second World War in Suite Français, Némirovsky has two refugee marches to deal with, although neither with quite the same panoramic overview. Here the author’s interest is much more focused on the central characters and their struggles. There are those who no matter what the catastrophe are concerned only with their worldly goods and there are those who rise above those concerns. There are those who can watch the world around them erupting and still dwell on their petty jealousies and there are those who can put the past behind them. There are those who give in to adversity and those who have the spirit to keep fighting. As one of the characters observes, people draw strength from misfortune, the greater the misfortune, the greater the strength.

Némirovsky is a compelling storyteller. She rarely gets bogged down in irrelevancies. She has no problem jumping ahead a year or two to move her story apace. The important thing is to avoid burying the significant moments in a mass of trivia, and she manages this with consummate skill. She is adept at analyzing the emotional states of her characters caught in moments of personal crisis even when their world is falling apart around them. All Our Worldly Goods is as richly textured and layered with meaning as many a much longer work.

About Jack Goodstein