All Our Wordly Goods

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(329)

Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, £16.99

This novel was first published in France in 1947, five years after Irène Némirovsky died in Auschwitz. Unlike her unfinished Suite Francaise, the novel is complete and the tone relatively optimistic, with no idea of the author's impending fate.

Némirovsky has been a subject of controversy through her contributions to anti-Semitic journals and rejection of her Jewish identity. None of this finds expression in this novel.

Set in a small provincial town in northern France, the novel begins just before the start of the First World War and ends just after the beginning of the Second World War. As war follows war two intertwined families mirror events with their own repeated desires and sufferings.

The author shows an acute and sensitive observation of human behaviour such as how our thoughts wander and mix the significant (but unbearable) with the commonplace.

Némirovsky charts how people move from being in total denial of impending war to then rationalising the irrational, and becoming accustomed to the unacceptable. War is imminent: "And the oddest thing was - everyone could still go to bed, get up, eat and sleep."

She juxtaposes frequently portentous and trivial events and emotions - "The women... murmured, 'Awful, just awful' (the war)... while thinking, I should have worn my pink dress. How annoying... I'm underdressed."

Némirovsky shows feminist leanings. War is referred to as the domain of men. Women are the ones who cope. Her "heroines" fight against being "sold" into marriage and there are recurring allusions to women being viewed as property. But she doesn't elevate all women, showing contempt for the materialism of the bourgeois mothers trying to marry off their daughters.

A preoccupation with class is at the heart of the novel. She paints a picture of a smug, complacent middle class who believed they were secure in the knowledge that their world would not change. The town of Saint-Elme - dark, silent, sleeping, with its closed shutters and claustrophobic atmosphere - is a metaphor for her characters' refusal to face up to reality. An anecdotal understatement, characteristic of Némirovsky's style, reveals the patronage and disdain of the middle class for the workers: Madame Burgeres, a forceful bourgeois employer, is knitting, "using thin, rough wool to make clothes for the workers' children".

One of the interesting things about the book is the very refusal of the characters to accept the horror of their situation. Their determination to go on living "normally" leads to a defiance of fatalism, to a belief in human resilience: "We'll rebuild. We'll get through. We'll survive."