All Our Worldly Goods Paperback – Aug 4 2009
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“A beautiful writer — lucid, bright . . . She misses nothing.”
– The Times
About the Author
Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903. In 1918 her family fled the Russian Revolution for France where she became a bestselling novelist. When the Germans occupied France she moved with her husband and daughters to the village of Issy-l’Eveque where she began writing Suite Française. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.See all Product Description
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All Our Worldly Goods is set in rural Catholic France - in a society as familiar to Némirovsky as the Russian Jewish community. She loved France and considered herself thoroughly French. She could write as bitingly and insightfully as Balzac or Flaubert about the smug provincial bourgeoisie.
The story opens in the little town of Saint-Elme. The leading families live in solid houses and have solid investments. They hold grudges against their neighbors forever while despising anyone born elsewhere. Their world is serene, their children obedient. That is, until young Pierre Hardelot and Agnès Florents fall in love.
Marriage between these young people is impossible because of subtle but ironclad class distinctions. Yet marry they do. Their disorderly conduct is mirrored by a crumbling world order. We follow the couple and their family into two world wars. Némirovsky shows us a chaotic, battle-torn France that leaves our ears ringing with cannon fire. We watch Pierre and Agnès grow old, but never any less in love.
I loved everything about this book: the incisive prose, the caustic observations, the terrific storytelling and the delicate romanticism. Readers new to Némirovsky might do well to start here, before going back to her earlier, darker fiction. The book cover says this novel prefigures Suite Française, but it's complete and, as I see it, fascinating in its own right.
All Our Worldly Goods is a strangely hopeful book from an author in a hopeless situation. In 1942, a year after All Our Worldly Goods was serialized, Irène Némirovsky died at Auschwitz. The novel in book form was published posthumously in 1947. This new 2011 edition is beautifully translated by Sandra Smith.
We have two middle-class families in a small French town near the Belgian border. We get a multi-generational account of their complicated involvements with each other. Time passes quickly...1910-1940s. Two world wars disrupt their lives. The writing is often gorgeous, with lots of splendid descriptions of nature. The understanding of love and family and relationships is profoundly explored and presented. There is joy, there is sorrow. There is despair, there is hope. I kept reading, wondering how much of what happens to these characters might have happened to Nemirovsky and her family. But I got no clue. These characters are Catholic, not Jewish. Although she died in 1942, she seems to anticipate events of 1944. I kept asking myself, "Did I read this out of a sense of duty to honor someone who died in Auschwitz? Would I have read this book if I had not known her fate?" Yes. This is a very well-written novel that gives a moving portrait of one small slice of French society. I am deeply saddened that the author died the way she did. I wish she could have lived decades longer and written more novels. Hers is one of those sad stories of which we need to be reminded. And this novel is a wonderful testament to her artistic skills.
"They were together, so they were happy." The first sentence of ALL OUR WORLDLY GOODS introduces with simplicity, elegance and rigor of perspective her prismatic theme concerning love in its many facets... married love, familial love, forbidden love, unrequited love, love for home, love for community, love for country.
The novel begins in the autumn of 1911, with idyllic weather at the French seaside overlooking the English Channel. "A profound sense of tranquility reigned over them, and over the sea, and over the world." Yet this is a subtle irony for the winds of change are about to blow and the world will convulse with war.
ALL OUR WORLDLY GOODS is a clear-eyed, slow burning meditation written with unwavering lucidity in brilliantly polished form. Nemirovsky, who herself lived in France until her 1942 deportation and murder in Auschwitz, draws upon and fictionalizes actual history while it was happening all around her. She applies its effects upon her fictional Hardelot family, four generations of wealthy French provincial bourgeoisie who must endure two world wars, catastrophic international events, the destruction of their homeland, the decline of their class and the loss of their fortune.
More than the broad-scale turbulence and mayhem of war, it is the nuanced and complicated intimate lives of her characters which engage Nemirovsky in ALL OUR WORLDLY GOODS. Her focus is love and all its wonder, pain, frustration, anguish, exhilaration and joy. Can love for spouse, parents, children, family, community, country survive war? Invasion? A stifling bourgeois value system? Vanishing family fortunes? Greed? Jealousy? Meanness? Vanity? Egotism? Fate?
"France was a tableau of heart-rending despair. Everywhere there were ruins, everywhere anxiety, mourning, tears and a sort of bewilderment that weighed heavily on people's souls. They went through the motions of living, without truly believing they were alive."
Does love have the power to endure? Nemirovsky's answer is a passionate, resonating - yes. Yet it takes invasion, war, world catastrophe for her characters to understand that. It takes contrast and comparison for them to know the truth, to realize the pretensions of society, to understand the workings of the human heart.
To her penetrating prose Nemirovsky applies courage and selflessness, dignity and tolerance, devotion and faith, with a steady rhythm of complexity and an underlying beat of crisis. The story of the Herdelot family is emotionally sophisticated and dramatically complicated. As cultivated people, the Hardelots are multifaceted and unpredictable, complex and contradictory. They factor the bourgeois state of mind: they cling to their possessions, their comforts, their place in society, their perception of who they are. They believe in the protections of society and they irrationally disbelieve anything to the contrary. Death happens to someone else, not to one's self. It takes the violence of war or other catastrophic upheavals for the Hardelots to realize their own vulnerabilty, to imagine they themselves can be killed, to feel the fear of death. It takes disaster to enlighten and empower the proud and morally ambiguous Hardelot family.
"The Hardelots had lived for this factory. They had married ugly women; they had skimped and counted every last penny; they had been rich and had enjoyed fewer pleasures than the poor. They had stifled their children's interests, thwarted their loves. All this for the factory, for their possessions, for something that was, to their eyes, more durable and faithful than love, women or their own children."
Through each generation, the Hardelots must feel a mighty force beyond their understanding and control, a force which sweeps them up and knocks them down, only to sweep them up and knock them down again and again. History does indeed repeat itself and for the Hardelots it does so with a fierce and brutal rapidity.
"The past and the present were strangely and sadly confused in her mind. There was no distinct break: the hopes, habits, feelings, desires of the past clung to her like a bleeding limb that is being amputated, but whose nerves flesh, muscles remain attached to the body."
ALL OUR WORLDLY GOODS is as sensitive and subtle as it is powerful and profound. It is a transcendental reading experience which is ultimately optimistic and deeply poignant. "... she no longer felt any pain, any weariness. She felt that she had reaped her harvest, gleaned all the wealth, all the love, the laughter and the tears that God owed her..."
ALL OUR WORLDLY GOODS concludes with a poignant irony however, not for its characters but for its author. Irene Nemirovsky could not know then, upon completion of this masterpiece, what we her readers know now... that the Nazis would end her brilliant literary career in Paris, arrest her for her Jewish ancestry, separate her from her loved ones and all her worldly goods, deport her to Auschwitz, and murder her in the gas chamber.
It was a fairly quick read. I was particularly impressed by Némirovsky's description, as WWII was approaching, of the state of mind of those who had lived through WWI. There were some touching moments in the story of Agnes and Pierre, who grow into an old couple during the course of the book. A worthwhile read.
I realize that this novel is quite short (264 pages) but the feel of Nemirovsky's prose is epic as she tells this generational story of several families in France between the wars. Her writing is stunningly beautiful and her range as a writer is very wide: she can be artistically flowery and expressive when need be (this is never overdone, in my opinion), and yet she shows a stark realism that is quite shocking to the reader. This combination makes for both an exciting and beautiful reading experience. I loved "Suite Francaise" but along with many other readers, I recognized the obvious incompleteness of that text. This book, which narrates the events of World War II up to 1940, feels a bit incomplete as well since we know the history of the war's conclusion and there are some characters whose lives are not fully explained at the end. However, the harmonious ending between Pierre and Agnus is fully satisfying to the reader and the novel as a whole, then, seems complete since they are the main characters of the novel. If you read novels to find out what happens to characters, this book may be a tad disappointing, but if you read novels to appreciate the beauty of language, then this book is for you. It is a literary gem. Credit must be given to Sandra Smith whose translation is top notch. If you loved "Suite Francaise", I believe that you will greatly enjoy this gorgeous novel by Nemirovsky. (By the way, I enjoyed this novel much more than "Fire in the Blood", which I thought was good but not great).