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ALL OUR WORLDLY GOODS is another beautiful and deeply-affecting masterpiece from the extraordinary oeuvre of Irene Nemirovsky. I was thrilled to find this 2008 edition translated from the original French into English magnificently by Sandra Smith. I have loved Irene Nemirovsky's fluid, intimate prose since first discovering her SUITE FRANCAISE and FIRE IN THE BLOOD several years ago. Once again I have been stimulated by her subtle psychological and social observations, moved by the amplitude of her narrative, and awe-struck by her perfectly poised prose.
"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.