Monthly Archives: October 2022

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

The author, Irène Némirovsky, is frequently defined by her death in Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39. When she published David Golder, she was 26 and just setting out on her successful career as a writer. David Golder was the first novel to bring her success and was published in French in 1929. It was made into a film just two years later. At the time she was taken to Auschwitz she had written 14 novels. 

David Golder is my choice for the 1929 club (see below).

David Golder

This novel is very much of its time, written just before the Great Crash (1929) that changed economics and the world for ever. And the novel appeared before the Nazis had a strong hold on Germany and Europe and before they made anti-Semitism official state policy. It was a time of reckless pursuit of great wealth. There was a kind of internationalism of the wealthy as they moved from country to country in search of more lucrative deals. This even included Soviet Russia (barely a decade into its existence) and the US. The action of the novel takes place mostly in France, but the characters mention or move between many European countries and many, like the author, have migrated to live in a new country in the turbulent post-war world.

David Golder is a ruthless Jewish businessman living in France but with origins in the Russian Empire in Ukraine. He has made his money through deals in oil. The story opens when his friend and colleague of many years asks him for help and Golder refuses. Marcus commits suicide.

Unsettled by the death of his former colleague and the depressed state of his various negotiations Golder decides to take a break in Biarritz where he has a house, and where his wife, Gloria, and his daughter, Joyce, live lives of indulgence in idle luxury. On the train he falls ill with a heart attack but recovers for a while. Pushed by his daughter who is demanding a new car he visits a casino but faints and is confined to bed. Here he is forced to consider his life, especially as his wife and daughter are even more money-grabbing than he is. 

Joyce begs him for a new car when he arrives in Biarritz, but he claims not to be able to afford it. She responds:

‘It’s just that I have to have everything on earth, otherwise I’d rather die! Everything! Everything!’ she repeated with an imperious, feverish look in her eyes. (50)

Later she is prepared to marry a rich old man rather than live without money. Her mother has the same, entitled attitude. As Golder is recovering from another heart attack and preparing to travel again for business, she approaches him:

‘Make some arrangements [for me]. To start with, put this house in my name. If you were a good husband, you would have made sure I had a proper fortune of my own long ago! I have nothing at all.’ (94)

Golder is contrasted later to his only friend, Soifer, with whom he plays cards while recuperating in Paris. Soifer is so mean (‘a meanness bordering on madness’) that he walks on tiptoe to save shoe leather, takes public transport rather than spend money on taxis, and refuses to buy dentures. But when he dies, he leaves ‘a fortune of some thirty million francs, thus fulfilling till the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.’ (117)

The pursuit of wealth is without merit, Irène Némirovsky is suggesting. It poisons relationships, it brings little joy, it distorts ambition, and imprisons the fortune hunter. Golder, his wife Gloria and his daughter Joyce, and his friend Soifer, are reprehensible human beings. 

On the boat to Constantinople David Golder meets a young man, from his own village, who is setting out on the same path that Golder followed years before. He warns the young man of a grim future.

‘You know you’re going to starve to death, don’t you?’ he said sharply.
‘Oh, I’m used to that …’
‘Yes … But over there, it’s harder …’
‘What’s the difference? It won’t be for long …’
Golder suddenly burst out laughing, a laugh as dry and sharp as a whip.
‘So that’s what you think, do you? Well, you’re a fool! It lasts for years, years … And after that, to tell the truth, it’s hardly any better …’
‘After that …’ the boy whispered passionately, ‘after that you get rich …’
‘After that,’ replied Golder, ‘you die, alone, like a dog, the same way you lived …’ (152)

Despite Golder’s warning, we know that the young man will follow the same path, and indeed he takes Golder’s wallet and abandons him.

Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky  was born in Kyiv in 1903, then part of the Russian empire. The Némirovsky family fled to Helsinki when the Revolution of 1917 saw the end of the empire. After a year they settled in Paris, where her father rebuilt his business as a banker. Despite her origins, Irène Némirovsky wrote in French and believed herself and her family safe in France from anti-Semitic feeling. 

Some readers have suggested that Irène Némirovsky hated Jews and have suggested that the character of David Golder, and of Soifer, are evidence of this. While Soifer is something of a caricature, it is a caricature of meanness, not of Jewishness. And Golder represents the ruthless, amoral pursuit of wealth through speculation that brought Western economies to their knees in the Great Crash the same year in which this book was published. 

In my view David Golder is a novel that explores the corruption of personal standards, of moral values, of human relationships that the pursuit of wealth brings with it. No-one in this novel is happy. Only the young man has hope of a better future, and he has been warned that this is a chimera. In my view Irène Némirovsky was writing about a world with which she was familiar, not expressing anti-Semitic sentiments.

The 1929 Club

The 1929 Club, organised by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings bloggers post their responses to books published in 1929 on their blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages.

Stuck in a Book reviewed this novel in March 2010, and you can find the review by clicking on this link.

Heavenali also reviewed David Golder, in August 2016, and admired it. Her review is here.

David Golder, first edition cover

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky, first published in French in 1929. English translation by Sandra Smith published by Vintage in 2007. 159pp

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Grove by Esther Kinsky

I had never heard of a ‘field novel’ before, but I had read River by Esther Kinsky. I loved that book, for it mostly concerned the River Lea in East London, a river I knew well as it was the nearest to my home of 35 years. I decided to read Grove because I was confident in Esther Kinsky’s ability to describe landscape and people’s relationship to it. My confidence was well placed, and I also found a deep meditation and exploration of the experience of grief.

Grove: a field novel

It seems a very autobiographical book. The funeral of the narrator’s partner ‘M’ took place two months before she travelled to Italy, to a small village Olevano near Rome, to decide or find out ‘how for the next three months to force my life into a new order that would let me survive the unexpected unknown’. (23)

She records three sets of journeys to Italy: this one following her bereavement; journeys with her family, arranged by her father, in her childhood; staying one the salt flats of the Po River valley sometime later.

I tetti di Olevano Romano by Pietro Scerrato via WikiCommons

The novel is suffused with the tension between death and life: especially the material manifestations of them. She is frequently interested in cemeteries and their post-funeral rituals. Cemeteries are so much part of village and town life, and as she looks around the areas where she stays, she visited them and describes them to us.

It is winter, evening comes early. When darkness falls, the old village of Olevano lies in the yellow warmth of streetlights. Along the road to Bellegra and throughout the new settlements on the northern side, stretches a labyrinth of dazzling white lamps. Above on the hillside the cemetery hovers in the glow of countless perpetually burning small lights, which glimmer before the gravestones, lined up on the ledges in front of the sepulchres, When the night is very dark the cemetery, illuminated by lux perpetuae, hangs like an island in the night. The island of the morti above the valley of the vii. (19)

In Olevano she seems passive in the winter landscape, looking out across the valley, walking to the cemetery and to the village every day. She appears to interact with nobody. We have no explanation of why she is staying in this village, in this house. She travels around the valley, visiting places she can see, and with no apparent purpose but to be there. Absence suffuses her descriptions.

In the central section she focuses on the visits to Italy, from their Rhineland home, organised by her father. Her father loved Italy, for the museums, the blue of Fra Angelico’s paintings, the seaside and for the wildlife they came across. Her father liked to lecture her, and her brother, about these things. Eels and snakes are a frequent topic. This section too is concerned with death, including the death of her father. 

In Rome they visit a cemetery:

Eventually the wind abated. Beneath a white sky, which the sunshine filtered into a uniformly soft brightness, we visited the grave of John Keats. The cemetery was full of cats, which rambled about the graves, rubbed against our legs. At John Keats’s grave cats had a good chance of finding affection. Near the entrance, placed between pruned cypress trees, were small plates, as if set out for a society of dwarves, an elderly woman came over with a pot of food scraps and distributed them onto the plates, which already thronged with cats. Next to the cemetery a sharp pyramid protruded above the traffic, and angular sign that seemed to refer to this island of the dead, lying here surrounded by the swells of the city. A Roman general had the pyramid erected as his tomb, perhaps consumed by a yearning for the sands of Egypt where despite his warrior trappings, he had been a different person than he was here in Rome, where his eyes were inevitably drawn, day after day, to sombre clusters of dark parasol pines. (179-80)

Finally in the third section she is in the Po Valley, on the flat lands, the salt plain, watching birds – flamingos, heron, egrets – and the people who live in this marginal and declining area. 

I had ended up here [Valli di Cimacchio] by accident, in an accommodation with a view to a half-wilted potted pine tree, reeds, willow bushes, and ample sky. Far from the coastal road, inland of the deserted seaside resorts. The owners had given up all hope for a livelihood – a slight bitterness hung in the air, a melancholy astonishment that the desolation of the seaside destinations and view to the emptiness of salt pans in winter could leave the viewer overwhelmed not only by doubt. (226-7)

The trucks trundle passed, endlessly, to and from the big towns. Eventually she finds her way back. She has become more active in her life, engaging with the people who she meets. Her tension between life and death is eventually resolved, or at least understood and accommodated. Grief in the end is absence, and a matter of living with death.

She has moved from being an observer to being a more active participant in the landscapes she finds.

 You can find the link to my post on her novel River (2018) from April 2019 here.

Grove: a field novel by Esther Kinsky, first published in German in 2018. The English translation by Caroline Schmidt was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2021.  277pp

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Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick has a reputation of being a great stylist. This was the first book of hers I had read, despite 17 other works listed in this volume. I can’t remember what attracted me to this novella, her most recent work, but it may have been to do with her being 93 when it was published. 

Antiquities

The title could refer to the seven old men, former pupils of the now defunct Temple Academy for Boys, who had become trustees of and lived in the converted buildings. Or the antiquities might refer to the items left to the narrator by his father who acquired them from an archaeological dig in Egypt. Or it could refer to the memories of the narrator, of his school days, and of one particular boy. The narrator is writing in 1949, so his memoir itself is something of an antiquity. He introduces himself – as he would say – ‘thusly’:

My name is Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, and I write on the 30th of April, 1949, at the behest of the Trustees of the Temple Academy for Boys, an institution that saw its last pupil thirty-four years ago. (3) 

Who uses the word ‘behest’? Who says ‘saw its last pupil’ instead of writing ‘the Academy closed’? This formal, rather pompous style, where no noun is without an accompanying adjective, reveals a great deal about the narrator, Mr Petrie. He has had a career in the law, which might explain his ponderous style, but he is also a very self-satisfied but lonely man. Despite being asked, alongside the other trustees, for just a chapter for the Album of Remembrance, he has provided a whole book. However, by the final section he is no longer writing as a trustee but as a man who has been challenged by his own memories and reflections. Notice how in the final section his writing has changed: from long sentences, containing arcane words and phrases, to short sentences, using everyday language, but with an obscure message.

I give this writing no date. I am unsure of the date. I dislike putting on my shoes. The windows cannot be opened. There are no fans here in summer. The air conditioning blows cold.
I think I know the significant thing. Ben-Zion Elefantin too knows the significant thing.
Only the two of us know.
Not in the heavens, not in the sea, not a god made of stone buried in the earth. A temple in a lost kingdom of storks on the Nile, is that what it is?
Only the two of us know.
We two kings. (179)

In the 167 pages between these two extracts, Cynthia Ozick shows us Petrie’s gradual disintegration, from stuffy self-importance to lonely slightly mad old man. 

Much of the short novel focuses on Petrie’s unhappy school days, when he was an isolated and unpopular child. The Temple Academy was a school run according to ideas about English religious and scholarly principles, so they wore blazers, played games, learned Latin and French and horsemanship. Chapel was compulsory. 

As he writes Petrie recalls the arrival of Ben-Zion Elefantin, another isolated pupil. He has an odd name, and a strange appearance, having long red hair. He speaks with a slight accent. His parents are known to be traders from Egypt who are very rich, travel a great deal and place him in a succession of boarding schools. While all this makes Ben-Zion Elefantin stand out, the feature that ensures his isolation is his Jewishness. 

The boys were at school at the turn of the century, but Petrie is writing in 1949. He makes no reference to the horrors that had recently been unfolding in Europe, the meaning of the ‘Final Solution’, and liberation of the concentration camps. Petrie cannot quite overcome the antisemitic attitudes of his childhood, even at the distance of adulthood and uses inappropriate language and generalisations. 

The young Petrie and the newcomer are drawn together by their isolation. They play chess. Ben-Zion tells Petrie that his ancestors are a little-known Jewish sect, originating on Elephant Island in the Nile, with their own rituals. Petrie wishes to impress the new boy with his father’s Egyptian antiquities. These play an important part in Petrie’s idea of his family, as the circumstances in which they obtained were very strange and not explained. His father had simply disappeared for months, returning from Egypt where he had been assisting a cousin, William Flinders, with an archaeological dig and bringing the artefacts with him. Petrie senior never spoke about what he had done during the time he was missing.

Ben-Zion is not impressed. The boys become estranged and Ben-Zion leaves the school soon after. In later years Petrie tries to ascertain the truth of the story his young friend told him. 

In the timeframe in which he is writing, Petrie is again assailed by his school mates, the remaining trustees. His precious typewriter, given him by his lover (now deceased), is covered in Indian ink. More of the Trustees die, and the remaining residents must find new accommodation. Petrie has few connections to help him.

Cynthia Ozick draws our attention to the part played by the past and our memories of it and how it is used to make sense of our lives, in the creation of our identity. Petrie reveals himself to have created his importance from his distorted memories, despite a poor relationship with his son, his fellow residents, and the isolated school friend. He has a view of himself as tolerant and mild but reveals himself to be contemptuous and vindictive.

Memories are embodied in artefacts such the typewriter, the inherited archaeological objects. Some objects are given strange and tenuous importance, such as the portrait of Henry James, who once was in the presence of someone who shook hands with his father and visited the school. 

This is a strange book. But if being a stylist means conveying the gradual disintegration of a sad man through his own text, then I agree. Cynthia Ozick is an excellent stylist.

Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick, published in 2021 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 179pp

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Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek by Annie Dillard

Some books, a very few, are so rewarding that you know that you will be rereading them, in part or whole, again and again. Once is not enough. So it is with this book. I first read it more than ten years ago but was tempted into picking it up again after listening to a Backlisted podcast. There is such a richness in Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek, good writing, close observation, and thoughtful reflection that I know that I will return to it again and again.

Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek

The author is the pilgrim, not on a religious journey, but she moves through one year and explores deeply the natural world where she lives. Why focus on Tinkers Creek?

I live by a creek, Tinkers Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. […] It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about. The creeks – Tinker and Carvin’s – are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is a mystery of continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection. (2-3)

This paragraph reveals the many themes of this wondrous book, together ‘an active mystery’. Annie Dillard’s first book Tickets for a Prayer Wheel consisted of poems and was published in 1974, the same year as Tinkers Creek. You immediately notice the lyrical and poetic in her prose.

In this post I am going to highlight the aspects of Tinkers Creek that most struck me on this second reading. Its abundance exceeds what I can convey in one blogpost.

Cruelty and amazement in nature

Early in the book she presents an anecdote about a frog.

A couple of summers ago I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs. […] Frogs were flying around all around me. At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. […] He didn’t jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island’s winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and dropped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. (5-6) 

As the frog to collapses into the water, she realises that he has been consumed alive, from within, by a giant water bug. She leads us in a meditation on cruelty and horror in nature. This a theme that she revisits, especially as she observes creatures that consume their prey live, or she imagines the horrors of meeting fat eels crossing land in the dark. But all the time she is full of the wonder.

Abundance and over-abundance

The theme of abundance is also visited several times in Tinkers Creek. There is the time of the flood when the waters burst from their usual limits, changing landscapes and the environment. And she writes of the fecundity of the rock barnacle: the barnacles encrusting a single half-mile of shore can leak into the water a million million larvae. (126). She describes a scene when she walks through a meadow with grasshoppers leaping as she passes, hundreds and thousands of them. And she observes that nature goes beyond what appears to be necessary, adding flourishes and decoration without apparent purpose.

The wonder is – given the errant nature of freedom and the burgeoning of texture in time – the wonder is that all forms are not monsters, that there is beauty at all, grace gratuitous, pennies found, like mockingbird’s freefall. Beauty itself is the fruit of the creature’s exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same growth, the intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time. (146)

First edition 1974

Mind-boggling

Annie Dillard reports on the observations of others, such as this enquiry into the roots of plants:

The experimenters studied a single grass plant, winter rye. They let it grow in a greenhouse for four months; then they spirited away the soil – under microscopes, I imagine – and counted and measured all the roots and root hairs. In four months the plant had set forth 378 miles of roots, that’s about three miles a day – in 14 million distinct roots. This is mighty impressive, but when they get down to the root hairs, I boggle completely. In those same four months the rye plant created 14 billion root hairs, and those little strands placed end-to-end just about wouldn’t quit. In a single cubic inch of soil, the length of the root hairs totaled 6000 miles. (163-4)

She explains how she tracks a muskrat, observe a copperhead snake, a monarch butterfly, the light changing from the mountains, the perseverance of plants, and so on. She quotes from philosophers, naturalists, philosophers, and Thoreau whose work Walden (1854) she had studied and on which she had written her MA thesis. She is witty, light-hearted, and deeply interested and interesting. And her elaborate but accessible prose always enchants even as it is in service to the content. This is not so much a book about nature as about being alive and present and noticing in our current world.

Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard

She was born in 1945 and brought up in Pittsburgh. Her approach to life was nurtured in the local library and in certain texts (The Fieldbook of Ponds and Streams) and The Natural Way to Draw) which taught her how to observe. She describes this in An American Childhood (1987) which I also commend to you. Writers might find her advice – ‘write as if you were dying’ – invigorating. It is included in her book The Writing Life (1989). She taught creative writing for 20 years and published essays, poetry and two novels as well as creative non-fiction.

Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek by Annie Dillard first published in 1974. I used the paperback edition from Harper Perennial, published in 1985. 277pp

Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1976.

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