Thursday, 20 June 2013

David Golder by Irene Nemirovsky

David Golder
by Irene Nemirovsky
Random House

There was a time when it was perfectly acceptable to write short novels without the danger of it being classed as a ‘novella’.  David Golder is short - 159 pages of large type in paperback, but it says everything that’s necessary - terse, efficient and unsettling.  It was first published in 1929 but it’s a modern parable.

The central character is a wealthy entrepreneur, who has made his money from oil and financial currency speculation (sound familiar?).  David had been born in Russia, on the Black Sea, in extreme poverty and had come to Europe and America, as many Jews did, to escape the pograms.  But it’s a long time since he has thought about his origins.  Now, David is in his late sixties, and his body is beginning to show the stress of a life spent amassing wealth by constantly taking risks.  He is overweight, physically unfit, driven, lonely and unhappy.  Taken to a small kosher restaurant in the poor quarter of Paris by an old acquaintance, he has a moment of recall. 

‘Outside, a man walked by carrying a long pole; he touched the street lamp opposite the restaurant and a flame shot out, lighting up a narrow, dark window where washing was hanging above some empty old flowerpots. Golder suddenly remembered a little crooked window just like it, opposite the shop where he’d been born . . . remembered his street, in the wind and snow, as it sometimes appeared in his dreams.
“It’s a long road,” he said out loud.’

David’s wife Gloria and daughter Joy live a life of luxury in Biarritz, supported by his money.  They have no affection for him and, as his life begins to collapse around him in the financial melt-down of the late nineteen twenties, he begins to realise that he may have spent his life in a hopeless quest.

 ‘What a fool he was!  He had really believed he could possess something precious on this earth . . .  To work all his life just to end up empty-handed, alone and vulnerable, that was his fate.’
But this isn’t just a moral tale of the Midas type. David Golder is the product of what poverty and despair have created between them.  It’s a very powerful novel - the first one that Irene Nemirovsky published, when she was only 26 and living in France. Quite a startling feat for a young woman to portray the anguish of growing old and the fear of death.  It is apparently a portrait informed by her father, who was a Russian refugee in Paris - forced to take a job in the same bank he had once owned, but destined to rebuild his financial empire again at the cost of his family life.  He is not an attractive figure: ‘Golder was an enormous man . . . he had flabby arms and legs, piercing eyes the colour of water, thick white hair and a ravaged face so hard it looked as if it had been hewn from stone by a rough, clumsy hand.’

David Golder’s wife Gloria is believed to owe much to Irene’s own unhappy mother, and this too is not a flattering portrait.  Gloria cares only for status and wealth - her diamonds, her house, her white Rolls Royce and her lovers - burying the memories of Havke, the impoverished Jewish girl, daughter of a money lender, who had left Russia with David Golder in search of a new life.  It seems that the only thing they ever had in common was a desire for material wealth.  Gloria and Joy are parasites who, when one host has gone, will re-attach themselves to another. Despite Golder’s enormity - he’s a monster - we are left, at the end of the novel, with a great sadness and sympathy.  That is the great achievement of the young Irene Nemirovsky.

David Golder
by Irene Nemirovsky

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