Saturday 23 July 2011

Wounded animals in their final death throes

David Golder, Irene Nemirovsky's first novel, begins with a confusing conversation about past and present endeavours, between two business partners: the titular David and Simon Marcus. Partners for 25 years, the two older men are having an argument; Marcus is trying to cheat his partner out of some lucrative stocks and a future business deal, but Golder has had enough and impatiently reveals that he knows everything and won't be giving Marcus one cent:
“ bastard, you crook!"
“Well, what did you expect? Think about it...Last year there was that oil deal in Mexico, and three years ago the high octane deal. How many millions went from my pocket into yours? And what did I say about it? Nothing. And then...” Golder seemed to be looking for more proof [of Marcus's duplicity], attempting to bring everything together in his mind, but then he brushed it all aside with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Business,” was all he murmured, as if he were naming some terrifying god...
Marcus fell silent. He took a pack of cigarettes from the table, opened it and carefully struck a match. “Why do you smoke these disgusting Gauloises, Golder, when you're as rich as you are?”
Golder watched Marcus's shaking hands as if he were contemplating the final death throes of a wounded animal.
“I needed the money David,” Marcus suddenly said in a different tone of voice, the corner of his mouth contorting into a grimace. “I...I'm really desperate for money, David. Couldn't you...let me make just a little? Don't you think that...”
Golder shook his fist in the air. He saw the pale hands clasp each other, the clenched fingers digging their nails into the flesh.
“You're ruining me,” Marcus said finally, in an odd, hollow voice.
Golder said nothing, refusing to look up. Marcus hesitated, then quietly pushed back his chair.
“Goodbye, David,” he said. (pp. 4-5)
The next day, Golder receives word that Marcus has committed suicide. He feels something akin to but not exactly's more closely related to an increasingly fearful awareness of his own mortality. Indeed, the rest of the novel tells the story of Golder's last days as he tries to re-establish himself as one of France's foremost businessmen, a final attempt intimately linked to his increasingly clear and terrible understanding of how empty his relationships and life are, of how meaningless it's all been.

Irene Nemirovsky was an incredibly gifted writer; even though David Golder was her first novel (and penned when she was a mere 26 years old!), it has all the elements, even if they were not completely developed at this early stage, that make her later works brilliant and unique: stunning writing and a shockingly mature ability to imagine and comment upon human psychology.

When David Golder was reviewed in the New York Times in 1930, the writer asserted that Nemirovsky's first novel was “The work of a woman who has the strength of one of the masters like Balzac or Dostoevsky.” Having read one Balzac (mea culpa) and many Dostoevskys, I can only agree; she was writing in twentieth-century France but her soul belonged in the Europe of the nineteenth. She was bitter, sardonic, compassionate, devastating and unrelenting all at once, as was Dostoevsky was in his best works, but with much more rhetorical control. Simply put, she was a genius.

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