Extended depictions of successful marriages are very rare in fiction. This is not just because good marriages themselves are rare, or because marital discord and misunderstanding is itself a favoured subject for fictional inquiry—an opportunity to observe the workings of the self as it rubs up against that other with which it is most intimate; a way to probe the gulf between the private thought and the public word in adult life. In addition to all this, it must be said, it is difficult to bring out the richness of a fulfilling marriage in a way that is also dramatic. There is a reason why folk tales and romantic comedies end at the point of “and they lived happily ever after”—because beyond this point lies more difficult, ambiguous terrain not just for the couple but also for the form.
This is why, when, four chapters into Irène Némirovsky’s novel All Our Worldly Goods, her protagonists, Pierre Hardelot and Agnès Florent, decide to consecrate the unspoken affection they have shared since childhood, and marry in defiance of Pierre’s family, we ask: What now? We feel that Némirovsky has either played her cards too soon, or she is setting these two young people up for a fall.
But remarkably, this is not the case. Némirovsky’s novel begins in a small town in France called St.Etienne at the beginning of the 20th century, and over the next three decades everything around Pierre and Agnes will change shape and colour—crises of livelihood, the death of parents, troubles with children, the horror of two World Wars in which Pierre and then his son are, respectively, mobilized—except for what is shared between them. The tenderness and awe that Pierre feels on his wedding night as he wakes up and contemplates the sleeping figure of his beloved runs like a winding thread across place and time, all the way to the closing scene of the novel, in which, after many months of separation and of fearing the worst, Pierre and Agnes find each other still alive.
Némirovsky’s own life story is no less poignant. She was born in 1903, the daughter of Russian Jews who escaped just after the Russian Revolution and moved to France. In relative youth she wrote a string of successful novels, but she was captured by German troops in World War II and met a gory end at Auschwitz, Poland, in 1942. A notebook snatched up by her daughter as the family fled their house remained unopened for more than 50 years, when it revealed itself to be not a diary but a pair of finished novellas. This work, translated into English as Suite Française in 2006, proved an enormous success, and led to the republication and translation of Némirovsky’s earlier works, including All Our Worldly Goods. Contemporary fiction is all the richer for this belated injection of Némirovsky’s work into its bloodstream.
Némirovsky’s work is distinctive and unforgettable for many reasons. She is interested not only in individuals but also their milieu; All Our Worldly Goods also traces the fortunes of the Hardelot family and the business it owns, and repeatedly cuts away for a page or two at a time into memorable portraits of minor characters ( to my mind the way in which a realist novelist deals with such characters is often a good way of understanding the depth of her engagement with her material).
Further, Némirovsky has the courage, both in this book and in Suite Francaise, to write about the present moment as if it were already historical. She began All Our Worldly Goodsl in 1940, when France was already occupied by German troops, and some the action of the book takes place in the same year—indeed, we are given a fairly comprehensive portrait of what the war is like. The wonder of this would have been apparent to her first readers in French; reading it now, we forget that the war she is describing is the same war that took her life.
Lastly, like all the great realist novelists, Némirovsky alights upon situations we all know and makes them come alive with some marvellous perception. For instance, Guy, Pierre’s son, comes home on leave from the front, and is told by his wife, Rose, that she is pregnant. Guy cannot think of anything to say but “I’m very happy” over and over again, but he does so “without looking at her, feeling oddly shy”, and so much is contained in this paradoxical and yet truthful observation.
This moment parallels one from much earlier in the book, when Pierre comes home from the war (this is World War I) for the first time. Although he has arrived, we see Agnès standing still “in the dark hallway, pressed against the door that was about to open”—she wants to hold on to this moment of delicious anticipation, because every moment after this will be turned towards her husband leaving again. Némirovsky’s writing is full of such delicate and daring surges, beautifully rendered by Sandra Smith’s translation from the French.
The title of Némirovsky’s book (Les Biens de ce monde in French) is worth contemplating. At the most basic level it gestures at the human need for material security and the use, within families and societies, of economic power as social force. Marriages are considered good or bad on grounds of class; Pierre’s grandfather threatens to disinherit him when he decides to marry beneath his station; families are repeatedly shown gathering up their most precious possessions as they flee from war—all these are illustrations of the title.
But “goods” can also be understood in a different way, as—to take a phrase in the novel itself—“all the good things of this world”, both tangible and ineffable. The trust and faith of relationships, the memories of sweetness and darkness we carry, the simple round of actions and exchanges that see us through the day—these too are our worldly goods, and Némirovsky’s novel successfully balances both these planes of existence to open out for us a vision of "the good".
And some links: here is the website of a wonderful exhibition running in New York till March 22, 2009, called "Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Francaise". Among the things worth seeing online are the manuscript of Suite Francaise, with its hand-drawn map of France made by the author (there is a good deal of cross-country movement in the book), the pages crammed from top to bottom with tiny handwriting (Némirovsky must have feared running out of paper), and the lines running on blank paper from left to right and sagging in the middle like clothes lines. Ruth Scurr has an excellent essay called "Irène Némirovsky In The Woods" which discusses, among other things, Némirovsky's love of of Katherine Mansfield and also Chekhov (of whom she wrote a biography). JM Coetzee's essay "Irène Némirovsky: The Dogs and the Wolves" is here, and Paul La Farge's "Behind The Legend" here.
Lastly, as a kind of counterpoint, John Mullan's essay "Ten of the best marital rows in literature".
[A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.]