I’m having a little French-bourgeoisie moment; last night I began watching Olivier Assayas‘ fabulous Les Destinées Sentimentales, which focuses on a big prosperous turn-of-the-century family that produces porcelain (one branch) and brandy (another branch). Hours earlier I had finished reading Irène Némirovsky’s All Our Worldly Goods which follows several generations of the Hardelot family, famous for their high-quality paper. The film provides me with wonderful images: stiff collars, formal meals, burning glances between men and women. Némirovsky provides the commentary, illuminating the habits and practices of this sector of French society that valued the preservation of capital and business opportunity as highly as personal happiness.
But while Assayas seems to lean harder on the question of personal satisfaction weighed against responsibility to a family enterprise and its dependents, Némirovsky is more concerned with the effect of war on her characters. The Hardelot family dominates the Norman village of St. Elme, and many readers will pick up the cue right away: Normandy was a battle-ground in both World Wars. In fact, the novel opens with the Hardelot family watching a display of fireworks; there will be quite a few explosions to follow.
This is the first English edition of All Our Worldly Goods, which was published in France in 1947, five years after Némirovsky’s death at Auschwitz. It must have preceded Suite Française by the narrowest of margins, since it takes the action into the summer of 1940, after the German invasion of France. It’s both a thinner and a gentler novel than Suite Française, more concerned with love than with war. When the novel opens in 1910, Pierre Hardelot and Agnès Florent are miserably in love — miserably because Pierre is engaged to the wealthy Simone Renaudin. Némirovsky is matter-of-fact about the arrangements: “All introductions of this kind were arranged at someone else’s marriage or engagement; it was only natural. In this peaceful province, where no one ever held dances, such solemn occasions were like county fairs, where everyone brought along the thing they wanted to sell.” Pierre manages to escape his arranged match, though, and All Our Worldly Goods traces his thirty years of marriage with Agnès.
In a novel as short as this, that covers this time span, it’s not surprising that the liveliest character is actually the narrator. Pierre idealizes his wife: Agnès likewise adores him, but we get little sense of them as individuals. Maybe they are just cogs in the Hardelot machine, which includes a nasty overbearing patriarch. It’s the narrator who gets to say things like:
And still people carried on living as they always had. They hosted grand dinners where black-suited Jeremiahs carved the pheasant… imagined future wars as if they were right in the middle of them. ‘A sudden invasion, one day, at dawn, the airfields bombed… civilians machine-gunned down along the roads…’ The women shook their heads and murmured, ‘Awful, just awful…’ while thinking, ‘I should have worn my pink dress… How annoying… I’m underdressed.'”
Which is vintage Némirovsky.