“All Our Worldly Goods” by Irene Nemirovsky, a Devotee of Leo Tolstoy

“All Our Worldly Goods” by Irene Nemirovsky (1947) – 264 pages   Translated by Sandra Smith

 “As far as Russia is concerned, I place no one above Tolstoy.  He has everything.”  Irene Nemirovsky

 It is well to remember that Irene Nemirovsky was not originally from France.  She was born in Kiev in the Ukraine and spent her childhood in St. Petersburg; thus she was well-acquainted with Russian literature.  

 Before writing “All Our Worldly Goods” and her last major novel, “Suite Francaise”, she re-read ‘War and Peace”.  Tolstoy’s novel served as a large-scale model for both of these Nemirovsky novels.  Her notes indicate that she was trying to capture that same dichotomy between war and peace in the lives of ordinary people as Tolstoy.  Whereas Tolstoy’s war occurred fifty years before his novel was written, ‘Suite Francaise’ describes World War II as it was happening.     

 “All Our Worldly Goods” is a story of an extended family living in a small village in northern France near the Belgian border, and its timeframe spans from before World War I up to the re-invasion of France in World War II. So the novel covers one war, a twenty-year respite of peace, and then the start of another war.  In both wars Germany captures, occupies, and destroys their small village, and the family is forced to leave.   Before the start of World War II, the French villagers can’t believe that war could possibly happen again, but it does.   At the end of “All Our Worldly Goods”, World War II appears to be a repetition of World War I.  Only later did World War II turn horribly worse than World War I, which was the time when Nemirovsky was writing “Suite Francaise”.

 I think the primary quality that Irene Nemirovsky shares with Leo Tolstoy is the vividness of their writing.  Both writers are able to make their people and events come alive, and you deeply care what happens to these people.    I remember reading “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace” and being fascinated at how adeptly Tolstoy handled both the larger matters of nations and cities and the smaller matters of family life and individuals.  Nemirovsky brings that same quality to her own writing. As Helen Dunmore put it so well in the Guardian, “Némirovsky comes across as an intensely Russian writer, lyrical, forceful, earthy, idealistic and yet without illusions.”

 I’ve kept up with all of her novels as they’ve been released in English, because I believe Irene Nemirovsky is the major European writer of the twentieth century.   I can think of no other writer who captured events and people with such poignancy and vividness.  Sadly we may be nearing the end of the novels she wrote in her 39 years.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Wonderful write up on Nemirovsky, Tony. I loved Suite Francaise and I am looking to read more of her books. I can’t agree more with what you said – “I think the primary quality that Irene Nemirovsky shares with Leo Tolstoy is the vividness of their writing. Both writers are able to make their people and events come alive, and you deeply care what happens to these people.”

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  2. Hi Birdy,
    It’s amazing that all of these excellent novels written by Irene Nemirovsky have been recovered and re-published after she was so close to being totally forgotten. Ten years ago none of us had heard of her, and now she is justifiably famous the world over.

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