David Golder is the first book I read as a part of my Irène Némirovsky year-long project. David Golder is Irène’s second novel, but it is the one that first brought her fame and made her mark in the literary world.
David Golder is a self-made businessman who made his fortune by speculating in oil fields. He is ruthless and much hated, even by his own wife, Gloria who objects when her lover, Hoyo calls Golder “a good man” by saying “If you only knew how many he has ruined, driven to suicide or condemned to misery.” Seeing others suffer pleases Golder and while it is easy to label Golder a brute, Irène gives her ‘villain’ a story that makes it difficult to cast him aside.
David Golder was thirteen years old when his father kicked him out of the house. He was “a thin little Jew with red hair and pale eyes, holes in his shoes and empty pockets, hawking rags and scrap from a sack on his back” who had to fend for himself. No one took pity on him when he was struggling to survive – he lived a hard life to achieve what he has – so it is understandable why he would consider people who ask for handouts from him weak.
In the novel, Golder’s friend Soifer, a German Jew would die all alone and be buried without a single wreath on his grave by his family who hated him, and whom he hated in return, but nonetheless left a fortune of some thirty million francs. Golder’s story is not that different from it. Golder is a solitary human being with his wife only needing him for his money. Same goes to his beloved daughter, Joyce, who would only remember to appear in his life when she has run out of cash. These women would push him to earn more for them to spend, even when his health is rapidly deteriorating and he has been strictly advised to stay put by his doctor.
Irène Némirovsky had been twenty-six years old when she wrote David Golder. It has certain striking resemblances to her own life. Irène’s father, Léon was a self-made banker from Ukraine, just like David Golder. Irène’s mother, just like Gloria with her string of lovers was “a beautiful monster” – the way Élisabeth Gille, Irène’s daughter describes her maternal grandmother. In David Golder, Gloria is envious of their daughter and is estranged from Joyce because Golder dotes on her. It had been the same with Irène and her mother from what I have read in The Mirador – in fierce competition with Irène for attention, there had even been instances where Irène’s mother introduced herself to men as Irène’s elder sister!
When David Golder was published in 1929 Irène Némirovsky had been criticized by some for trying to stereotype Jewish people. But as Patrick Marnham argues in his introduction (and I agree with him wholeheartedly), “Golder is Jewish because Némirovsky was Jewish” and her creation of Golder’s character “did not make Némirovsky anti-Semitic any more than Robert Louis Stevenson was anti-Scottish because he created the diabolical figure of Ebenezer in Kidnapped.”
David Golder is a heartrending story. Despite Golder’s many faults, when he has to decide between revenge or altruism for those who profoundly betrayed him, he redeems himself. And for that reason alone, for me, David Golder is anything but unsympathetic.