All Our Worldly Goods
By: Irene Nemirovsky
Format/Source: Paperback; my copy
Pierre and Agnes marry for love against the wishes of his parents and the family patriarch, the tyrannical industrialist Julien Hardelot, provoking a family feud which cascades down the generations. Even when war is imminent and Pierre is called up, the old man is unforgiving. Taut, evocative and beautifully paced, All Our Worldly Goods points up with heartbreaking detail and clarity how close were those two wars, how history repeated itself, tragically, shockingly…
I first read this book some four years ago when I started grad school (review). It was my first Irene Nemirovsky novel; I decided to pick this book up after having heard wonderful things from both fellow book lovers and from her then-recently-discovered-and-published book Suite Francaise (review). I was going through my bookshelves recently and couldn’t remember too much about this novel so I decided to re-visit it. Contains some spoilers ahead!
This book is part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in.
Re-reading this novel, I’m just blown away at how intricate the story is. I had given the novel a four-star the first time but I don’t think I fully understood how truly wonderful this novel was. Social class played a major role in this novel, not only in how different/well off the Hardelots and the Florents were but also in the way that they behaved and who they associated with. It’s always struck me reading anything French, especially as it encroaches into the twentieth century, how social class remains such a staunch feature of French society despite of events like the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
Behaviour was also especially very interesting and how, especially with the women, they knew exactly what was going, how their interlocutor felt about them and the problems she was going through and yet they go through this social dance, pretending like they don’t know and taking the jab when they can. It’s just utterly fascinating watching Madame Hardelot and Madame Florent sort of circle each other whenever they’re at a social gathering or at the beach, disdainful of the other’s situation yet maintaining this sort of facade of courtesy and politeness. It seems like a highlighted feature amongst the women socialising; men like Pierre Hardelot could never quite understand this sort of innate understanding (for example, Simone’s long-standing anger against Pierre and his family).
What also struck me during this re-read was the contrast between money/material goods and love/the value of love and friendship/fellowship. Julien Hardelot and Simone represent the material aspect of the scale, individuals who have a good mind for management, driven but difficult and hard when it comes to relationships. They place their trust and their future legacy in what they have built while Pierre, Agnes et al place their legacy and their trust in each other and the strength of their love. If the novel had been longer and more detailed and fleshed out there would probably be a lot more to dissect from this theme but it’s nonetheless interesting to note.
It was also intriguing to see as history sort of repeats itself between the generations of Hardelots and Florents and Burgeres. Simone ultimately takes the role of Julien Hardelot, the head of the Hardelots, not only in terms of material ability but also in terms of demeanor. Guy ends up following his father’s footsteps, both in becoming a soldier during the war and in marrying someone whose parent disapproved of. Pierre, like many of his generation, were beyond dismayed that war had once again descended in Europe after the bitter fight that they participated in some two decades prior. Yet despite of these similarities, the characters and the overall narration points out every now and then how different the 1930s and 1940s were compared to the 1910s, indicating the passage of time and the how different the world had become.
I love how lyrical this novel as written, something that I didn’t notice the first time around. I had noted in my review of Suite Francaise at how amazing Irene Nemirovsky’s writing is, even at the first draft. The pacing of this novel is a lot faster than one would initially assume by the size of it but her narration aptly flows through that passage of time.
Once again I love how Pierre and Agnes’ love remains constant over the course of the novel. While the early days of their romance remains contained to a few integral moments, I love how their later life together works as a contrast to Guy and Rose’s relationship. Rose can be a bit frustrating at times but her perspective serves as a reminder not only of how different things can seem depending on how old you are but also how far Pierre and Agnes have gone. They say that there are no such things as happy endings because life goes on but for me, Pierre and Agnes’ story really is a happy ending in that they were able to live out their lives together, through two wars, family strife and financial difficulties.
It was wonderful to revisit All Our Worldly Goods. It may seem short but it covers so much ground and touches on an array of different themes and complexities of French rural society during and between the wars. It’s lyrical and I enjoyed the character interaction and drama that was presented in the pages. Like before, I highly recommend this novel if you’re into French literature, stories set in the early half of the twentieth century or stories involving a lot of family drama and enduring love.