Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times

It’s that time again – Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times – how quickly it comes around! It’s a meme hosted by Judith at Reader in the Wilderness.

This week Jack and I are sharing shelves as some of the books are mine and I haven’t got around to taking photos of shelves this week, do not ask me what I have been doing as I can’t tell you, so much time at home and I’m not doing much except reading.

I’m the Gore Vidal fan. I went through a phase of reading everything of his that I could get a hold of some ten or fifteen years ago. I love his American historical novels, they may not be so well-beloved in the US, his view of the history won’t match up with many peoples’ thoughts – but I suspect that he knew what he was writing about. His Burr is a favourite of mine and I really should re-read it some time.

Translated Fiction Bookshelves 1

Another American writer I binge read I think in the early 1980s was John Updike, particularly his Rabbit books. I seem to remember that Judith mentioned a while back in a blogpost that she really couldn’t stand his books, I think because she lived through those times and attitudes, but it was all new to me.

Back in the early 1970s the Russian author and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in the news a lot. He had been in prison and was eventually exiled within the Soviet Union. A KGB attempt on his life failed so eventually they allowed him to move to the west – if any country was willing to have him. The USA stepped forward. However he wasn’t there long when he began to complain about life in the west. He was looking for perfection I suppose! I wanted to know what his writing was like so I read Cancer Ward which was about his experiences of having cancer and his treatment in Tashkent in the 1950s, my copy was published in 1975 and I read it that year. Looking back it seems like a strange choice of book for a 15 or 16 year old to read, but I read it and was impressed. My gran had recently died of cancer so that might have been my reason for reading it. I was just amazed that he had survived. So I went on to read The Gulag Archipelago about his experiences in Soviet labour camps. That book seems to have gone missing, maybe it’s in the garage.

Large Books Shelf

I’ve read all of the Irene Nemirovsky books, and others from the library, she was a talented Jewish writer who didn’t manage to escape from the Nazis and died in a camp, despite the fact that her own mother was partying in Paris with the high status Nazis there. She didn’t lift a finger to help her daughter.

I’m really enjoying this meme Judith.

David Golder by Irene Nemirovsky

David Golder cover

David Golder by Irene Nemirovsky was first published in 1929 and it was her first book to be published.

In 1930 The New York Times said of it: The work of a woman who has the strength of one of the masters like Balzac or Dostoyevsky.

I really like Nemirovsky’s writing and although I enjoyed this one it isn’t close to being a favourite. I can see that a lot of people would see it as being anti-semitic, but I see it as just being anti shallow, grasping and self-obsessed people, and there are plenty of them around in every society – no matter what religion or tradition people have been brought up in.

David Golder is getting on in years, he’s very wealthy but he has worked hard to get to where he is, with a fabulous property in Paris and an even more beautiful one in Biarritz. His wife Gloria and horribly spoiled daughter Joyce spend most of their time in Biarritz where they spend his money as fast as he can make it, but they are never satisfied. They always want more jewellery and better cars.

But Golder’s business affairs are very precarious, not that his wife believes that, she thinks he is just being mean with his money. although her idea of mean would be anybody else’s idea of generosity.

When he begins to have pains in his chest he does his best to ignore them but the stress of his business problems make him more ill until he eventually collapses. You might think that that would shock his wife, but of course all she is worried about is the lack of money. She has been supporting her lover financially for 20 years and she knows he’s only with her for the money too. The doctor wants Golder to retire from business but Gloria insists that he can’t tell her husband to do that, she needs him to keep supplying her with money and doesn’t seem to realise that when he dies her meal ticket will end anyway.

Golder recovers – after a fashion – but he gives up business and as his possessions disappear to pay debts, so does his wife. Joyce had fallen for a pretty but penniless young man and had already left with him, expecting her father to cable money to her whenever she needed it.

After living a very simple life for some time and finding a sort of contentment, it’s Joyce’s need for money that leads her father to go to Russia to complete one last oil deal, it is of course fatal.

Obviously Nemirovsky was influenced by everything that was going on in the world stock markets around the time she was writing this book, and probably by her mother too.

The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky

 The Misunderstanding cover

The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky was first published in France in 1926 and it was her first novel.

Yves Harteloup is a young man, an only child who had been brought up by his very wealthy parents to expect a very comfortable life, never needing to work or do anything for himself. The Great War put paid to all that, Yves had been a soldier and had survived in one piece, although nothing was ever going to be the same after his experiences. By the end of the war his parents were dead and as most of their investments had been in Germany and Belgium – their money was all gone. Yves finds himself having to work in an office, something he hates.

He looks forward to his summer holiday, deciding to go back to Hendaye a resort where he was very happy on childhood holidays with his parents. There he has a dalliance with Denise, a young mother with a wealthy husband, she has never had to think about money. When they begin their affair it comes as something of a shock to her to realise that Yves isn’t in the same financial situation, he still has the veneer of money about him because of his upbringing.

Back in Paris they continue to see each other, with Denise being clingy and obsessive. She’s a demanding woman, spoiled and self obsessed and Yves can’t ever satisfy her need for adoration.

He’s still socialising with Denise and her husband – in Paris nightclubs and restaurants, always paying his way and so getting deeper and deeper in debt. It’s all going to end in tears.

The Misunderstanding was being written at the same time as The Great Gatsby and so the era and types of people are similar, that generation that went a bit crazy after the First World War, it was a time of extreme poverty for some, and obscene wealth for others.

Irene Nemirovsky was only 23 when this book was published, it’s just as beautifully written as her later books. Tragically her life was cut short when she was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz when she was 39.

Library Books

You might know that I’ve been doing an awful lot of library borrowing in recent months. Sixteen local libraries (Fife) are under threat of closure and I and lots of other people have been doing a bit of campaigning to try to get at least some of the libraries a reprieve. I’m concentrating on Glenwood, Markinch and Falkland as those are the ones nearest me. I’ve been to all three of them this week and my library haul is:

1. The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir
2. Smut by Alan Bennett
3. The Catherine Wheel by Patricia Wentworth
4. A Particular Eye for Villainy by Ann Granger
5. Snare of the Hunter by Helen MacInnes
6. Peter Wimsey Investigates the Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh
7. Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith
8. Scotland’s Hidden History by Ian Armit

Jack has also borrowed books:-
First World War Poems chosen by Andrew Motion,
The Fires of Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky
21st Century Science Fiction edited by David G Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden
and The Untouchables by John Banville (which he actually has a copy of but not read yet and only borrowed to boost the numbers.)

I haven’t read anything by Ann Granger before but the librarian likes her writing, nor have I read anything by Alan Bennett, but I’ve enjoyed his work on TV. Scotland’s Hidden History by Ian Armit is the only non-fiction book and it’s about the many Neolithic tombs, stone circles, brochs, hillforts, standing stones, Viking graves and such which are scattered all over Scotland.

I intend to read them all, it seems like cheating to take books out of the libraries and not read them – just to put the reader statistics up – but at this rate I’ll definitely have to stop buying books as my own unread books just keep piling up!

Have you read any of these book and if so what did you think of them?

PS. If you want to see photographs of the Falls of Dochart which we visited with Peggy and Evee in May then hop over to Jack’s blog.

The Wine of Solitude by Irene Nemirovsky

The Wine of Solitude by Irene Nemirovsky was first published in 1935, the setting is mainly Russia, just before the Great War. Helene is a young girl with a selfish and narcissistic mother, Bella, who is obsessed by her looks and clothes – and young men. Helene despises her mother who doesn’t want her to grow up and makes her dress like a little girl instead of the young woman she is fast becoming. Helene knows exactly what her mother is getting up to with Max, a very much younger relative of hers, but if Boris, her father knows he chooses to ignore it.

Mademoiselle Rose, a servant is the only person who seems to care about Helene, Boris is obsessed with making money fast, gambling on the stock exchange during the day and losing it at the casino at night time. But while the economy is booming due to the war that isn’t a worry and they are living the high life, it’s a different matter when the Russian Revolution comes along and they have to run for their lives.

This is the seventh book which I’ve read by Nemirovsky and almost all of them have had the same theme, they’re very autobiographical and I can’t help wondering what she would have written about if she had not suffered from a ghastly self-obsessed mother. She seems to have spent her writing career getting her own back on her mother, which is understandable under the circumstances I suppose.

Of course Irene Nemirovsky didn’t survive World War 2, she died in Auschwitz after being rounded up by the Gestapo in 1942, apart from having a horrible mother she had two more disadvantages in life as far as the Nazis were concerned, she was Russian and also Jewish and for some reason she didn’t leave France for somewhere safer when she should have.

Her mother did survive however hob nobbing with the people who had murdered her daughter. It’s said that when she did die Nemirovsky’s mother’s safe had copies of her daughter’s books in it. I think that we are supposed to think that her mother was really proud that her daughter had become a successful writer, but I suspect that it was more likely her way of saying: See what I had to put up with from my daughter. How could I be expected to help her when she wrote about me like this. Nemirovsky may have felt that she had got her own back on her mother but to me it seems to have been at the price of her life.

Her books are all beautifully written though with such lovely descriptions, it makes you feel you have climbed right into them. I have to mention the translator Sandra Smith. Translators often get taken for granted I think, but when you’ve read a book which has clunky words in it and you find yourself supplying better alternatives, it makes you appreciate good translations.

All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky

That Summer cover

All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky begins not long before the beginning of World War I and the setting is of course France. Saint-Elme is a rural community where the main employer is Julien Hardelot who owns a paper mill and rules his family as only tyrants do.

Julien expects his grandson to marry his wealthy cousin, keeping the money in the family and so helping the family business, but Pierre is in love with someone and when he marries her it begins a feud which splits the family.

This book begins in France prior to the outbreak of World War 1 and continues until the outbreak of World War 2 with all the usual Nemirovsky themes of fractured families, domineering mothers and refugees, which is just what she was experiencing at the time she wrote it.

I’ve been on a bit of a Nemirovsky kick recently and I think I only have a couple more of her novels to read – and some short stories. All good things must come to an end I suppose, it’s just a shame that her end came far too soon.

Jezebel by Irene Nemirovsky

Jezebel by Irene Nemirovsky was first published in 1940 and the main character is obviously based on the author’s mother.

Gladys Eysenach is on trial for the murder of her young lover. She’s still a beautiful woman although no longer young herself but she has never been able to accept that she is growing older and pretends to be much younger than she actually is. She’s self-centred, narcissistic and probably a nymphomaniac and she makes her daughter dress as a little girl so that nobody will realise just how old Gladys must be.

This is a good read although I do find Nemirovsky’s books to be so sad, you can’t forget that the author’s end came in a concentration camp. Her novels are so autobiographical, often involving a ghastly mother, and I end up thinking that every cloud has a silver lining as the author’s mother obviously gave her so much copy for her novels.

I don’t want to say too much about the book itself but after reading the introduction, which I always do after finishing a book, I was surprised to read that Nemirovsky’s mother actually had a copy of Jezebel and another of her daughter’s books – David Golder, both of which were found in her safe after her death. So the mother must have known exactly what her daughter thought of her and it wouldn’t improve the relationship, in fact I believe that when Irene was arrested her mother was busy having a high old time in the south of France, ‘entertaining’ Germans. No doubt the mother would not have risked associating herself with her daughter for fear of being discovered to be a Jew herself. At no point did she lift a finger to help Irene or her family, in fact this book must have made matters a lot worse but no doubt at the time it helped Nemirovsky to get a lot off her chest!

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky is one of the many books which Jack placed on one of my many book piles, saying I would enjoy reading it. You can see his review of it here.

I did enjoy it, it’s about the German occupation of France and the effects on the inhabitants of a small rural area. As I was reading it I thought to myself that parts of it reminded me of War and Peace, which I really enjoyed, so I was pleased to read in Nemirovsky’s notes at the back of the book that it had indeed been her intention to write a sort of War and Peace, after all, she was Russian.

The notes are fascinating as well as heartbreaking as we know that she didn’t survive to complete her masterpiece. She only finished two sections – Storm in June and Dolce, when she had planned five sections, the third one was to be Captivity and she hadn’t decided on what to call the last two sections.

Of course she didn’t live to complete this book because she had that terrifying knock on the door and was taken away by the police on 13th July 1942. A flurry of increasingly frantic letters from her husband follow, to just about anyone he could think of who might be able to help him find out what was happening to Irene. He knew that as she shuffered from asthma she wouldn’t be able to stand up to bad living conditions for long. Sadly the letters continue for far longer than poor Irene did, unknown to him she had died in Auschwitz on 17th August 1942.

I always find myself appalled that people didn’t see the way the wind was blowing and get themselves out. I suppose for a lot of poor people they had no option but to sit at home and hope for the best, but Irene and her husband Michel Epstein were wealthy. She was a successful author with nine books under her belt and he was a banker, they lived a very comfortable life and would have been able to get themselves to Switzerland easily.

I was left wondering if she decided to stay in France so that she could experience the German occupation and chronicle it in her fiction. As a Jew and a Russian she had two big strikes against her. Were they naive enough to think – we aren’t religious Jews so we don’t count and nobody could complain about us, possibly they thought that their wealth would insulate them from what was going on. Eventually her husband lost his job at the bank and they seemed to be living off charity as her publisher was sending them money.

Irene’s husband only survived her by a few months, he was sent to Auschwitz on 2nd November 1942 and immediately sent to the gas shamber, still not knowing what had happened to his wife.

Their two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth were saved by a trusty servant who took the yellow triangles off their clothes and managed to dodge the French police who were determinedly hunting them down. Denise had shoved her mother’s notes into a suitcase when they first had to hide and it was only 64 years later, and sadly after the death of Elisabeth, that Denise decided to try and decipher her mother’s teeny writing, she was amazed to discover that they were actually a book and not just notes as she had assumed.

Le Bal by Irene Nemirovsky

This is a very slim volume containing two short novellas, Le Bal and Snow in Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky.

Le Bal is set in early 1930s Paris where the Kampfs have at last made it in society as far as they are concerned. When Mr Kampf married his wife he promised her that she would live in luxury before long but it was a painful twelve years before he became successful in business.

Unfortunately the relationship between Mrs Kampf and her teenage daughter Antoinette is fraught, mainly because the mother is one of those silly women who can’t cope with their daughter growing up and is determined to keep the youngster firmly in the background, just in case she steals the limelight from her. Antoinette exacts her revenge.

This was an enjoyable story with believable if uncomfortable characters. I ended up feeling sorry for all concerned.

Snow in Autumn was originally published in 1931 and the story begins in Russia not long before the Russian Revolution. It’s about a White Russian family and their servants, and how the Revolution affects them all.

I really like Nemirovsky’s writing and when I saw this book in the library I didn’t think twice about borrowing it, but I still haven’t got around to reading Suite Francaise, despite actually owning a copy of it. That’s typical of me, concentrating on library books whilst ignoring my own. Maybe I should stick a post- it note with an expiry date on it on my own books, then I can pretend that I’m going to be fined if I don’t get it read by that date!

Speaking of library fines – the libraries which I worked in in the past did not have fines for overdue books. If a reminder notice had to be sent out then a charge was made for the postage stamp but that was all. The other day I was in a local library in Fife and I was stunned to hear a member of staff telling a reader that he had £12 to pay in overdue fines. At that rate I’m surprised that people choose to take overdue books back at all. I think it costs 40p per day per book, and I suppose that mounts up fairly quickly. I’m dead against fines, I think they’re counter-productive. What do you think, and does your local library use a fine system?

The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky

The Dogs and the Wolves cover

The Dogs and the Wolves was first published in 1940, the last one to be published in Irene Nemirovsky‘s lifetime, although several books were published posthumously.

It seems that she returned to her early life for the subject matter of this one, which is unusual for an author I think, it reads more like something which would have been written earlier in an author’s career.

It’s the story of two families with the surname Sinner who live in the Ukraine, they’re distantly related but have had no contact with each other for generations as one family is living in the poor Jewish quarter at the bottom of the town, life is hard for them and things get an awful lot worse when the local army recruits take it into their minds to attack the Jews in the ghetto. The poor Sinner children get caught up in the pogrom and in desperation they make their way up to their rich relative’s house at the top of the town, and so begins a relationship between the children which continues into adulthood as they move from the Ukraine to Paris.

The dogs in the title are the rich Jews and the wolves are the poor struggling Jews and the author writes about them having typical Jewish characteristics but it seems to me that their attitudes are just those of most human beings in that no matter how poor they might be they still have hope that some sort of miracle will happen and they will suddenly be well off. It’s that hope which keeps a lot of people going, no matter what religion they are. A Jewish friend of mine is always complaining about Jewish mothers being so worried about their children but I don’t see any difference to any other mothers, it’s just the territory that you get when you have children. We’re all the same no matter which culture you’ve been brought up with, which of course is just what Shakespeare was saying in The Merchant of Venice.

Anyway, I enjoyed this one, there’s a lot more to the story than I have said (as usual) but it wasn’t as good as Fire in the Blood which is the only other book by Nemirovsky which I’ve read.

Sadly Irene Nemisrovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942.