David Golder tells the story of a rich man. At the start he refuses to enter into a risky deal with his partner who kills himself the next day, bankrupt. Golder then suffers a heart attack on the train journey to his posh villa in Biarritz where his wife and daughter are entertaining guests and leading extravagant lives; they forever bombard him with requests for money. He is on a treadmill. Can he get off? And will he be happy if he does?
It seems that the moments when he is and was happiest is when he is or was poor.
It is a strange plot. One repeatedly feels that one is reaching the climax, the big reveal, the transformation scene. But, like the reality of any addiction, there is always the moment when the best intentions meet the flawed humanity. In this way it is more honest than its fairy tale or Hollowood correlates. The near death experience of the heart attack on the train doesn't provoke a lasting change in his lifestyle. His life keeps on going up and down. Until the end. Just like real life.
The style is strange as well. Much of it is very intense and written from a perspective clautrophobically deep inside Golder's mind. This can scarcely be otherwise for the heart attack on the train scene. "He had time to think 'I'm dying', to feel he was being pushed, thrown over the edge of a precipice into an abyss, a crater, as narrow and suffocating as a tomb. ... deep, murky water that swept over him and was dragging him down, lower and lower, into the wide gaping hole." Of course a near death experience needs to be this intense. But it is also rather cliched. Melodramatic. It reeks of nineteenth century literature (and the introduction tells us that Nemirovsky was compared to Balzac and Dostoevsky) rather than twentieth.
A near death experience can be melodramatic. Less convincing to modern readers are the characters. Although Golder himself, rich banker wondering in late life what the point of it all is, can be nuanced, his grasping wife Gloria is a pantomime villain, his daughter Joyce is utterly spolit, her gigolo boyfriend a two-dimensional parasite, the doctor a quack who will tailor his diagnosis to suit the paymaster, Golder's friend Soifer an archetypal miser and so on. Yet this story was hailed as astonishingly mature when it was published; Nemirovsky compared to Balzac or Dostoevsky.
I wondered whether the character of Carleton Myatt, the trader in currants who travels to Istanbul on Graham Greene's Stamboul Train was based on Golder. But in Greene even the minor characters have quirks and peculiarities and, in particular, inconsistencies that put flesh on their bones.
Nevertheless, David Golder is only a short book and it is worth reading just for the verve with which Nemirovsky gallops through her plot.
Some good moments:
- "He was crushing his face into his hands in shame." (p 98)
- "'It's a long road', he said out loud
- 'Yes', said Soifer, 'long and hard and pointless'." (p 122)