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Irène Némirovsky: David Golder (David Golder)

David Golder is a rich, successful and ruthless businessman, specialising in oil. He is in a partnership with a man called Simon Marcus, in a company they call Golmar. At the beginning, it seems that Marcus has tried to trick Golder in a deal regarding oil exploration in the Soviet Union. However, to Marcus’ chagrin, it soon becomes apparent that Golder is smarter than Marcus thought, and it is he that has outmanoeuvred Marcus, leaving Marcus in a difficult situation, so much so that he might be bankrupt. Indeed, this seems to be the case for, the next day, Golder learns that Marcus has shot himself, apparently in a brothel. His wife is devastated but not so much by the loss of her husband as by the fact that she might have no money. Indeed, we learn that he has been passing bad cheques and the victim may well go after his widow for the money. Golder pays his respect to the widow but is more concerned at looking through his papers to see if there is an incriminating document about him or something useful about the Soviet oil deal, though he does offer to buy from her some worthless shares that her husband had acquired.

Golder is married to Gloria and they have a daughter, Joyce. The two women are currently in Biarritz, where Golder has a large house, which he bought relatively cheaply but which is now worth much more. He plans to spend some time there, before setting off on various business trips. When he arrives, he finds that his wife has bought a new car (a Rolls Royce) and that he has been moved from his usual bedroom to make way for one of the many guests staying at the house. Apart from the staff, there is no-one there to greet him. Both his wife and daughter do eventually arrive and greet him but it soon becomes apparent that their interest in him is more financial than disinterested love. Joyce wants to know what gift he has bought her, expecting something expensive. She is disappointed. However, she wants him to buy her a new car (she already has one) so that she can go off to Madrid with her new boyfriend, an impoverished Russian prince. Gloria asks him for money as she cannot get by. She tells him this after displaying her brand new and very expensive necklace.

Then, the next day, we find him in bed, very ill. Gloria fears that he is dying and she is very concerned that he will die, without leaving her enough or, indeed, anything to live on. It appears, according to the highly expensive specialist, that he has angina but both the doctor and Gloria manage to keep this from him, not least so that he can carry on working and provide enough for Gloria’s old age. Gradually, but very slowly, he recovers. He is eager to pursue his affairs, not least the Soviet deal. But then things start to go wrong. Various deals unravel, the New York market has problems and, suddenly, Golder is broke. His wife is, of course, highly critical of him, for not having left any money for her old age and she goes off with her lover. Golder has known about this lover (and others) for some time and is indifferent, though he is less indifferent when Gloria tells him (and then retracts) that Joyce is not his daughter but the daughter of her current lover. And when Joyce goes off to Madrid in the new car that he had bought her, he refuses to give her any money, about which she is very bitter. He sells up and seems to be on the way out but then his old business friend, Tübingen, reappears with news about the Soviet oil deal. But can his heart take the stress that it will cause and will the Soviets play ball or cheat them as they cheated another company?

None of the characters in this book comes out well, even if we might have a certain grudging admiration for David Golder and his ruthless persistence and steadfastness, although his methods are often at best dubious and often cruel. His wife and his daughter are simply greedy. They cannot, by their own admission, live without the trappings of wealth (which includes what they call love). His business partners are also ruthless and greedy, the doctor clearly dishonest, if he is paid well enough, and the Russian prince, of course, eager to get his hands on what he thinks are Joyce’s millions. Indeed, there is only one character who seems to have any decency and that is the poor Jew we meet at the end, who has just come out of prison for some offence for which he was not to blame and who is kind to David Golder. He is, of course, seen by Holder as a young version of himself and warns the man that he will die poor and wretched. Némirovsky tells an excellent story of greed tough, it must be said, had it been written by a non-Jew, it would have probably been damned for being anti-Semitic.

Publishing history

First published in French in 1929 by Grasset
First published in English in 1930 by Horace Liveright