“The ones who fought in it remember it only too well. Collective memory is a terrible thing. They say that people tend to forget; yes, they do, but the way animals forget: they remember having suffered, but not why . . . This kind of memory is instinctive, full of blind resentment, injustice, hatred, and stupidity.” (Ch.25, 213)
Set in France between 1910 and 1940, spanning two wars, All Our Worldly Goods is a story of war, family, enduring love and star-crossed lovers. In 1911, the well-heeled Hardelot family owns a paper mill in Saint Elme, a dull, respectable town near the Somme. The matriarchs plan marriages without reference to their children’s desires. Social and financial stability are the priorities, and they are indifferent to international politics. Since the bourgeoisie does not mingle with the lower classes, marriage between Agnes and Pierre Hardelot is unthinkable, let alone allowed.
But love refuses to be stifled by respectability. When Pierre breaks his engagement with the affluent but unattractive Simone, to marry below-the-salt Agnes, the community goes abuzz in shock. To the Hardelots the marriage is a disgrace, a scandal. Pierre ceases to exist for his very stubborn grandfather, who excludes him from family business and ostracizes Agnes.
The Hardelots had lived for their factory. They had married ugly women; they had skimped and counted every last penny; they had been rich and had enjoyed fewer pleasures than the poor. They had stifled their children’s interests, thwarted their lives. (Ch.20, 167)
Over time, Saint Elme has been swept by war. Germans have occupied the town and all the men went to war. Pierre’s father Charles is killed by a shell as he prays for his son’s life to be spared. The grandfather stands strong, though the bourgeois value begins to shake. The new generation rises up and finds such obduracy absurd. History of defiance is to repeat itself. Pierre’s son Guy wants to marry Rose, the daughter of Simone, who is ever more powerful as she owns the entire Hardelot paper mill. She is still bitter about the broken engagement thirty years ago.
The book is written in a very slight, succinct manner. The prose is spare but what is unsaid between the lines really accentuates human strength in times of adversity. Despite the gossips, the aged cynicism, the bitterness, the jiltedness, Nemirovsky observes how some vague instinct makes everyone want to endure these perilous times in the bosom of the family. The Hardelots’ enduring love for each other gives them strength to pluck the elderly and the young from danger, tend the wounded, and reunite children with their parents. But it is “what goes around comes around” story that reminds us of the best of human strength—love. It is love at the end that overcomes respectability. The ending is one that is most ironic, resonating with hope and reconciliation. The book is a very subtle study of lives.
264 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]