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Disastrous twilight

With the opening paragraph of The Dogs and the Wolves (first serialised in France in 1939 and never previously translated) Irène Némirovsky takes us to the heart of her story: the complexities of Jewish life in eastern Europe and France in the first part of the 20th century.

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

The Dogs and the Wolves Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith

Chatto, pp.216, 16.99

With the opening paragraph of The Dogs and the Wolves (first serialised in France in 1939 and never previously translated) Irène Némirovsky takes us to the heart of her story: the complexities of Jewish life in eastern Europe and France in the first part of the 20th century.

The Ukrainian city in which generations of the Sinner family had been born was, in the eyes of the Jews who lived there, made up of three distinct regions. It was like a medieval painting: the damned were at the bottom, trapped among the shadows and flames of Hell; the mortals were in the middle, lit by a faint, peaceful light; and at the top was the realm of the blessed.

With the opening paragraph of The Dogs and the Wolves (first serialised in France in 1939 and never previously translated) Irène Némirovsky takes us to the heart of her story: the complexities of Jewish life in eastern Europe and France in the first part of the 20th century.

There are layers of meaning in the book’s title, which is a literal translation from the French. It refers to the phrase entre chien et loup — that is dusk, the time of day when you cannot tell the difference, the time when the wandering shape in the trees may be dog or wolf, two animals which demand a very different response. In this case, the dogs and the wolves are the rich and the poor Jews who live as neighbours in the same city but never meet.


Ada, the central character, is born into a poor family whose members have two fears, pogroms and cholera. Her father, Israel Sinner, earns a living as a go-between, a man who can get anything for anyone, provided they can pay the necessary price. He spends his time walking or running round the city, satisfying his customers’ demands for sugar, silk, coal or caviar. He takes his little girl with him wherever he goes because he adores her and finds comfort ‘simply in holding her hand’.

The Sinners may be poor but they have distant cousins who live outside the ghetto and are reputed to be among the richest families in Europe; they possess ‘only a few millions less than the Rothschilds’. At night Ada and her cousin Ben listen to the adults discussing this relationship and whether or not it might one day be of use.

‘Money is money, but blood is blood’ …Everyone thought money a good thing, but to a Jew it was a necessity, like air and water. How else could they pay the bribes? How could they get their children into school? How could they have permission to sell this or that … Oh my God! Without money, how could they live?

When a pogrom breaks out Ada and Ben take refuge with school friends in a neighbouring Orthodox house. But in the confusion they are separated from their aunt and they panic and run to the only other refuge they can think of, the mansion house belonging to their rich cousins. The arrival of the two urchins, running for their lives, in the dining-room of their grandee cousins is wonderfully described in Sandra Smith’s compelling translation. Four ladies are serving breakfast to Harry Sinner, heir to the family fortune. One spreads butter on the boy’s bread, another pours his coffee, a third skims his milk, a fourth is removing the top from his boiled egg with a pair of gilded scissors. At the sight of the filthy wretches, appalled lorgnettes are raised. Ada decides that Harry must be seriously ill.

Némirovsky spent her own childhood in Kiev in a rather similar mansion. She and her family were driven out of Russia by the 1917 Revolution. In The Dogs and the Wolves she moves her entire cast, rich and poor, with considerable skill from the Ukraine to France along a path that tracks the course of her own life. When the opportunity arises, Israel Sinner agrees to send Ada and Ben to live in Paris in the hopes of a brighter future. Here Ben, who is clever and ferociously ambitious, persuades Ada to marry him; she agrees out of loyalty to the shared memory of their childhood adventures. There is no question of returning to the Ukraine. In a chilling sentence Némirovsky has said goodbye to all that. ‘The Revolution swept through Russia’, dragging everything in its wake and destroying it all, ‘including, with a great deal of other debris, the life, the destiny and even the memory of Israel Sinner’.

In the last 130 pages of what is quite a short novel Némirovsky takes the reader at a brisk pace through a plot that manages to juggle numerous interwoven themes. Ada is confronted with French bourgeois anti-Semitism in the 1930s, she falls in love with Harry, Ben executes the revenge of a poor man on his banker cousin and we follow the tensions and break up of a mixed marriage. As the story draws to a close Jewish immigrants gather beneath clear Parisian skies to exchange contacts and hear news of the latest deportations. And Ada joins them. ‘Everything she had scorned she now clung on to in despair…’ The story’s central message is that what dog and wolf have in common is far more important than the circumstances that have separated them.

The novel was written in 1938 and the passing years have added further meaning to the title, since The Dogs and the Wolves can now be read on another level. It is still, as its author intended, a dissection of Jewish society in the Ukraine and in Paris in the first 40 years of the 20th century. But this was also the last novel Némirovsky published before France’s wartime Vichy regime banned the publication of work by Jewish authors, and one can see that it marked the turning point in her long-standing commitment to the ideal of assimilation. Although Irène Némirovsky was a celebrated novelist, her application for French citizenship had received no response, and by the time this book was written she could sense the approaching threat. The book was published in volume form in March 1940, not a good time to launch a novel in Paris, and it did not sell.

When war broke out, Némirovsky left Paris and went to live in the country where she wrote her posthumous and incomplete masterpiece, Suite Française. The author’s subsequent death in Auschwitz in 1942 makes the resolution of Ada’s fictional predicament in The Dogs and the Wolves all the more bitter.


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