THE DOGS AND THE WOLVES. By Irene Nemirovsky.

by John Boland

The Kiev-born Irene Nemirovsky was Jewish and in 1918 when she was a teenager she and her family had to flee the October Revolution for the safety of Paris, where in the 1920s and 1930s she became a best-selling novelist. Attempting to fit in, she tried to conceal her Jewishness, befriending and offering her work to right-wing publishers and even going so far in her fiction as to portray Jewish characters in an unflattering light. That, though, didn’t save her from the Nazis, who arrested her in 1942 and deported her to Auschwitz, where she died at the age of thirty-eight.

For the next sixty years she was a forgotten figure until the manuscript of the unfinished Suite Francaise was discovered and published to huge international acclaim in 2004. Two years later, Fire in the Blood, which was again found among her belongings, met with similar critical admiration, and Chatto & Windus have also been issuing translations of the novels that were published in France during and immediately after her lifetime.

The latest of these is The Dogs and the Wolves (published as Les Chiens et Les Loups in 1940) and, like Fire in the Blood and All Our Worldly Goods (originally published in 1947 as Les Biens de ce Monde), it’s a minor masterpiece, confirming Nemirovsky as one of the great fiction writers of the 20th century. However, it differs from them in having Jews as its sympathetic main characters and, indeed, in addressing the whole question of Jewishness in a world that regards Jews either suspiciously or with open hostility.

And the hostility isn’t just external – as the novel opens in an unnamed Ukrainian city, the wealthy Jewish inhabitants regard with contempt and horror the poor Jews to whom they’re distantly related. Young Ada Sinner is one of the latter and when, fleeing a pogrom, she seeks refuge with her rich cousins, they recoil from this famished child – to them she’s a “reminder, a shameful and atrocious memory of what they themselves had once been or might have been” and of “what they could become again some day.”

Ada moves with her aunt to Paris, gets married to the cousin with whom she grew up but doesn’t love, develops a talent as a painter but isn’t able to forget the wealthy young cousin, Harry, who back in the Ukraine of her childhood had seemed appalled by her poverty. Now a banking heir, he’s also in Paris, married into a distinguished non-Jewish family of French financiers. Ada and he begin a love affair that, because of their contrasting fortunes and his contemptuous in-laws, is doomed from the outset, though by the end of the book Ada herself – back among the downtrodden in an Eastern Europe beset by strife and hatred – has achieved a kind of bleak integrity, self-sufficiency and even nobility.

All of this is told with Nemirovsky’s customary narrative skill and deceptively simple prose, rendered into elegant English by Sandra Smith, whose deft translations have done much to ensure Nemirovsky’s posthumous international success. It no doubt helps that she’s at the service of an author whose feelings for her characters are of deep engagement and whose insights into the vagaries, cruelties and poignancies of human nature mark her out as a major writer.

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