The Dogs and the Wolves, By Irène Némirovsky trans Sandra Smith

Click to follow

A lover of Chekhov and Mansfield, Irène Némirovsky excelled in the novella and the short story. Her art is at its most economical and controlled in works such as Le Bal and Les Mouches d'automne and the stories collected in Les Vierges. In her longer novels such as Suite Française, both subject matter (the fortunes of the French bourgeoisie) and aim (wider popular readership) favour a relaxed, leisurely narrative voice and pace more reminiscent of Balzac than Flaubert.

This manner is deceptive. Némirovsky's novels, with their deft shifts in perspective and landscape and wide timespans, are more succinct than their trajectories suggest. In The Dogs and the Wolves, first published in 1940, she returns the subject matter of her early success David Golder - Jewish émigré life in France - but with the detached tenderness of the later novels. She packs the stuff of a romantic epic into a mere 200 pages. They follow the fortunes of a trio of star-crossed Jewish lovers (surnamed, tellingly, Sinner) from their origins in the Jewish Ukrainian terrain of her own roots to Paris between the wars and finally to an unnamed Eastern European country where an illegitimate Jewish child is born at the epiphanic conclusion.

Némirovsky reworks the title, which in French evokes a time of day, to refer to two kinds of Jews: those permitted by relative affluence to live on top of the pile as tame animals of the establishment, and those who retain their "wild" - in Nemirovsky's view, "Eastern" - nature. Somewhat programmatically, but with characteristic grace, she personifies these types as Harry, the boy who buys into the French bourgeoisie through marriage and position, and Ben, his untamed relative from the wrong side of the tracks. Ada, the heroine, who finds her identity in exile, painting the past, and yearning for the future, inhabits a twilight, in-between world - living in the west, dreaming of the east, part of both and neither.

Though it's Harry to whom Ada is drawn and for whom she will make sacrifices, Nemirovsky's portrayal of the wild and slightly sinister Ben is far more compelling. Harry is a milksop; even the Jewish identity that resurfaces when he abandons propriety for passion is only notional.

Némirovsky was one of many talented Russian-born exiled women looking at France through foreign eyes: from Nathalie Sarraute through Nina Berberova to Zoé Oldenbourg. But, alone among them, she elegantly uses traditional orchestration, which makes her works, for all their weighty concerns, universally accessible and stirringly romantic. Ada's sacrifice, in the moving finale, is worthy of Dumas' Lady of the Camellias; or, perhaps more aptly, of Marguérite's operatic counterpart in La Traviata, Violetta Valéry.

Aamer Hussein's latest book is 'Another Gulmohar Tree' (Telegram)