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The Dogs and the Wolves, By Irène Némirovsky, trs Sandra Smith
This pre-war novel fails to match the author's best
Sunday 11 October 2009
The Kiev-born daughter of a Jewish banker, Irène Némirovsky escaped revolutionary Russia to settle in Paris in 1918. Publishing a dozen books in the 1930s before fleeing Nazi-threatened Paris for rural France, she was deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where she was gassed. After half a century hidden in an unopened journal, Suite Française, Némirovsky's incomplete epic of French life under Nazi occupation, was published in 2004 to huge acclaim. Amid the turmoil of displacement, prejudice and personal danger, her clear-sighted and emotionally rich fiction carries all the more weight and immediacy for being written in the moment, processing the horrors of conflict and subjugation without the settling perspective of hindsight or historical distance.
Happily, Sandra Smith's elegant and skilful English translations of other Némirovsky fictions have followed. In spare, unadorned prose, All Our Worldly Goods picks at a tangle of relationships in provincial northern France between the wars. Originally published posthumously in 1947, it gains added poignancy from the optimistic tone of its ending, which clangs against our knowledge of how the war played out after the author's death. Fire in the Blood, pieced together from two recently discovered fragments, is a neatly orchestrated chamber piece of murder and adultery set in a similar rustic landscape to parts of Suite Française. The subtle interplay of social status, private morality and emotional brittleness gives a Chekhovian feel to this brief but taut domestic intrigue.
Given Némirovsky's mature skill at both the miniature and the more epic narrative arc, and her dexterity with intensely realised, richly textured characters, I am quite at a loss as to why her latest novel to be translated is so comparatively poor. The last work published in the author's lifetime, The Dogs and the Wolves follows Ada from her impoverished upbringing in a Ukrainian ghetto to modest success as an artist, and a conflicted love affair in Paris. Six months after once seeing a little boy in a silk suit get out of a carriage, dreamy young Ada is still thinking of him: Harry Sinner belongs to the wealthy, banking Sinners, distant relatives whose hilltop mansion is far removed from the ghetto. When mounted Cossacks fuel a pogrom down below, Ada and her cousin Ben flee the violence, find themselves at the Sinner residence and beg for protection and food. Beyond an awkward dance, there is little further contact; graspingly ambitious Aunt Raissa takes her and Ben to Paris where, rather startlingly, Ben and Ada marry; and Harry turns up as an affluent émigré.
This love saga is beset by stylistic weaknesses. Contrived plotting that in earlier novels was carried by strong characterisation is exposed here by bland, stilted dialogue and the sheer insubstantiality of the principal players. "Though she barely knew him, he was more real to her than Ben," girlish Ada swoons. Why? "I dream about you, very often," Harry gushes with surprise on re-acquainting in Paris. Really? After only two embarrassing encounters a decade earlier? These flimsy, slapdash characters fret without conviction, while Ben's inability to let an avaricious opportunity slip by has more in common with murky racial stereotyping than psychological depth.
Asides on the veneration of wealth complete an unflattering and unsympathetic portrait of Jewish society, perhaps shaped deliberately by Némirovsky who was distancing herself from Judaism at the time of writing. This hardly accounts for the implausible sentiment that frames the plot, however, and gives The Dogs and the Wolves the breathless, shallow feel of juvenilia that is far removed from the potency of her wartime fiction.
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