Pros: atmosphere, plot, Ada
Cons: Ben’s character is underdeveloped
I know that Les Chiens et les loups (The Dogs and the Wolves: in that it is difficult to distinguish dogs from wolves in fading light, this is a French metaphor for dusk) was published in the spring of 1940, before Paris fell to the Nazis (and its author, Irène Némirovsky (1903-42) fled south, as represented in the two parts of Suite Française that were found by her elder daughter (Denise), published in French in 2004 and in English in 2006. In 30-some languages, by 2008 it had sold more than two and a half million copies, and the interest has led to publication of another novel left in manuscript, Chaleur du sang (Fire in the Blood) and to publication in translation of her novels written in French, including The Dogs and the Wolves. (Némirovsky wrote a lot between fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 and being killed in Auschwitz by the Nazis in 1942.)
Whereas Fire in the Blood is about French peasants and seemingly written for a French audience that did not want to read about the troubles of Jews, most of the characters in The Dogs and the Wolves (I’d only sort one of the main characters, Ben, into the “wolf” category, though Harry’s uncles, the aged financiers, also fit it) are Jews, first in a city in the Ukraine (imagined smaller than Kiev, where the author was born), then in Paris (having relocated before World War I and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution and protracted Civil War in the Ukraine—earlier than Némirovsky had).
There are a number of jumps of two years within the novel, but its starting point is unclear — some time early in the 20th century in an unspecified city on a river (presumably the Dnieper) in the Ukraine in which the Jews were literally stratified (the elevation of their houses correlating with their poverty/wealth):
“The Jews who lived in the lower town [along the riverfront] were religious and fanatically attached to their customs; the Jews in the wealthy areas were strict observers of tradition. To the poor Jews, their religion was so completely engrained in them that it would have been just as impossible to extricate themselves from it as to live without their beating hearts. To the rich Jews, loyalty to the rites of their forefathers seemed in good taste, dignified, morally honourable, as much as — perhaps more than — true belief. Between these two classes, each observant in their own fashion, the lower middle class lived in yet another way. They called upon God to bless their business dealing, heal a relative, a spouse, a child, then forgot about Him straight away, or if they did think about Him, it was with a mixture of superstitious fear and contained resentment: God never fully granted anything that was asked oh Him.”
The novel’s protagonist, Ada, is from that intermediate stratum. Her mother is dead, and her father (who is named Israel Sinner) takes in his widowed sister-in-law Raissa and her two children, Lilla and Ben. Ada and Ben are very close, not least when they flee a pogrom to the gates of the mansion of a cousin, also named Sinner, whose delicate only child, Harry, fascinates Ada. Especially since Ben is in love with Ada, he despises Harry…
And will continue to do so in Paris. Aunt Raissa convinced Israel to send her and the children there to be polished (educated, not so much). After the Revolution cuts off remittances from Israel (who disappears in the conflagration), Ada works for Aunt Raissa as a seamstress, and paints when she can. It takes years for Harry to notice two of her paintings of home and to fulfill her longstanding desire to be with him. Harry has married a blonde Gentile and has a son, but is never comfortable except with Ada.
Ben has been intriguing with Harry’s uncles and has to flee again before a scandal breaks. Alas, when Ada’s residence permit is revoked, she moves East instead of to South America, though before the dismembering of Poland, the Fall of France, Nazi Occupation, and French authorities’ proactive rounding up of foreign Jews (and, later, also French Jews), this was not as obvious as it is to readers now. The final optimism of the new mother is necessarily more tragic to readers of the English translation in the third millennium (C.E.) than to whatever readers of the first French edition there were in early 1940.
Though the novel is a trifle schematic, and my allegiance to incest taboos is stronger than seems operative for French (at least in books and movies), I think the book is a compelling tale of two strata of Jews in the Ukraine and in Paris. lts existence certainly belies the charge some made when only Suite Française was available in English that Némirovsky avoided writing about Jews.
There is not a harpie mother as in some other Némirovsky work, though the aunt partakes of some of the duplicity Némirovsky abhorred in her mother. As in Fire in the Blood, the female characters are well developed. The male ones seem more types than rounded characters to me and I especially wish Ben (who disappears from the narrative for quite a considerable space/time) were more fully developed. Still, Némirovsky was a very skilled and insightful writer, and in The Dogs and the Wolves, I have found a book for Women’s History Month that I can recomend as a good read, not just a historical phenomenon of fiction written in the past by a woman writer.
©2015 Stephen O. Murray