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Irène Némirovsky: Les Chiens et les loups (The Dogs and the Wolves)

This book is set in an unnamed Ukrainian city but is clearly Kiev, where Irène Némirovsky was born. We learn that the city is divided into three sections – the rich, the middle and the poor. On the whole, Jews cannot live in the rich area or, if they do, only in a certain part of the rich area but, with a bit of judicious bribery, they can get around those restrictions. This novel focusses on a relatively poor family, the Sinners. (The name is used as such in the French text. As Irène Némirovsky spoke good English, she was obviously well aware what it means.) Israel Sinner is a wheeler-dealer, i.e. he finds for clients what they want – food, clothes and so on. He competes with other similar people and life is quite hard but he makes a living. He is a widower so, when he goes out, he takes his young daughter, Ada, with him, though his father-in-law lives with them and he and Ada get on well. However, Israel’s brother, who owns a printing works, dies, and his sister-in-law, Raissa, and her two children, Lilla and Ben, comes to live with them. Ada is not happy with this arrangement, not least because she can no longer go out with her father on his rounds. Raissa is something of a snob. He had come from a very poor background and had done a lot of research before marrying the owner of a printing shop. She continually berates Israel about bettering himself. She also makes much of the fact that they may be related to the rich Sinner family. Indeed, when Ada is out with Lilla and Lilla’s boyfriend, they go to the rich district and see an expensive car and a boy about Ada’s age. The boyfriend tells her that that is the Sinner family, the boy is called Harry and that she and Lilla may well be related to him.

Jewish families faced two problems in Kiev at that time – cholera and pogroms. It is the pogroms that arrive. They start in a relatively low key way, with a few windows smashed and shouting and screaming. Then it went quiet but the children had to stay inside. Then, things got worse. Meanwhile, both Ada and Ben fall sick and run high fevers. They hear the noise outside and are naturally curious. Suddenly, one day, while it is dark, someone rushes in, grabs them, and carries them off, half-resisting, and shoves them in an attic. They realise that it is Israel but they do not know why and are annoyed to find that they are locked in, without food or drink. Eventually, after a long time, they are rescued but Nastasia, the maid, is instructed to take them away. However, as they are fleeing their home, they see a bunch of Cossacks and run. Ada and Ben get away and wander off. Eventually, they find that they are in the rich area and, indeed, near the Sinner house. They decide to call on the Sinners for help. They manage to climb over the fence and knock on the door. Eventually, they are admitted, where they see the Sinners, including Harry and his various aunts, at breakfast. The family are shocked to see these scruffy urchins but give them some food and Mr. Sinner speaks to them. After the pogroms have finished, Mr Sinner puts some business Israel’s way and, though it is not much, it enhances his reputation. The family’s fortunes take a turn for the better. They move to a better house. Ada and Lilla are able to have French lessons. It is the French teacher, Madame Mimi, who is able to bring Ada and Harry together again, by inviting Ada to an Alliance Française party, which Harry is attending, However, he keeps himself to himself and, despite Madame Mimi’s best efforts, he will have nothing to do with Ada.

Raissa is very ambitious for her children and feels Lila could become a talented dancer, if only she could get some training in Paris. Madame Mimi is thinking of returning to Paris and suggests to Raissa that they go to Paris and she could help them. In order to persuade Israel, she tells him what a talented artist Ada is and that she, too, could have training and become a successful artist. Eventually, Israel agrees and Raissa, Madame Mimi and the three children set off for Paris. Unfortunately, it is May 1914, the first time that we have been given a date. Once the war starts, Israel stops sending money. Then, once the Russian Revolution happens, their Russian state bonds become worthless. Raissa sets up as a seamstress, with Ada helping her and Ben delivering. They struggle this way for a while. Ada, however, does learn that Harry is in Paris and, indeed, living nearby. She has been in love with him ever since the first time she saw him and Ben is well aware of this. One day, while delivering, she passes in front of the house where she knows that he lives. She stops and sees some people on the balcony – some women and a young man, who turns out to be Harry. He does not see her but she sketches the scene. However, Harry has been courting Laurence, daughter of a rich banker. She is keen to marry him but her father is very much opposed though, eventually, after two years, he reluctantly acquiesces. Meanwhile, Ben, who has always been in love with Ada, persuades her to marry him. Ben becomes much like his uncle Israel, only more so – a consummate wheeler-dealer. We have known from early on in the book that Ada and Harry will, somehow, get together but with both of them married, it is complicated, not least because of the independent spirit of both Ben and Ada.

Unlike some of her other novels, this one is far more concerned with the issue of being a Jew. Early on, we learn that the poorer Jews in Kiev are fanatical in their Judaism, the rich followed the tradition, while the lower middle class, to which the Sinners belong, use God to help them in need but generally forgot about him. God brought them no joy and, indeed, they would have liked to forget that they were Jews but were constantly reminded of it because of their poor-quality of life and their proximity to the ghetto. Of course, they were particularly reminded of it at the time of the pogroms. We see it also in France. Laurence’s father does not want her to marry Harry because he is a foreigner. He does not explicitly say that the reason is because Harry is Jewish though it is soon made clear that he would not mind if she were to marry someone from other parts of Western Europe but is prejudiced against people from other parts of the world and not just Jews. But remarks against Jews are even found among the Jews themselves. Aunt Raissa asks why Jewish children are too stupid or too intelligent. Harry’s father is surprised to learn that Israel is honest, finding this not only unusual in Jews but a disadvantage in life. Ben will later say that the only salvation for a Jew is wealth. Ada’s view when she sees Harry in Paris for the first time is that he is the classic Jew – slight, intelligent and sad. There are other examples. Whether we can accuse Némirovsky of being anti-Semitic or just of doing what many people are inclined to do at times – stereotype ethnic groups – is open to debate, though the stereotyping in David Golder certainly adds to the argument. This issue has been discussed by people more knowledgeable than I on the topic, so I shall say no more. I will, however, say that while these stereotypes did make me slightly uncomfortable, I thought, overall, that this was a fine book and that the characters of Ben and Ada – a fierce independence no doubt hardened by their early lives in Kiev and their struggle for survival – were superb.

Publishing history

First published in French in 1940 by Grasset
First published in English in 2009 by Chatto & Windus