Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky




The outside world was full of shapes and colors that were impossible to remember for ever, constantly lost, but seeking them out, pursuing them, was the most precious thing on earth.

"It's not my fault," she thought. "It's because I just can't forget certain faces once I've seen them, or certain houses, or certain sights. They're indifferent or fickle because they remember nothing. But I can't forget, I can't. It's a unique curse that makes me recall every feature, every word, every moment of joy or pain once they have struck me.


A couple of months ago I was looking for books set in the Ukraine for the European Reading Challenge, and I found The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky. I've read several of her books and enjoyed them all, and this one sounded perfect -- Ukrainian writer, set in the Ukraine and Paris (so it also counts toward Paris in July); also the title fit one of the categories for the Back to the Classics Challenge. And it's just over 200 pages! It sounded like the perfect book.

Oddly enough, it was hard to track down, not a single copy in any library nearby; in fact, I don't think it's ever been reprinted in the US. I found a cheap used copy online and was looking forward to reading it. 



It's the story of four cousins: Ada Sinner; her first cousins, Ben and Lilla; and their distant cousin Harry. They're all around the same age and are born around the turn of the century in the Ukraine. Ada lives with her widowed father Israel and after her uncle dies, her widowed aunt and two of her cousins, Ben and Lilla, come to live with them. Harry, their distant cousin, is from a side of the family that is extremely rich, and they've never met him as he lives in the lower, wealthy part of town (they've seen him and his house from afar but never actually met). Their paths first cross during the pogrom when Ukrainian Jews were targeted by Russian soldiers. Ada and her cousin Ben are running from a mob when they manage to escape to their cousin's property and beg for help. 

The spoiled, cosseted Harry is aghast at the appearance of his cousins, who are poorly dressed and are bedraggled from their flight. Ada and Ben are swept away from their cousin, but are fed and introduced to an uncle, who eventually gives Ada's father some work. He becomes more prosperous and when the children are teenagers, he can afford to send them and their aunt to Paris just before World War I breaks out. Eventually, Ada learns that Harry is also in Paris. She's been fantasizing about him her entire life, and though Ben is in love with her, she's determined to find a way to meet Harry.

If this sounds like a lot for a 200 page book, well, it is. The plot was interesting, but I found it and most of the characters really undeveloped. Lilla basically disappears and I didn't get much sense of Harry's character at all -- it just seems like Ada is obsessed with him because he's rich. It almost seemed like a first draft rather than a finished novel. It was Nemirovsky's final published work, in 1940, just before the Nazis banned the publication of books by Jewish authors. (Nemirovsky was arrested in 1942 and deported to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus a month after arrival). 

What really disturbed me about the book, though, was not the under-developed plot and characters but was the shocking anti-Semitism. There are repeated stereotypings of Jews that made me aghast. I was not expecting it and I was gobsmacked. I haven't read all of her books yet but I've read quite a few and I don't remember any anti-Semitism in the others. Some of the writing was wonderful but this is not a book I really want to read again.

. . . she mustn't find more ways to feed a dream that was gradually becoming less, damaging, only half real, half imagination. As she grew up, she had become more and more distance from it, just as you forget a book you read and loved passionately when you were a child. You may still love it, but back then, you believed in it. Now you realize that it was nothing but poetry, fiction, an illusion, less than nothing. . . . 

I'm counting this as my Ukranian selection for the European Reading Challenge and as my Classic About an Animal for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

10 comments:

  1. I liked Suite Francaise, particularly because it painted the most vivid picture of anything I had read of the flight from Paris to escape from the Germans. Sorry to hear this was more flawed.

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    1. I loved Suite Francaise and nearly everything I've read by her, this one was so disappointing! Her short story collection is also wonderful.

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  2. It's curious that a novel by a Jewish author would be replete with anti-semitism.

    It does sound like a first draft since it is so different from her others.

    Like I've said before, I love your blog because you find and read and review such out of the ordinary books. You are truly an adventurous reader!

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    1. Right? That's why I was so shocked. And thank you for the compliments, you're so kind!

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  3. I've heard other readers complain about Nemirovsky's anti-semitism in her writings. Whether this was internalized or she thought it would sell books, who knows. I really liked Suite Francaise but didn't love another book by her that I read called Fires of Autumn.

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    1. I looked at the Goodreads page for this and did not see any comments that mentioned the anti-Semitism, though I didn't look at every single one since there were more than 100. I have read Fires of Autumn but I can't remember it very well. I did give it 4 stars on Goodreads so I must have liked it.

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  4. Yes, when I read David Golder I also found the anti-Semitism unsettling and surprising, though sounds like it was subtler there than here.

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    1. It was pretty blatant. And it wasn't just in passing, it was repeated descriptions that were very stereotyped and extremely negative. I was really shocked.

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  5. The Dogs and the Wolves is one of her very best works, the opening segments in which we learn of Jewish society divisions in the Ukraine are totally brilliant. I think too many read only Suite Francaise, I do suggest you start Nemirosky there, and fail to see the aspects of her work dealing with her roots in Jewish Russia and the Ukraine. The open section of The Dogs and The Wolves in which tne different social classes among Jews in a Ukrainian city are portrayed are simply magnificent. Her account of a pogram by Cossacks is as powerful as anything by the classic Yiddish writer, Lamed Shapiro. After the pogram they move to Paris. In one chilling conversation a rich Jew tells his family they have nothing to worry about. I don't know if Nemirovsky foresaw what was to happen to the Jews of the Ukraine or not but it seemed prophetic.

    Much of the drama of the story is taken up by two related Jewish families one poor at the start, and one quite rich, both living in Paris. Though a happy bit of serendipity brought on when the poor man's children apply for help at the house of their rich relatives, the poor family eventually rises to a comfortable level of affluence. Romantic drama begins between the children of the two Jewish families plays a big part in the plot. It is very emotional. There is a lot to be learned about French Jewish life in this novel. The quality is uneven, sections are just totally wonderful and others are period romance/marriage story norms, though very well executed.

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    1. Yes, the parts about Ada's childhood were very well written, and the pogrom is terrifying. I did find it rather uneven compared to the other six books of hers which I have read previously.

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