Irene Nemirovsky is probably best known for the posthumously published Suite Francaise. Before her death in Auschwitz in 1942 many of her books had been published in her native France including this, her last novel to be published in her lifetime, The dogs and the wolves.

Nemirovsky herself is quite a controversial character, a Jew, who converted to Roman Catholicism, she has been accused of being a "self-hating Jew", it could be argued that there are several instances of this in The dogs and the wolves. The novel follows the lives of Jewish cousins brought up in a small town in Russia. The "dogs" are the observant, poorer Jews, who live in the ghetto, are frequently subject to pogroms and racist abuse, and for that reason seem to cling more obstinately to their religion, while also, in many cases, seeking a way to break free of the life that they are forced to live. The "wolves" are the assimilated Jews, who live a life of luxury in the Gentile part of the town, and who have to a great extent dispensed with their Jewishness. The cousins of this novel follow a life not unlike that of Irene Nemirovsky and her ancestors emigrating from Russia to France. Indeed there is an odd link here to the previously reviewed Hare with amber eyes, as the family in this novel hail originally from Berdichev, the small town from which Edmund de Waal's family also originated.

Once settled in France the lives of the cousins intermingle, but it's harder to abandon their roots than they might hope.....

Although there is a bit of a vein of anti-semitism in the novel, I think it's not entirely fair to accuse Nemirovsky of self-hatred. What she clearly does hate is the unfairness of class divisions. If she was writing of any general society - say an English family, or a Russian family - she would hardly be accused of discrimination, it appears to be precisely because of the specifics of the family that she is writing about, i.e. a Jewish family, that she is accused of anti-semitism. I think that The dogs and the wolves has less to do with anti-semitism, and much more to do with the inequalities in early twentieth century Europe between levels of society and the sexes; and it's perhaps not surprising that Nemirovsky, as a Jewish writer, should write about what she knows, or at least how she perceives what she knows.

I don't think the title helps either - The dogs and the wolves is perhaps unfortunate. Calling anyone a dog suggests something cowardly, inhuman, contemptible (goodness knows why as dogs are one of the most loyal, brave companions that a person can have), while a wolf suggests cunning, a criminal element, relic perhaps of European fairy stories. However Nemirovsky's title originally came from a French aphorism "Entre chiens et loups" meaning twilight or dusk (presumably the time when dogs go home with their owners and the wolves own the night). If we take the title to be more about dusk, than the canine elements, the novel makes more sense and also becomes less controversial. For there is no controversy here - written in 1940, Nemirovsky is indeed writing about the dusk of Jewish civilization in Europe when all is about to be swept away. This is not a great novel, but it's certainly interesting and gets you thinking.


Popular Posts