The Dogs and the Wolves

Written by Irène Némirovsky
Review by Janet Hancock

Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a Jewish banker. In 1918, the family fled the revolution, settling in France, where she published several novels before perishing in Auschwitz. Many of her books are now being published in English, including this tale of doomed love. Translator Sandra Smith explains: the French title Les Chiens et les Loups derives from the expression entre chien et loup meaning dusk, difficult to distinguish between similar shapes; dogs and wolves belong to the same family, one domesticated, the other savage. This theme recurs through the book, exploring the immoveable strata of Jewish society.

The novel opens in a Ukrainian city resembling pre-revolutionary Kiev. Ada lives with her father in the ghetto. On the hill are their rich cousins including Harry, by whom Ada is captivated when, as a child, she first sees him through his gate. After a pogrom, both families move to Paris in 1914. Ada becomes an artist, marries Ben, a cousin from the ghetto, but never forgets Harry. One day he buys two of her paintings because they remind him of his past …

In spite of the author’s eye for detail: Jewish matrons with ‘scornful pout and hard implacable eyes’, I found the characters shadowy, the dislocation of the immigrant experience reflected in the book’s structure. There is little feel of Paris, the Great War, the 1920s, and gaps of years between some chapters. There is coy reference to a ‘financial crisis’, from which Ada hopes to save Harry, and a ‘small town in Eastern Europe’ where she moves a few days after ‘civil war had broken out’. This lack of anchorage gives the quality of a fable to the novel. Nevertheless, there are lyrical descriptive passages as if an artist is using words instead of paint.