The life of Russo-French writer Irène Némirovsky had an arc as dramatic and tragic as that of a character in a perfectly crafted but disturbing story. Born in Ukraine in 1903 to a prosperous Jewish family, she was taken to France when a teenager, and garnered immediate acclaim in her 20s for a number of precociously accomplished novels.
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Némirovsky’s family had fled Russia because of the persecution of Jews there, but her ethnic identity was to continue to haunt her. When France fell to Hitler’s army in World War II, Némirovsky was captured and sent to a concentration camp, and in Auschwitz in 1942 the career of this brilliant writer was snuffed out. Many decades would pass before her literary reputation was resurrected. But since the success of Suite Francaise (2004), an ambitious but unfinished novel belatedly discovered in a suitcase, there has been a Némirovsky novel brought out in English almost every year by her able translator Sandra Smith.
Portrait: Nemirovsky’s fame as an author got a fresh lease after the posthumous publication of her unfinished novel Suite Francaise in 2004.
The most distinctive characteristic of Némirovsky’s work is the epic scope of her stories and the extreme compression and dramatic precision of her novelistic method. Though her books span the events of many years—All Our Worldly Goods, for instance, begins before World War I and ends after the second—they are rarely more than 200 pages long. They dive in and out of life.
In her newly translated novel, The Dogs and the Wolves, the main characters of the story are followed all the way from childhood to maturity, but without any attempt at a forced continuity. It is perfectly normal for Némirovsky to begin one of her short, beautifully composed chapters (composed both in the sense of “crafted”, as well as in the sense of poised, serene) by saying, “Two years later, Harry was waiting for Laurence at...” These gaps and jumps create, paradoxically, a sense of roominess in the narrative; we repeatedly experience a sense of time expanding and collapsing.
Literary novelists are often accused of holding the pleasures of plot in contempt. But Némirovsky is one of those writers who revels in the heat and light of a good story. One of her novels is titled Fire in the Blood, and that might serve as an accurate description of her storytelling instincts, which is to track, and indeed to some degree venerate, the lives of intensely passionate, driven people.
The Dogs and the Wolves follows the childhood and youth of three characters. Ada Sinner and her cousin Ben are brought up in a ghetto in a city in Ukraine; their distant relative, Harry, grows up in a gilded palace in the same city.
Between them, these three characters represent the dogs and the wolves of the story, the word “dogs” here standing for cultured, well-bred, sleek, comfortable (Harry), and “wolves” for wild, dirty, disturbing (Ada, Ben). When their paths cross for the first time as children, Harry recoils at the sight of the other two, while Ada instantly falls in love with this forbiddingly unattainable boy. Némirovsky follows the story of the tangles into which the three cousins are catapulted, the powerful pulsing and jousting of their respective natures, into their adulthood and into Paris, where they all end up.
Every page of The Dogs and the Wolves is marked by the writer’s acute eye for the complexities of human relationships. When Harry falls in love with a young French heiress, his face, we are told, “carried that demanding yet humble expression...that was unique to love as yet acknowledged”. When Harry asks Ada why she does not seem to fear losing him after waiting for so many years to win him, she replies, speaking of how she has always imagined him by her side and in this sense always possessed him: “I invented you, my love. You are much more than my lover. You are my creation.” Némirovsky’s characters are marked by the burning intensity of their need and the scale of their dreaming, and this is what, alongside the intensity of the narrating voice itself, makes her novels so hypnotically attractive.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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