The dogs and the wolves, p.1
The Dogs and the Wolves, p.1Irene Nemirovsky
The Dogs and
Translated from the French by Sandra Smith
Chatto & Windus
By the Same Author
Introduction to the French Edition
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Epub ISBN 9781407065397
Published by Chatto & Windus 2009
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First published in France as Les Chiens et les Loups by Éditions Albin Michel 1940
Copyright © Éditions Albin Michel 1940
Translation copyright © Sandra Smith 2009
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BY THE SAME AUTHOR (IN ENGLISH)
Le Bal (including Snow in Autumn)
Fire in the Blood
The Courilof Affair
All Our Worldly Goods
The Dogs and the Wolves was originally published in French in 1940 as Les Chiens et les Loups. As with many of Irène Némirovsky’s titles, its translation was problematic for it evokes a particular expression in French. ‘Entre chien et loup’ means ‘dusk’: the time of day when it is difficult to distinguish clearly between similar shapes. Simultaneously, dogs and wolves are members of the same family: the ones domesticated, the others, savage. Though the subtlety of the French expression is lost in English, the recurring theme remains clear.
Throughout the work, Némirovsky also uses variations on the word ‘étrange’. In French, this word has several connotations: ‘strange’, ‘foreign’, ‘different’, and, as a noun, ‘outsider’ as well. As a translator, it is necessary – though frustrating! – to choose one meaning. Readers should therefore keep in mind the many implications when these words arise.
The novel opens in a Ukranian city that is home to two distantly related Jewish families: the Sinners. The wealthy Sinners live high up on the hill, while their poor relations are confined to the worst part of town, down near the river. The novel follows the two sides of the family as they move to Paris, where their destinies become more and more entwined. As with many of Némirovsky’s works, The Dogs and the Wolves explores the intricate social problems foreigners faced in 1930s France as they try to assimilate. In addition, Némirovsky provides great insight into the complex relationship between the different social classes within Jewish society itself.
The use of the family name ‘Sinner’ is also striking, particularly given the fact that Némirovsky had excellent English. When I asked her daughter, Denise Epstein, if she felt the choice of name was significant, she replied that she thought it had been chosen deliberately. Throughout the novel, Némirovsky plays on the concept of sin by forcing her characters constantly to make moral choices.
The Dogs and the Wolves is an important novel. It combines Némirovsky’s lyrical prose with a perceptive exploration of Russian history, French society between the two world wars, immigration and religion, against the backdrop of passionate love.
Sandra Smith, Fellow
Robinson College, Cambridge
The Ukrainian city in which generations of the Sinner family had been born was, in the eyes of the Jews who lived there, made up of three distinct regions. It was like a Medieval painting: the damned were at the bottom, trapped among the shadows and flames of Hell; the mortals were in the middle, lit by a faint, peaceful light; and at the top was the realm of the blessed.
In the lower part of town, down by the river, lived the scum. These were the unsavoury Jews, the self-employed craftsmen, the tenants of sordid little shops, the vagabonds, the people whose children rolled in the mud, spoke only Yiddish and wore ragged clothes with enormous caps perched above their frail necks and long dark curls. Far, far away, where lime trees crowned the tops of the hills, and important Russian officials and members of the Polish nobility had their houses, were a few beautiful villas owned by wealthy Jews. They had chosen this location because of its clean air, but most importantly because in Russia, at the beginning of the century under the reign of Nicholas II, Jews were tolerated only in certain towns, certain districts, certain streets, and sometimes only on one side of the street; the other side was out of bounds. Such restrictions, however, applied only to the poor: it was unheard of for a bribe not to circumvent even the most severe laws. It was therefore a point of honour amongst the Jews to defy them, not out of any sense of insolence or pride, but to send a message to other Jews: to show that they were worth more, had earned more money, got a better deal for their beets or corn. It was a convenient way of demonstrating wealth. So and so was born in the ghetto. By the time he was twenty, he’d made a bit of money so he could climb a rung of the social ladder; he moved and went to live away from the river, near the
Between these two extremes was a middle ground, a drab land where neither great poverty nor great wealth existed, where the Russian, Polish and Jewish middle classes lived together, more or less in peace.
Yet even here, halfway up the hill, the community was divided into little groups who were envious and despised each other. At the top were the doctors, the lawyers, the managers of large estates; at the bottom were the common rabble: shopkeepers, tailors, pharmacists and the like.
But there was one section of society that served as a link between all the different districts, and whose members scraped a living by running from one house to the other, from the lower end of town to the top. Ada’s father, Israel Sinner, was one of this brotherhood of maklers or go-betweens. Their profession consisted of buying and selling on behalf of other people – beet, sugar, wheat, agricultural machinery, all the usual merchandise of the Ukraine – but they could also get hold of silk and tea, Turkish Delight and coal, caviar from the Volga and fruit from Asia, depending on their clients’ needs. They begged, they pleaded, they belittled their rivals’ goods; they moaned, they lied, they used every ounce of imagination, all the subtle arts of persuasion to win a commission. You could tell who they were by their rapid speech, their gestures, the way they hurried (at a time and in a country where no one hurried), by their humility, their tenacity, and by the many other qualities unique to them.
Ada, who was still little more than a baby, sometimes went with her father to do his buying. He was a short, thin man with sad eyes who loved her and found comfort simply in holding her hand. For her, he walked more slowly; he bent towards her anxiously, made sure the heavy grey wool shawl she wore over her old coat and little brown velvet hat with ear flaps were properly arranged, cupped his hand over her mouth in winter: on the street corners, the bitter wind seemed to lie in wait for the passers-by and slap their faces with joyful ferocity.
‘Be careful. Are you cold?’ her father would ask.
And he told her to breathe through her shawl so that the freezing air would warm up a bit as it passed through the wool. But it was impossible: she felt she was suffocating. As soon as he looked away, she used her fingernail to make the little hole in the shawl a bit bigger and tried to catch snowflakes on the end of her tongue. She was so thoroughly wrapped up that all you could see of her was a small square bundle on top of thin legs, and, from close up, two large black eyes peering out between the dark cap and the grey shawl; her eyes looked even bigger because of the dark circles beneath them, and their expression was as intense and fearful as a wild young animal’s.
She had just turned five and was beginning to take in everything around her. Until now, she had wandered about in a world so out of proportion to her scrawny body that she barely realised it existed; it dwarfed her. She gave it no more thought than an insect hidden in the grass might. But she was older now and determined to know life: those motionless giants standing in the doorways, icicles hanging from their moustaches, who breathed out the fetid odour of alcohol (curiously, their breath seemed to transform into a spurt of steam, then into little needles of snow), were in fact ordinary men, dvorniks, caretakers who looked after the houses. And those other men whose heads seemed to disappear into the clouds and who dragged shining sabres behind them, they were called ‘officers’. They were frightening because whenever her father saw them he clung to the walls and seemed to try to make himself even smaller. But, despite this, she believed they belonged to the human race. For a while now, she’d dared look at them: a few of them wore grey greatcoats lined in red (you could see the scarlet fabric, symbol of their rank of General, when they climbed into the sleighs), and some of them had long white beards, like her grandfather.
At the town square, she stopped for a moment to admire the horses. In winter, they wore green or red blankets decorated with pom-poms, so that the snow they kicked up didn’t fly on to their backs. The square was the heart of the town – there were beautiful hotels, shops, restaurants, lights and bustle – but soon she and her father descended once more down the narrow, steep streets that sloped towards the river, had gaps in the paving stones, and were poorly lit by lanterns, until finally they stopped in front of the home of some potential client.
In a smoke-filled, half-lit room with a low ceiling, five or six men were screaming, like chickens whose throats were being slit. Their faces were all red; their veins throbbed on their foreheads. They raised their arms and pointed to the heavens or beat their chests.
‘May God strike me dead on the spot if I’m lying!’ they said.
Sometimes, they pointed to Ada. ‘I swear to God on the life of this innocent child that the silk wasn’t torn when I bought it! Is it my fault, me, a poor Jew with a family to feed, if the mice got at some of it while it was in transit?’
They argued, they walked out, they slammed the doors; on the doorstep, they stopped, they came back. The buyers drank tea from large glasses in silver holders, feigning an air of indifference. The go-betweens (there were always five or six of them who showed up at the same time once they’d caught wind of a deal) accused each other of cheating, theft, fraud or worse; they looked as if they might tear each other to pieces. Then everything calmed down: a deal had been struck.
Ada’s father took her hand and they left. Once in the street, he let out a long, deep sigh that ended with a nod of his head and a mournful, heavy moan: ‘Oh, my God, my dear God!’ Sometimes he groaned because the gescheft, the deal, hadn’t worked out, and all his efforts, the weeks of endless discussions and schemes had been in vain; sometimes because he’d actually managed to win out over his rivals. But he had to sigh or moan no matter what happened: God was immovable and ever-present, like a spider at the centre of its web, stalking man and ready to punish anyone who seemed proud to be happy. God was always there, fervent and jealous; it was necessary to fear Him and, while simultaneously thanking Him for His goodness, also to make sure that He didn’t believe He had granted all of His creature’s wishes, so that He didn’t lose interest and continued to provide protection.
Afterwards, they visited another house, and then another. Sometimes they even went up to the wealthy homes. Ada would wait in the entrance hall, so overwhelmed by the magnificent furniture, the number of servants and the thickness of the carpets, that she dared not move. She sat dead still on the edge of a chair, staring wide-eyed and trying not to breathe; sometimes she pinched her cheeks so she wouldn’t fall asleep. Finally, they would return home on the tram, in silence, holding hands.
‘Simon Arkadievich,’ said Ada’s father, ‘I’m like the Jew who went to complain to a zadik, a holy man, to ask his advice about his poverty . . .’
Israel Sinner mimed the encounter between the poor man and the saint:
‘“Oh, Holy One, I am poverty stricken; I have ten children to feed, a difficult wife, a mother-in-law in perfect health, with a hearty appetite and plenty of energy . . . What shall I do? Help me!”
‘And the holy man replied: “Get twelve goats and let them live with you.”
‘“But what will I do with them? We’re already piled one on top of the other like herrings in a barrel; we all sleep on thin straw mattresses. We’re suffocating. What will I do with your goats?”
‘“Hear me, ye of little faith. Take the goats into your house and you will be glorifying God.”
‘A year later, the poor man returned: “We
‘“Happy? My life is a living Hell! I’ll kill myself if I have to keep those damned animals!”
‘“Well, now you can get rid of them and you will appreciate the happiness you didn’t realise was yours before. Without their stench and their butting horns, your poor hovel will seem like a palace to you. Everything on this earth is relative.”
‘In the same way, Simon Arkadievich, I complained about my Fate. I had my father-in-law to lodge and my daughter to feed. It was hard to find work and they had little to eat. But it is natural for man to sweat a great deal to earn a little bread. I was wrong to complain. Now I find that my brother has died and my sister-in-law, his widow, is coming to live with me with her two children. Three more mouths to feed. Work, toil, pitiful man, poor Jew: you can rest when you are deep beneath the ground . . .’
That was how Ada learned of the existence and imminent arrival of her cousins. She tried to picture their faces. It was a game that kept her occupied for hours on end; she saw and heard nothing of what was happening around her, then seemed to wake up as if out of some dream. She heard her father say to Simon Arkadievich:
‘Someone told me about a shipment of raisins from Smyrna. Are you interested?’
‘Leave me in peace! What would I do with your raisins?’
‘Don’t get angry, don’t get angry . . . I could get you some cotton from Nijni cheap?’
‘To hell with your cotton!’
‘What would you say to a batch of ladies’ hats from Paris, just a tiny bit damaged after a railway accident? They’re still being held at the border and would cost half what they’re worth.’
‘Hmm . . . how much?’
When they were in the street, Ada asked: ‘Are my aunt and cousins going to live with us?’
They were walking down an enormous empty boulevard. As a result of ambitious planning, a number of new avenues intersected the town; they were wide enough for a squadron to march between the double row of lime trees, but only the wind rushed from one end to the other, swirling the dust around with a sharp, joyous whistle. It was a summer’s evening, beneath a clear, red sky.
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