By Irène Némirovsky
Chatto & Windus, £16.99
Between the dogs and the wolves at twilight, according to a French saying, there is no discernible difference. But in this mordant, merciless portrayal of the contrasting lives of rich and poor Jews, the difference between them is akin to heaven and hell.
The story begins in early-20th-century Ukraine. By the river live “the scum… 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 on their frail necks and long dark curls”. They gaze up enviously to the cool hills where rich Jews live in luxury “a very symbol of hope: proof that it was indeed possible to attain such heights”.
During the panic and mayhem of a pogrom, two ragged eight-year-olds --- fast-talking Ben and the ethereal Ada --- hide from drunken Cossacks. Battered and terrified, they race through the town and beg for help at the mansion of their own rich cousins, the Sinners. The encounter is far from happy:
“The women seemed terribly angry and upset; they were all talking at once, looking at the children with an expression full of terror, almost hate… the famished children stood before these wealthy Jews as an eternal reminder, a shameful and atrocious memory of what they themselves had once been or might have been.”
Ada falls in love with Harry Sinner, the only child and heir to a vast fortune. As her own family finances improve, thanks to the patronage of their rich cousins, Ada manages to meet the object of her love at a dance. It is a humiliating experience:
“He would rather have shaken the hand of the most filthy beggar than this little girl’s hand. If he was trembling as he stood opposite her, it was not because she represented poverty to him but because she represented unhappiness: a kind of unhappiness that was strangely, terrifyingly contagious, the way diseases can be contagious.”
Ada moves to Paris with Ben — and his sister Lilla, in whom reside her mother Raissa’s passionate hopes for success. “They would either lose everything or make a fabulous fortune. Who could know what God had in store for them?” is how Némirovsky (in Sandra Smith’s vivid translation) describes Ada’s father’s thoughts as he resigns himself to years without his beloved daughter.
Harry also now lives in Paris, engaged to the blonde, gentile daughter of an established French banking house. When he meets Ada again, the results are devastating for them all.
Némirovsky tells their love story with convincing intensity, and draws the rest of her characters with assured, cinematic precision. Deluded, sharp Aunt Raissa, for example, is possessed with ambition for her charming but sluttish daughter, Lilla. As Ada prays (on her knees in the dust of the junk room) before the party where she hopes to see Harry —“Please make him notice me” — and Lilla dabs herself with scent in expectation of being kissed, Raissa comes to fetch them “wearing a purple silk dress and a paste butterfly in red curls. She puffed up the sleeves of her dress, full of hope.”
Above all, there is Ben, the demonic, scheming, resentful child of poverty. Tough, money-minded, possessed of an anguished articulacy and a stoic, determined sense of humour.
This is the last of the Némirovsky re-issues translated by Sandra Smith. It was originally published in France in 1940 and shows the author at the height of her powers. As the action moves towards the date of the bloody contusions of the 1940s in Europe, our historical knowledge of what was to come, combined with Némirovsky’s prescience, her awareness of the dangers faced by Jews, creates another, emotionally powerful dimension.