The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

BREVIEWED BY ANNE GAR­VEY ETWEEN 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-20th­cen­tury 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

Némirovsky: pre­scient and pow­er­ful ac­count of Jewish so­cial dif­fer­ence

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