I thought that this was set in Kyiv, and I got horribly confused about why so little time appeared to have elapsed between the pogrom of 1905 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. However, apparently it’s a fictional city which is very like Kyiv, so presumably that allowed the author to change the date of the pogrom.
I did see one blurb which said that the city was Odesa, where around a third of the population was Jewish at that time. It isn’t: it’s clearly meant to be Kyiv. Odesa had pogroms too, some of the early ones unusually carried out by Greeks rather than Russians or Ukrainians, but it was also the city of freedom, the Wild West of the Russian Empire, the city into which Jews who’d fled the Pale of Settlement were able to disappear, the city from which people came from Poland, Byelorussia (as it was then), Greece, Moldova and Armenia, as well as Mother Russia and Ukraine, and of course there were Crimean Tatars there too. It’s a fascinating city, and it’s devastating to think that it may soon face what Kyiv’s facing already. Which isn’t relevant, but it’s hard not to think about it whilst writing this.
It’s one of those books which are supposed to be great tours de force … meaning that, when you don’t really get them, you end up feeling very guilty and feeling that you must be really thick. Or wondering if other people are doing an emperor’s new clothes thing and just pretending to have found them absolutely wonderful. And I *didn’t* really get it. It’s very short, which doesn’t help. I’m not keen on short books, other than children’s books. You don’t have time to get to know the characters.
Anyway. We’ve got two branches of the Sinner family. I thought Sinner was mainly a Tyrolean name, as in Jannik Sinner, but apparently it’s assumed that the author chose that name as a sort of pun, as in sins are being committed … even though she was writing in French. The rich Jewish family and the poor Jewish family. Our heroine is Ada, from the poor branch. During the pogrom, she and her cousin Ben seek refuge with the rich branch, where they meet Harry. They all then end up in Paris, having not met since. Ada and Ben marry, and Harry marries a rich French Catholic girl. Neither marriage works out very well, and Ada and Harry meet again and begin an affair.
Irene Nemirovsky, despite originally being Jewish (she later converted to Catholicism herself), and dying in Auschwitz as a consequence, has been accused of perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes in this book. The rich Sinners are bankers. With the poor Sinners, Ben’s mother’s a terrible social climber. And there are a lot of very stereotypical comments about appearances – you can imagine the sort of thing.
I’m not sure that she deserves that criticism. It’s always awkward when people write about minority groups, but … well, think of all the British Asian comedians who joke about British Asians, and America Jewish comedians like Jackie Mason who joke about American Jews. OK, this book isn’t a comedy, but think about Maisie Mosco’s books and all the social climbers in those. A lot of people who start at the botton *are* social climbers. Why wouldn’t they be? And, yes, a lot of wealthy Jews made their money in finance, purely because they were banned from other professions. If you look at Quakers, or French Huguenots in the 18th or 19th centuries, you’ll also see a lot of people making money in finance or business because they’re banned from professions.
Just going off the point slightly, I was thinking about the reference which Maisie Mosco makes in Almonds and Raisins to the Board of Guardians, as it then was – set up by well-to-do Jews in Manchester because they were nervous that the presence of large numbers of poor Jews might create a bad image. Set up in 1867, and I really want to write an essay on my pet subject of Manchester in the 1860s, but it would be completely irrelevant! Nick Gage, in his books about Greek immigrants in Massachusetts, makes similar comments – wealthy Greeks offered poor Greeks jobs, because they were worried that the presence of large numbers of poor Greeks might create a bad image. The impression which some of the characters clearly have in this book, and the impression which I think a lot of readers have taken from the book, is that the wealthy Sinners are worried about being dragged down to the level of the poor Sinners. None of us can know what Irene Nemirovsky intended, but maybe it was more a case of the wealthy group being worried about the impression given to wider society by the presence of the poorer group?
It was probably a combination of both. Anyway, the idea is that Harry’s very respectable, and bourgeois in every sense of the word , whereas Ben, who would probably have done better in Odesa than in Paris, is a bit of a bad lot, mixed up in dodgy dealings. But everyone’s lives come crashing down when news of the affair breaks, and when Ben involves Harry’s bank in his illicit schemes.
It ends with Ada giving birth to Harry’s child in an unnamed Eastern European country, away from both men, having managed to escape from France in the face of threats from an unnamed force – is this the Nazis, or is it internal forces within France? It’s all meant to be very symbolic and we’re meant to find the book absolutely wonderful, but it just wasn’t really for me. And I only got it because I thought the first bit was set in Kyiv, and then it wasn’t! Oh well!