From the opening description of the Ukrainian city where the novel’s protagonists begin their lives it is clear that the division between rich and poor will be a central concern of the latest of Nemirovsky’s novels to be translated into English by Sandra Smith:
“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.”
What separates these “three distinct regions” is wealth. While those at the bottom struggle to survive, facing not only poverty but the threat of anti-Semitic violence, those at the top remain aloof and secure behind their “gilded gates”.
The key scenes in this novel are therefore those where the two worlds intersect, however briefly. More than once we witness the novel’s heroine, Ada, who begins her life in the Hell of the lower part of the town, glimpsing that other life, represented by her distant relation, Harry. Though she is only a child when she first sees him, the slightly melodramatic love story that will follow is quickly telegraphed to the reader:
“She spoke this strange and mysterious name, with its unique and noble sound, as if it were a kiss.”
This scene is repeated later in Paris one night when she looks up at Harry’s house as she passes:
“Here was an entire world of pleasure and refinement that was foreign to her, a world she had never even dreamed of because it was so distant from her, so strange.”
Before this they have met twice, the first time when Ada and her cousin Ben look for refuge from a pogrom in the lower town, and later, some faint family ties having been established, at a party. Here the distance between them is again emphasised:
“Harry raised his eyes and recognised the child he had seen two years before…She surged up out of a horrible sordid world, a world of dirt, sweat and blood, far removed yet, despite everything, mysteriously, terrifyingly linked to him.”
In some ways, however, their relationship is one of the least interesting aspects of the novel, except in what it reveals about Nemirovsky feelings about class, and, more especially, her Jewish roots. This is a novel which frequently discusses Jewish culture and identity, with phrases such as, “It is characteristic of the Jewish way of thinking…” peppering the narrative. The divide between Ada and Harry is not simply one of class: Harry represents those Jews who have amassed enough wealth to escape, superficially at least, the ghetto of prejudice. When Ada and Ben turn up on his doorstep as children the reason for the family’s hostility is clear:
“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. No-one dared to add: ‘what they could be again one day.’”
Nemirovsky understands that while wealth may divide families from their roots, this is because it unites the wealthy. For Jewish families, however, that class unity, as no doubt she was already aware in 1940, was a very fragile one. The fragility of their existence is something that permeates the novel, the transition from the Ukraine to Paris, from poverty to wealth, from unhappiness to happiness notwithstanding. Interestingly, almost everything that is gained in the novel is also lost, and it is peopled with characters who move from place to place, either following their dreams or escaping from their nightmares. When Ada, having attained her dream, renounces it, she is not only making a sacrifice out of love, but, it seems to be suggested, facing up to reality. Nemirovsky’s view of this seems as complex and uncertain as her relationship with her own Jewishness.