by Irene Nemirovsky
Bear with me…I’ll talk about the book eventually. I’ve not been very good with this lately. I have been reading, just not jotting down my thoughts and then even when I have I’ve been too lazy to type them up. I’m not really too surprised. Too easily distracted. Too worried about a number of things. Too easy to just switch off and watch TV. And also the need to follow the news in Ukraine. It is so heartbreaking and really just reminds me how lucky I am and how much I take for granted.
Is it bad to admit that you are touched more by happenings in places you can relate to? I think it’s just human, though maybe that’s just my excuse. I know if I read anything about Ethiopia it will touch me in a way that it wouldn’t have before our honeymoon. (By the way, that plane hijacked by the copilot, that was the route we flew back. So it did freak me out a little more than aviation stories usually do.) Having been to Venezuela I am affected by the current stories. I remember way back when, seeing the film ‘The Revolution will not be Televised’ and I was impressed by Chavez. After being there, well, I don’t think he was a monster, but at the end of the day, democracy and freedom of speech are so important. There are good and bad people in politics and then there are people who think they know best and however well-intentioned they may be they can be the most dangerous.
And then there is Ukraine. I do have a long interest in Ukraine. My dad worked there for some time in the 90s and of course, as I mentioned before, I went to Crimea and Kyiv back in 2004. I met one of my Dad’s coworkers and she showed me and my friend around. We had been thinking of just staying the day and taking a night train north but she insisted that we stay the night. She showed off her city. It’s a beautiful city and I’m sure we’d have been impressed in any case but when you have such an enthusiastic tour guide it’s hard not to fall in love with the place. My friend and I then met up with a guy we’d met on the train (another Before Sunrise-esque story) and he suggested we should meet the following summer in Russia and do a tour of the Golden Ring cities. All three of us. Russian guy, Belarusian girl….and Irish girl. Well it wasn’t quite like that, but funnily enough it did inspire me to go to Russia the following summer. I made it as far as Kazan but did not meet the native of Togliatti. At random occasions I do get a text message though and it brings a smile to my face.
Apart from Tania and her family I can’t say that I know too many Ukrainians. (Oh, a coworker in Dublin too…). I do remember being impressed by a pleasantly drunk guy when I was in Crimea, being impressed by his pride as a Ukrainian. I mean I’m not talking about nationalistic fervour, just pride. (Of course that guy wasn’t actually from Crimea, just on holidays there.) I guess if I’m being honest it’s not something I felt very often from my Belarusian friends, it often felt apologetic somehow and I suppose that might be part of the reason why I have such a strong interest in the goings on in Ukraine, it just seems too farfetched to expect something similar in Belarus. And as an Irish person I always feel something for the ‘small country with big neighbour’ I suppose.
It’s become quite popular lately to be self-deprecating when it comes to Ireland, to shoot down what we have done, anything our politicians say or do, even to say, ‘well we’d have been much better off if we’d stayed in the United Kingdom’. I just have to disagree. Yes, a lot of mistakes have been made, but that does not mean we have to throw in the towel. Also, since nonresidents don’t have the vote my interest in getting to know who is who in Irish politics has waned, but in any case I would not like to be a politician nowadays. There seems to be so much hate and so many ways to hear about it. Not that I’d ever have been good at being a politician. Too sensitive. God, things were so much easier when I was twelve and knew everything.
It’s so strange to see a beautiful city I’ve walked through being the centre of pretty much a war. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before and that’s probably why it affects me so much. My dad told me a story of how when he was in Beirut he nearly visited Syria for a weekend but at the last minute he was advised not to. I haven’t yet been to Beirut but I feel a small connection now when something happens there just because my dad spent so much time there and his enthusiasm about the place remains, even if it is mostly shown through family gatherings at The Cedar Tree in Dublin. And when I was in Minsk Byblos was one of my more regular treats, so of course I brought them there.
When I was working in Vienna for the first time I didn’t really know anybody. I walked into Café Griensteidl and an American held the door open for me so we ended up sitting together. It was a few months after September 11th and he told me that he had been to Afghanistan the previous year for a WHO inspection. At the time all the talk was of ‘the war on terror’. ‘But,’ he protested, ‘there’s nothing there! There’s really nothing there!’
I feel bad when I see what’s happening in Syria, but, and I feel ashamed for saying this, I have no connection. I don’t think I’ve met anybody from there, anybody who’s been there or connected to what’s happening there. I don’t think I am alone in this. I mean I don’t think there should be some fight over what atrocity gets the most airtime, but if you were to look at numbers and statistics I should feel more.
I wonder is this one of the greatest arguments for art, whether literature, film, theatre, painting or anything else. When I met the WHO officer I felt a tiny connection with events in Afghanistan. When I read Khaled Hosseini’s novels they really tore me up inside in a way that straight up journalism rarely can. Though there’s always a time lag…
Irene Nemirovsky knew this. I don’t think there can be too many people out there who don’t know her story. Ukrainian Jew flees the Russian revolution for France, becomes successful author, begins writing epic but is transported to Auschwitz, where she dies. The first two volumes of her epic were found in a suitcase decades later and published to great acclaim. Suite Francaise is a masterpiece and I hope the forthcoming film does it justice. ‘The Dogs and the Wolves’ was her last published novel in 1940, as after that there was a ban on publication of Jewish books.
Some articles call Nemirovsky a self-hating Jew. It is true that she converted to Catholicism shortly before the war, but I don’t think that means she hated Jews. Or if she wrote about them in a certain way I don’t think that is any different than an Irish person writing negative things about Ireland or its people, something we are very good at doing. I haven’t read David Golder and I understand that the central character is not particularly sympathetic, so maybe I am missing something but from reading this book I wouldn’t make that assumption. Perhaps this novel was trying to correct that somewhat. It’s a pity that it’s not up there with her finest work. Ada frustrated me. She could have been a strong female protagonist but it was as if she decided aged 10 that she liked one guy and the rest of her life was all about trying to get him. I found her relationship with Ben much more interesting. Ok, let’s leave aside the fact that they are first cousins; some of literature’s great couples have been first cousins and while it just seems icky if I read it in a modern day book, this one is set long enough ago for it to be given a pass.
To summarise; Ada and Ben grow up together in an unnamed Ukrainian city, though it’s most likely Kiev. Harry is a distant cousin living in the rich part of the city. Ben and Ada meet him the day they call at his house for help after trying to escape a pogrom in their ghetto. Ada for some reason falls in love with Harry, though maybe she fell in love with him first when she was 7 and her cousin Lilla showed her where their rich relatives lived.. Both families, for different reasons, move to Paris. Ben and Ada marry, though for practical reasons on Ada’s part, not for love. She meets Harry again and trouble ensures.
Ben is not entirely favourably written, but comes across as a much stronger character than Harry. Ben has come from nothing and is scraping and planning his way up in the world and doesn’t care what he needs to do. Harry has been handed everything on a plate.
Money is important. Well, money is always important, but the clichéd Jew is always thinking about money. As Nemirovsky writes: ‘Everyone thought money a good thing, but to a Jew it was a necessity, like air or water. How could they live without money?’ In a world where Jews are always outsiders, money is the only way in. Harry’s family have it and are determined to hold onto it. Ada’s father and later Ben see it as the only way to get in and devote themselves to making more.
Ada’s well-travelled grandfather did not seem to know this need and yet is well aware of it. In his spare time he writes a book ‘The character and defence of Shylock’.
I’ve been rereading to remind myself, as I’ve read some others in the meantime. Everything Ben related is passionate; you want to shake Ada out of her stupor. What has she seen in Harry at all? For Harry, the most I felt was the scene when he returns to his mother after his French girlfriends’ parents have rejected him. It reminded me of a scene from ‘North and South’, a book I love.
This book is so well written, some of the characters are so well drawn and yet is just does not come together as well as her other novels. But maybe that’s something that’s real and true. In real life people often see something they don’t have and decide that it is the thing they most want even when the thing they need is right in front of them.
I’ll try to type this up before it becomes too dated. Events have moved on in Ukraine . The focus is now on Crimea. Crimea was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 but has a majority Russian population, so to some it would be simplest to hand it back. And yet there is a sad history there of the native Tatars who were deported en masse to far away corners of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Many of them have returned since the breakup of the Soviet Union and don’t want to go ‘back’. Let’s see how it all turns out, but hopefully it will end peacefully.