- Fire in the Blood
- Knopf, 160 pp.
By the time Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française burst upon the French literary world in 2004, the Russian-French author was forgotten. Despite her pre-World War II Parisian success with her dazzling first novel, David Golder, and following it, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, Dogs and Wolves and The Courilof Afffair, her name together with her person had pretty much faded away. Suite Française changed all that. Its discovery by scholars Oliver Philipponnat and Patrick Lienardt at this late date surprised critics, many pronouncing it not only the first work of fiction written about World War II, but a remarkable on-the-spot rendition of that disastrous period in French history.
The manuscript had been lovingly hand-written by Némirovsky and enfolded within her diary. During the War, it was carried off in a suitcase among other possessions and carefully stored by her daughters, Denise and Elizabeth Epstein. But these young girls, who’d themselves only miraculously escaped the Holocaust to make their way to freedom, were, like so many others, unwilling be reminded of how their parents had cruelly perished at Auschwitz. Over the years, they’d merely skimmed, but never studied, their mother’s papers.
And now, the research of these two diligent scholars has uncovered another marvel to be added to her works. Their most recent revelation concerns a manuscript formerly thought to be lacking its opening thirty pages. They found that these exist after all. Némirovsky had apparently entrusted them to her Paris editor and family friend just before departing Paris in 1941 on her fateful journey of flight from the Nazi conquerors of France.
Fire in the Blood, as exquisitely translated by Sandra Smith, is in many ways equal in achievement to their earlier discovery, even perhaps surpassing it! A compact work, conceived on a smaller scale, it strikes one as a deeper, more complete, altogether finely crafted creation. The work was, in fact, conceived many years before, and had engaged the author even while she pursued her Suite Française in 1942. As she noted in her diary in 1937:
New subjects and a novel. I thought about The Young and The Old for a novel (a play would be better). Austerity, purity of parents who were guilty when they were young. The impossibility of understanding that “fire in the blood.” A good idea. Disadvantage: no clear characters.
Still, she did not embark upon that theme until after a chance visit to the rural Burgundy region of France in search of a nanny for her younger daughter Elizabeth. And it was only there, in Issy-l´Eveque that Irène Némirovsky found for herself and her daughters a French Arcadia. As she subsequently recorded in her diary, she had not in all her early experience in the St. Petersburg of Imperial Russia, or after having fled to Finnish Mustamaki, or even as a successful writer in her beloved Paris, breathed as deeply, or so savored her circumstance as she did in those hours when she had by chance discovered that remote village in the heart of country France.
She wrote of it in 1938: “Returned from Issy l’Eveque. 4 days full of happiness. What more could I ask? Thank God for that and for hope.”
But more, she felt the region, the place, the area provided for her just what she had sought for a theme all along: the novel’s characters, fully suggested by their own subtleties and quirks! There was little question in her mind, she also told her diary, that the “paysans” of that singular area, as they revealed themselves to her, were meant to be brought to life.
And, as she has her astute narrator observe in the book itself,
“Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbors, harvests his wheat, counts his money and doesn’t give a thought to the rest of the world.”
So it is that we meet her storyteller, Cousin Silvio or Silvestre, an aging native of the region newly returned. Once a restless soul, he had had has share of exposure to the greater world during ample wanderings in youth. Having sold his family’s land and house and squandered his inheritance, he has retreated to Issy-l’Eveque hoping to find a place of quiet, to recover his lost bearings and his own peace of mind among his people.
His family, those cousins yet living, are soon depicted in their encounters with that chastened, embittered, dried-up figure. Among them, we meet his vibrant cousin Helene and François, her gentle husband of many years. Once a magnetic figure, Helene remains even now attractive, a lady who had survived her grim first union with an old man. Only after his death has she attained her dream. Her marriage to François has been one of love and devotion over the years. Seen, even by her grudging neighbors, as joyous and fruitful, it was a remarkable alliance that seemed above the common frustrations of common country life. As Silvestre himself observes when visiting François and Helene Erard’s house after his own return:
“I have never been in a home more pleasant, welcoming, intimate, warm and happy than theirs.“
And now, as he entertains them in his spare quarters, he meets their lovely daughter Colette, a spirited girl about to wed a young man of the town, the gentle and devoted Jean Dorin. He comes of the Dorins from Moulin-Neuf nearby, who have served the community for generations as millers. It is Collette who once more reminds Silvio of what in his youth had inspired such admiration for her mother. Her openness of address, her gaiety, her “fire,” bring all of it back.
And there in their cousin’s sad surroundings, Colette attempts to cheer the group by cajoling her mother to relate for them the story of how she had become engaged to her father, happily chirping at her:
“… You’ve never said anything about it. Why’s that? I know it’s a very romantic story, that you loved each other for a long time … “
only to add with her youthful confidence,
“I so want Jean and me to live together the way you live with Papa. I’m positive you’ve never had a fight.”
When her mother resists her challenge, we surmise a hint of secrets to come. As Némirovsky is inclined to demonstrate, youth, love and passion are not quite what they often seem; nor is her mother’s own happiness, or, in fact, her uncle Silvio’s disillusion and reclusive behavior. Like peeling an onion, our narrator reveals many hidden cracks in their facade, releasing unpleasant odors from the comfortable-looking arrangements visible in this community. All this while, Silvetre continues to recollect his own ‘fires,’ and what a short a duration they had. At his advanced age, no matter his desolation and the hut’s decrepitude, he can only contemplate being left to his solitude — a hermit in the quiet of the woods and left his peace of mind. As he sums it up:
“After all, the three of us were young. It wasn’t just about the pleasures of the flesh. No it wasn’t that simple. The flesh is easy to satisfy. It the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire… That was what we wanted. To burn, to be consumed, to devour our days just as fire devours the forest.”
Silvio’s tale proceeds to unravel the neighborhood secrets, as he uncovers them with a skill that only an exquisite sensibility like Némirovsky’s commands, revealing shockers — illicit passion, intense jealousy, illegitimate offspring, and … murder! Such untold events have remained long hidden, if gossiped over by villagers, vicious events these country people chose never to acknowledge.
Curiously, it was Némirovsky’s reading of Proust that brought her novel into focus. When she read Within A Budding Grove, her own sense of storytelling was forever transformed. He spoke, she insisted, exactly upon the subject that she was engaged in, with his “marvelous” words:
“… The lives that you admire, attitudes that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.”
Némirovsky’s novel is an achievement of some magnificence, not only for its economy of structure, but for its depth and clarity, and it comes as a welcome addition to her opus.