Echoes of youth­ful pas­sion

Fire in the Blood By Irene Nemirovsky Chatto & Win­dus, 153pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rose­mary Sorensen

IRENE Nemirovsky’s Suite Fran­caise is her mas­ter­work. When the book was pub­lished in France in 2004, 60 years af­ter its au­thor died in Auschwitz, it was re­ceived with uni­ver­sal ad­mi­ra­tion. That Nemirovsky was able to write about France un­der Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion at the mo­ment she was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the ter­ror of that time makes the ex­is­tence and qual­ity of this un­fin­ished Suite heart- rend­ingly mirac­u­lous.

The lit­tle book Fire in the Blood is a coda to that mir­a­cle, deep­en­ing the tragedy of Nemirovsky’s life and death. The first third of the story was known to ex­ist, end­ing abruptly al­most mid­sen­tence. It was be­lieved that her writ­ing of it was in­ter­rupted when Nemirovsky was seized and sent to Auschwitz. But the rest of the story, hand­writ­ten, turned up re­cently in a long- un­touched repos­i­tory of the au­thor’s pa­pers.

The back­ground story will even­tu­ally be told in a bi­og­ra­phy be­ing writ­ten by two men, Olivier Philip­pon­nat and Pa­trick Lien­hardt, who re­cov­ered Suite Fran­caise first and now Fire in the Blood . In the fore­word to this trans­la­tion they ex­plain that the set­ting, the same Issy- l’Eveque where Suite was set, was where Nemirovsky, her hus­band and two daugh­ters were liv­ing when the Ger­mans in­vaded France.

What a mighty writer she was to have pro­duced, un­der such cir­cum­stances, such a taut, telling, haunt­ing story, al­most per­fectly formed, paced and pat­terned. The story is, stylis­ti­cally, a lit­tle like the Ge­orge Sand of La Pe­tite Fadette ( 1849), pushed for­ward with as­sur­ance by the plot struc­ture but grounded in so­cial com­men­tary. Nemirovsky has that French ( and Rus­sian) man­ner of cre­at­ing a slightly un­nerv­ing at­mos­phere around se­crets that are re­vealed with del­i­cate but firm con­trol. The tale, in its de­tails, says much about the pe­cu­liar im­moral­ity of th­ese French peas­ants, which other writ­ers ( such as Mar­cel Pag­nol in his 1966 novel Jean de Florette ) have tried to de­scribe. But it is also, more broadly, about the un­rav­el­ling in­flu­ence of pas­sion, specif­i­cally the pas­sion of youth.

The au­tho­rial judg­ment on whether sins com­mit­ted un­der the in­flu­ence of that youth­ful pas­sion should be for­given is am­biva­lent, al­though it would be a hard reader who comes down on the side of pun­ish­ment.

What Nemirovsky does make clear, on the other hand, is that the real sin is the self­ish­ness of a per­son who re­moves them­selves from the ex­pe­ri­ence of pas­sion. She re­veals this in a dev­as­tat­ing fi­nal sen­tence that re­ver­ber­ates back­wards through the length of the novel.

You close the book shud­der­ing and cheer­ing, shud­der­ing at what you have just dis­cov­ered about one of the char­ac­ters ( and re­al­is­ing im­me­di­ately that you knew it all along), and cheer­ing at the adroit­ness of such a nar­ra­tive flour­ish.

The story be­gins with the nar­ra­tor, Sil­vio, an old man visit­ing his cousin He­lene and her daugh­ter Co­lette, who is soon to be mar­ried. He­lene and her hus­band, Fran­cois, are an ideal cou­ple, and Co­lette is deeply im­pressed by their com­pat­i­bil­ity in mar­riage and also ter­ri­fied she will not be as happy with her hus­band, the ami­able Jean. Sil­vio watches as the young cou­ple wed and he watches, too, the par­al­lel life of an­other young wo­man who has mar­ried an old man to es­cape poverty. He hints at se­crets from the past as he watches new se­crets form­ing within the lives of his rel­a­tives and neigh­bours.

A death forces some of those se­crets to the sur­face. How not only the in­di­vid­u­als in­volved but also the neigh­bour­hood in gen­eral re­act to that death throws up in high re­lief the du­bi­ous moral­ity on which the en­tire com­mu­nity is built.

Fire in the Blood ( trans­lated by San­dra Smith from Chaleur du Sang ) has its rough mo­ments, where the story is merely sketched. Char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions suf­fer as a re­sult, but this also means the eco­nom­i­cal power of the writ­ing is all the more im­pres­sive.

Maybe there would have been more to the story if the au­thor had the op­por­tu­nity to re­vise, but on the other hand the brevity of ob­ser­va­tions, what they don’t say as much as what they do, is an es­sen­tial part of this fine lit­tle novel.

Mighty writer: Irene Nemirovsky

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