Echoes of youthful passion
Fire in the Blood By Irene Nemirovsky Chatto & Windus, 153pp, $ 29.95
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