Fire in the Blood
by Irčne Némirovsky
translated by Sandra Smith
Published by Knopf
138 pages, 2007
Good Night, Irčne
Reviewed by Diane Leach
In A Moveable Feast, Earnest Hemingway writes of working on his Michigan stories in a Paris cafe:
It is only at this moment that I realize Hemingway, who had the choice of transplanting himself, and Irène Némirovsky, who did not, were nearly exact contemporaries who inhabited Paris at the same time. Did they know of one another? Yet another thing to ponder when considering the many what-if’s comprising Irène Némirovsky’s sadly truncated biography.
Returning, momentarily to transplanting oneself -- as Joyce did for Dublin, Hemingway for Michigan, and later, Paris. Némirovsky did not -- could not transplant herself. The author was Jewish, and instead, with merciless acuity, documented the shrinking world around her. With Hitler’s troops drawing near Paris, Némirovsky and her family fled to Issey-l’Evêque, where she wrote the stunning Suite Française and possibly reworked drafts of Fire in the Blood. In 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. She was 39 years old. Her husband Michel was also killed. Their daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, were passed hand to hand, hiding until the war’s end. For their entire lives -- Denise is now elderly, Elisabeth deceased -- Némirovsky’s daughters carried their mother’s unopened suitcase, assuming it contained diaries. Finally the women decided to donate their mother’s papers. Denise began typing the handwritten papers therein, finding the handwritten Suite Française and bits of Fire in the Blood. Suite Française was published to deserved acclaim in 2006. After some searching, Fire in the Blood, which Némirovsky had distributed in bits to various friends for safekeeping, was pieced together and now appears in English, beautifully translated by Sandra Smith.
Fire in the Blood is narrated by the once hot-blooded Sylvestre -- Silvio, when younger -- who left the French village of his boyhood seeking worldly adventure. He returns home older, wiser, and a good deal sadder. Now, living out his old age in a decrepit cottage, he ruefully describes the village’s inhabitants, many of them relatives, and the circumstances that brought them to their current state of “...equilibrium and enviable morality. They are happy with themselves. They have renounced the vain attempts of youth to adapt the world to their desires. They have failed and, now, they can relax. In a few years they will once again be troubled by great anxiety, but this time it will be fear of death... but between the ages of forty and sixty they enjoy a precarious sense of tranquility.”
But that tranquility is ruptured when Silvio’s cousin, Colette, marries Jean Dorin, a solid young man from a nearby village. Jean dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving the insular village alive with malicious gossip. Colette has been having an affair with the handsome Marc Ohnet, who is soon implicated the murder. Complicating matters is lovely young Brigitte Declos, married to the old, sickly Declos, an unpleasant, stingy peasant who has, over many years, bought nearly all of Silvio’s once considerable land holdings.
Colette is in agony, for her parents, Silvio’s cousin Helene and her husband, Françoise, are a deeply conservative, devoted couple who share the sort of settled domestic happiness Colette professes to long for. The idea that her parents might learn of her behavior is mortifying.
Némirovsky’s villagers are reminiscent of Zola’s characters: nearly wordless brutes whose relationship to their land defines their lives. Seasons, marriages, births, deaths, the carefully wrought web of familial allegiances, all exist to serve the land. These are the original Paysans, a concept corrupted in contemporary English, wrongly evoking upscale dinnerware, home furnishings, and books by Frances Mayes.
Némirovsky’s Paysans aren’t as charming: devoted to the land, their children, and God, they are equally capable of cruelty, selfishness, and malicious gossip. The villagers shun Colette, Marc, and Brigitte; they care nothing for Colette’s sufferings or those inflicted on her parents. When Jeanne and Francoise learn the true circumstances of Dorin’s death, older, more harrowing secrets are also divulged and the couple’s happiness is ruined.
Némirovsky -- Russian, Jewish, urban -- was fascinated by the French peasantry, drawing their lives through Silvio’s bitter eyes: the country weddings, the bowls of lentils and potatoes, households where the women are “expert at jam-making, preserves, pastry.” Yet domestic comforts barely cover submerged fear and anger:
The engine behind the villagers’ sufferings is the fire in the blood: youth, desire, and the rashness to act on youthful desires. Silvio once had it, as Colette did; Brigitte and Marc Ohnet still do. It is this fire that fuels the village gossip before flaring, then dying out as the people age and subside in the complacency Silvio excoriates.
Némirovsky herself was young when beginning this book: the germ of the idea came to her at age 34. She was still working on it, five years later, when the Nazis attacked with another sort of fire. We are left with the wonderful gift of her work, inescapable from its horrific context. | October 2007