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A gathering of ghosts

Patrick Marnham

11 December 2007

1:16 PM

11 December 2007

1:16 PM

Fire in the Blood Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith

Chatto, pp.153, 12.99

Fire in the Blood is the second recently discovered and hitherto unpublished novel by the author of Suite Française, the two-volume work that was written shortly before French police arrested Irène Némirovsky in July 1942 and deported her to Auschwitz.

The story of the discovery of Suite Française, the child running from the gendarmes who had just arrested her mother and grabbing a briefcase that contained the manuscript of a posthumous masterpiece, has become one of the great biographical anecdotes of the French Occupation. But the same small briefcase also contained another fragment, this time an un-titled typescript that led researchers in the Némirovsky archive to the complete version of Fire in the Blood. Unlike Suite Française, this was started before the war broke out, when the Russian émigré author was at the height of her career as a best-selling novelist and was still hoping that her application for French nationality would be approved.

Fire in the Blood stands by itself, but part of its interest today for readers of Suite Française lies in the way it prefigures ‘Dolce’, the second part of the wartime novel. Once again Némirovsky has been well-served by her publishers, who have taken great trouble to explain the biographical interest of her work, and by her translator Sandra Smith who has risen to the challenge with a text that is meticulous, sympathetic and readable.

In contrast to Némirovsky’s previous work, which won her a wide readership and depicted the sophisticated and corrupt world of Paris or Biarritz, Fire in the Blood is set in the depths of the French countryside. This change of scene was inspired by a visit she made to the obscure village of Issy-l’Evêque in April 1938 when she was in search of a nanny for her two young children. She already had a theme, a story of two generations, in which the children go off the rails while their respectable parents hide the fact that they too, in their time, once knew ‘fire in the blood’. After only four days in Burgundy, Némirovsky found all that she needed to tell this story. She was delighted by the Arcadian beauty of the setting. But her descriptions of harvest time, with the children shaking plums off the trees, the orchard buzzing with bees and the families vying with each other to produce the best wine and the thickest cream, do not tempt her into painting a sentimental picture of the private lives of les paysans. Instead, she notes the contrast between the glory of the surroundings and the ‘dark, secret life’ of the people, with their greed for land, their complex family ties and their instinctive mutual distrust. This is a world where ‘everything is hidden, even hatred’. A man dies and the farmers playing cards in the winter pay him their highest compliment: ‘a miser, a penny was a penny to him. No one round here liked him much, but he knew about farming’. If anyone is caught out misbehaving their neighbours are quick to complain. ‘Madame Declos’, says a fat farmer with rosy cheeks and a tranquil smile, ‘would definitely be better off selling. There’s some things a woman can’t do.’ The motive is not moral outrage.If Madame Declos can be ostracised and driven out, then one of the pleasant-faced gossips will acquire her land.

The narrator of Fire in the Blood is an old man, Silvio, who lives alone and walks around his neighbourhood, watching his friends and acquaintances and at first revealing very little about them, below the superficial facts of their daily lives. But his memory is jogged when he goes to the wedding of his young cousin, Colette. ‘My God’, he says, ‘a wedding in the provinces is such a gathering of ghosts.’ He notes the old gent who married his cook, the sisters who have not spoken for 14 years, the lawyer whose wife left him for a travelling salesman, ‘how many old memories they dredge up’. And at the centre of it, the bride, his pretty young cousin, whose ambition is to achieve the perfect marriage, just as her parents have done.

From this simple opening Némirovsky weaves a plot so complex that the short book demands an immediate second reading to pick up all the clues that one has inevitably missed. Her technique of gradually stripping layers of deception away from her characters to show us more and more about their real behaviour, gives the story its excitement and pace. And by the end of the book, Silvio himself will be drawn into the drama he sets out to describe.

There are echoes of Alain-Fournier in Fire in the Blood, as there are of Simenon — whose popular success paralleled that of Némirovsky. The title, the setting and the sexual passion are all reminiscent of contemporaneous Simenon’s such as Les soeurs Lacroix, Les inconnus dans la maison or La nuit du carrefour. When Colette says of her lover, ‘The first time I saw him, the very first time, he could have done whatever he liked with me…’ she is stepping into any one of a dozen of Simenon’s romans durs. But there is another element in Némirovsky’s story which is all her own, and that is her sense of passing time. Early on in the story Silvio, who has spent many years in Africa, looks again at the land of his childhood and says, ‘This region has something restrained yet wild about it, something … that is reminiscent of another time, long past’. Tradition rules in this world, and yet everything changes. Characters come together, engage at close quarters, draw back, but never really separate.

It seems that Némirovsky was not satisfied with the first version, started in 1938, and that she rewrote Fire in the Blood after the outbreak of war, when she had left Paris permanently and returned to Issy-l’Evêque, this time as a refugee hoping to escape from the French government’s anti-Jewish persecution. In the rewritten version, the story is punctuated with successive deaths, with death seen as a routine event, just another way of marking the passing years, life terminated and renewed, each generation shadowing the life of its predecessor. The drama of this repeated pattern is revealed when we learn on almost the last page of the book that the crisis in the lives of the parents, when they were young, occurred in the spring of 1914. Now it is the turn of the children and it is of course 1939. In the year when the young bride, Colette, gives birth the summer is cold and short. ‘Once again, darkness falls at three o’clock, the crows circle the skies, there’s snow on the roads and, in each isolated house, life closes in on itself even more.’ The breaking, winter storm will affect millions, not just the three or four principal characters of the second generation, anymore than it did those of the first. Arcadia will once again be shattered. With this atmosphere of foreboding Némirovsky repeats, or rather prefigures, the mood of Suite Française, when she gave an uncanny impression of an author who was about to vanish into her own pages, where her real life would be consumed by the monsters of her own imagination.

Following the new translations of Suite Française, David Golder and Le Bal, English readers now have the chance to enjoy a wide range of Némirovsky’s work. Is it too much to hope that there may have been a third notebook inside that briefcase?

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