Fire in the Blood: A Novel
by Irene Nemirovsky
A review by Heller McAlpin
Irène Némirovsky has had a literary resurrection most writers can only pray for. Her incomplete masterpiece, Suite Française, has sold some 1.5 million copies in 30 languages since its publication in France in 2004. Written in tiny script -- to conserve paper and ink -- while in exile with her family in the German-occupied Burgundy village of Issy-l'Evêque, it presents a penetrating portrait of France under siege.
The publication of a second, recently found novel, Fire in the Blood, and the reissue of many of Némirovsky's earlier works (four of which are due from Everyman Library in January) make it clear that Suite Française was no fluke. But the phenomenal success of her posthumous publications raises interesting questions about this very French, Russian-Jewish novelist who died at Auschwitz in 1942 at age 39. Her tragic fate and the miraculous survival of her manuscripts -- preserved in a suitcase by her two daughters, who were hidden from the Nazis after their father was hauled off to Auschwitz, three months after their mother -- make for a riveting back story that has fanned interest in her work. But this is not enough to explain her renaissance.
Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, and her first language was French. Because of her Jewish banker father's privileged relationship with imperial Russia, the Némirovskys had to flee after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. By 1919, they made their way to Paris, where her father promptly rebuilt his fortune, and Némirovsky made a name for herself as a Balzacian novelist.
It is noteworthy that of her prolific output, about a dozen novels and many short stories, the two books first offered to American readers in the 21st century are not only previously unpublished but also her most purely French in subject matter and setting: no Russian or Jewish characters, and no hint of the stereotyped "hook-nosed," "frizzy-haired" Jews that populate her earlier work, including her 1929 French bestseller, David Golder.
It is impossible to read Suite Française without being profoundly moved -- especially if one knows its heartbreaking provenance. Némirovsky's ability to capture a wide spectrum of French society under duress with such unblinking, pitiless acuity is astonishing. Suite Française is much more than a feat of on-the-spot reporting, however. Ambitiously conceived as a cycle of five novellas structurally modeled on Bach's French Suites, its prose resonates with echoes of Tolstoy and Flaubert.
But looked at more closely, Suite Française is almost as remarkable for what it doesn't include as for what it does: There is no mention of anti-Semitism. This, despite the fact that while writing it, Némirovsky was subjected to increasingly hideous restrictions, which required Jews to sew yellow stars on their clothing, prohibited them from publishing, barred them from libraries, theaters and restaurants, and held them to rigid curfews.
Writing about the fall of France without mentioning the Jewish plight is akin to writing about Hurricane Katrina without mentioning New Orleans' impoverished. One has to wonder about Némirovsky's self-censorship. Was it aimed at self-preservation? Was it an attempt to distance herself even further from the religion of her birth (but never her practice) than her earlier fiction and her expedient conversion to Catholicism in 1939 already had done? Did she hope that her omission would enable her to publish her work and keep supporting her family despite the interdictions? Did she want to prove herself, once and for all, as a French novelist? Her motivations remain unclear. Notes for "Captivité," the third section of Suite, indicate that Némirovsky intended to take on the collaborationist Vichy regime; whether that would have included its treatment of Jews is also unclear.
Némirovsky's resurgence in the adopted country that betrayed her so brutally, and responds even today in frightening numbers to far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen's xenophobic racism, raises further questions. Although she skewers French hypocrisy and moral flaccidity in both Suite and Fire in the Blood, this criticism is mitigated by her silence on France's rampant anti-Semitism, and by having perhaps provided fodder for it in her early novels. The result is a more sympathetic and palatable portrait of occupied France.
Jonathan Weiss notes in his 2007 book, Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works, that Némirovsky always felt removed from the country and ethnicity of her birth. Her work, Weiss claims, represented a protracted search for an identity, which led her to cast a critical eye first on her Russian-Jewish roots and later on French culture.
Although Némirovsky married Michel Epstein, a man of similar background, she repudiated her parents' world in scathing novels such as David Golder, The Wine of Solitude and The Ball. Her unflattering portraits of rapacious, wandering Jews led to mixed responses. David Golder was hailed and derided alternately as a Père Goriot, King Lear, Shylock and Fagin. The Jewish press' reaction prefigures the dismay that greeted Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.
The climate, however, was different in the pre-Hitler 1930s than post-World War II. Némirovsky's hatred of Communism skewed her to the far political right and led to her publishing in right-wing, anti-Semitic journals. It also led to her initial resistance to the Resistance. Only years later did she comment in an interview about David Golder that she would have "written the book differently" had she been aware of Hitler's rise to power.
Némirovsky may have tried to position herself as a purely French novelist, but the French still flag her ethnicity, even on book covers, which feature a fur-framed head shot that accentuates her Semitic features. This is in sharp contrast with the romantic photographs of lovers adorning her American editions.
Fire in the Blood, begun in 1938 and probably revised in 1941, when Némirovsky was working on Suite Française, forms a sort of prewar prequel to it. Like "Dolce," the second part of Suite Française, it is set in a bucolic French village modeled on Issy-l'Evêque. According to Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, whose joint biography of Némirovsky is just out in France, it was inspired after rereading Marcel Proust's Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of Remembrance of Things Past. Proust, it should be noted, is another author of Jewish extraction who portrayed Jews unflatteringly.
The novel is narrated by Sylvestre, a man in his 50s who left the region decades earlier, "propelled forward by the fire in my young blood" to see the world. Having spent his inheritance, he returns, forced to sell off land his family has owned for generations. Despite several passionate romances, he has never married and savors his solitude.
Sylvestre's story gradually reveals terrible, long-guarded family secrets. His cousin Hélène is an attractive woman who, after a grim first marriage, finally wed her childhood sweetheart. It looks as if their daughter Colette is headed into an equally happy union with gentle Jean, whose family has owned a mill in nearby Moulin-Neuf for 150 years. In provincial France, Némirovsky indicates, it takes generations to become a local -- in other words, Russian-Jewish immigrants need not apply.
When Colette falls for another man -- who happens to be the lover of a friend -- trouble ensues, including a murder and coverup. As Némirovsky makes clear in "Dolce," when villagers help protect a man who kills a German billeted among them, people here prize peace and privacy above all. Némirovsky writes, "Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money and doesn't give a thought to the rest of the world." (Nor do they utter a peep of protest when a famous Jewish author living among them is seized by gendarmes.)
Némirovsky hits the themes of youth versus age hard. Just one passage: "When you're twenty, love is like a fever, it makes you almost delirious. When it's over you can hardly remember how it happened....Fire in the blood, how quickly it burns itself out. Faced with this blaze of dreams and desires, I felt so old, so cold, so wise..."
Although it is hard to match the power of Suite Française, Fire in the Blood is strangely engaging despite its overheated prose. Némirovsky again excavates the hypocrisy and self-serving impulses embedded in French culture -- and, perhaps, all human nature. Maybe that is the secret of her allure: By letting no one off the hook, she hooks us all.
Heller McAlpin is a critic whose reviews have appeared in Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle and a variety of other publications.
More Than Three Decades of Quality Writing and Criticism
The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature. To learn about how to join, click here.