by Irene Nemirovsky
Reader’s Choice 7/08
The 2006 publication of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise” was met with an excitement that is accorded to few books. Nemirovsky, a Jewish writer who left her native Russia in her teens and emigrated to France, perished in Auschwitz in 1942 after having published scores of short stories and novels, the most notable of which was “David Golder”.
“Suite Francaise” emerged from a collection of her works and personal journals that were discovered among her private papers by her daughter 60 years after her death. It captivated readers throughout Europe with its fictionalized account of the early days of the Nazi occupation of France and introduced American readers to this compelling writer.
“Fire in the Blood” is another novel that emerged from that recent discovery of her writings. Its Preface to the French Edition includes an interesting glimpse into its background found in her journals. In an entry from December 6, 1937 she had listed possible subjects for new books, numbered from 1 to 27. Included in the list were several musings about youth and old age and the lack of understanding that often exists between the young and old. It was not until she vacationed in a village in Burgundy when she met people she would base her characters on, that the story of “Fire in the Blood” took shape.
The aged Sylvestre, once named Silvio by a long-ago lover because he looked like a gondelier, narrates the tale. He has returned to the small French village of his birth after having escaped its stability for a life of travel and adventure. “This region, in the middle of France”, Silvio says, “is both wild and rich. 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.”
Now in his sixties, all Silvio seeks is peace and simplicity with only occasional contact with his remaining family. An astute observer, he is aware of the passions and indiscretions of his cousins but he wants no part of the drama they create at this stage of his life. “My idea of the perfect evening is this”, he says, “I am completely alone; my housekeeper has just put the hens in their coop and gone home, and I am left with my pipe, my dog nestled between my legs, the sound of the mice in the attic, a crackling fire, no newspapers, no books, a bottle of red wine warming slowly on the hearth.” The beautiful countryside that is the backdrop of the story and the peaceful, regulated life of the characters are just part of the story. Darker currents flow under the surface and even Silvio has a secret past that is exposed in the final pages.
Nemirovsky’s contribution to 20th century literature is important. She was able to convey with such insight and simplicity the life of those caught up in the early days of the German occupation of France in “Suite Francaise”, Now with “Fire in the Blood” she is able to show readers what life was like in a small village in France just a couple of years before troops stormed in and occupied it. It was in the very village that served as a model for this story, where Nemirovsky was arrested and sent on to Auschwitz.