Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fire in the Blood by Iréne Némirovsky

Iréne Némirovsky was born in Russia, but her family fled to Finland after the Russian Revolution in 1917. From there, they emigrated to France where she lived until she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942. She died at Auschwitz in 1943. She published nine books between 1928 and 1937. She was working on Fire in the Blood when she was arrested. Her notes and manuscripts were scattered among her family members, and this novel has finally been assembled for the first time.

My first experience with Némirovsky was Suite Française -- a great story of rural villagers trying to survive the early days of the German occupation as refugees streamed through their land trying to reach free France. Originally planned for three parts, it was never finished. I was hoping Fire approached, even slightly, the power of that narrative.

I have not been disappointed, and I would even say my expectations have been exceeded.

Fire is a story of an insular French village in the days between the World Wars. Anyone who has ever visited the French countryside will instantly recognize the slow, measured pace of life. “The farmers around here don’t gossip and would rather walk through fire than get involved in other people’s business” (74). When tragedy strikes a newly married young man, it is marked up as fate, an error of judgment, or simply an accident, and the reader only gradually hears the quiet murmurs as the truth is passed from farmhouse to tavern to kitchen.

The story is narrated by Silvio, a retired gentleman farmer who, because he has no wife and no heirs, has gradually sold off his land and now lives alone, except for an occasional visitor and the company of his housekeeper. One night he writes,

“I was desperate for her to leave, as if I were expecting someone. And, in fact, I was: I was expecting my youth. Memories of the past would return to us more often if only we sought them out, sought their intense sweetness. But we let them slumber within us and, worse, we let them die, rot, so much so that the generous impulses that sweep through our souls when we are twenty we later call naive, foolish…Our purest, most passionate loves take on the depraved appearance of sordid pleasure” (105-6).

Prose like that is not nearly common enough. How can anyone not let the mind wander back to days of care-free youth when there was fire in the blood?

The secret visitor that Silvio awaits comes barging in to turn upside down this quiet little place. Although I guessed part of the secret early on, the end is a stunner, and the full story really took the wind out of me.

All the characters are searching for their own form of happiness, some in the past, some in dreams of the future. Practically every page has the word happy, happiness, unhappy, or some other variation on that theme. Silvio says, “I don’t want to get involved in your problems…all I want is a quiet life” (84-5).

Only a few works of Némirovsky’s have been translated, but I am going to keep a weather eye out for any more that come along. She is a hidden treasure waiting to be rediscovered by all fans of serious fiction. Five stars

--Chiron, 7/24/08

1 comment:

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