|Writer Irène Némirovsky in 1932, with her daughter Denise, 10 years before her death in Auschwitz. (courtesy Denise Epstein)|
Summer of '42, in rural France
Newly discovered novel by Némirovsky centers on passions and betrayals
Fire in the Blood
By Irène Némirovsky
Translated, from the French, by Sandra Smith
Knopf, 137 pp., $22
"Suite Française" it isn't. But this spare tale of loves and betrayals was written around the same time as Irène Némirovsky's posthumous masterpiece. The manuscript was discovered recently among papers Némirovsky entrusted to her publisher a few months before she was deported to Auschwitz. Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, who have just published her biography, found the manuscript and edited the French version; their preface explains its provenance.
"Fire in the Blood" belongs, at least superficially, to the genre of tales of provincial life, usually involving intrigues over love or money (preferably both). Like her great predecessor Balzac, who was fascinated by the doings of small-town gentry and of crafty peasants who get rich through the gradual accumulation of land, Némirovsky displays a quasi-anthropological interest in the communal life of her characters, who live in a town where everybody knows everyone else's family secrets, but never breathes a word. Némirovsky and her family lived for a couple of years in a village in Burgundy similar to her fictional creation. It was there that she wrote "Suite Française" and, presumably, a good part of "Fire in the Blood," before her arrest in July 1942.
Since the story involves the gradual - and masterfully contrived - revelation of a youthful love affair and its consequences, I won't ruin it by giving too many details. Suffice it to say that the narrator, Sylvestre, a taciturn man in his 50s who traveled widely in his youth, now lives in impoverished circumstances in the village where he was born. He and his extended family are a step or two above the peasant class, but they are close to the land and derive their livelihood from it, as small landowners or millers; some are schoolteachers or lawyers. Silvio, as his cousins call him, is both an insider and a detached, often caustic, observer of "provincial life," and he is revealed, finally, as a main actor in the hushed family story as well.
The novel begins like an idyll: A middle-aged couple and their daughter Colette visit cousin Silvio and invite him to Colette's wedding to the local miller. Colette begs her parents to tell their love story, for she considers theirs a perfect marriage. The story they tell is of love at first sight, followed by years of delay (they had to wait for her much older husband to die), and ending in decades of happiness. We suspect there must be more to tell, and we are not wrong. But before we find out the back story, the novel moves forward to Colette's entanglements with a handsome fellow who happens to be the lover of her close friend Brigitte. That's a lot of complication for such a short book, but Némirovsky ties it all up in the end. We get passions galore, even if Silvio's disenchanted gaze puts them in a muted light.
But when does this story take place? In a way, the question is irrelevant, because "fire in the blood" is timeless - a function of age, not history. Youth is the season of passion, Silvio tells us repeatedly. We must assume that the action takes place between the two world wars, since the characters occasionally refer to "the war," meaning World War I; and many drive cars, which suggests the 1930s (before then, cars in the village would have been rare). Toward the end, however, when Silvio tells his own story of youthful passion, he begins - surprisingly, given his earlier emphasis on age rather than history - to insist on giving dates. He returned from his travels in 1910, left the village again in 1912, returned again just before the war began in 1914. Putting these dates together with what he told us earlier about the age of certain characters, we can deduce that Colette's wedding occurs in November 1939 followed by the birth of her son in September 1940, right up to the novel's present, which turns out to be the summer of 1942.
In aesthetic terms, this is a real problem. It is inconceivable that any character, even an embittered man in the provinces, could have narrated a story taking place during those years without at least mentioning the German invasion and occupation. How could Némirovsky, of all people, who was at that very time writing a novel comparable in its historic ambition to "War and Peace," have made the mistake of telling a story of private life that took no account whatsoever of the cataclysm that had affected every household in France? Precisely because the story is timeless, she could easily have situated it before the outbreak of World War II, or at least have left the time unspecified. Instead, she practically forced the reader to calculate the dates and arrive at the summer of 1942.
This may have been merely a mistake she would have corrected if she had had a chance to publish the book. But I wonder whether it doesn't express a kind of yearning: If the years between 1939 and 1942 had been as devoid of public catastrophe as what we see in this book, the author herself might have lived to a much riper age. Silvio refers to himself as old, although he is only around 50; but Némirovsky was deported and died before she reached 40. Maybe this tale of passion expresses, through her "mistake," her desire to be allowed to live a few years longer.
Susan Rubin Suleiman, a professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of "Crises of Memory and the Second World War."