As the literary world learned a few years ago, popular French author Irène Némirovsky – born a Ukrainian Jew – composed Suite Française in the early 1940s in the Burgundian village of Issy-l'Eveque, where she and her family had settled after the German invasion of France. It was only later that we found out that during that time, she also worked on a short novel she had first planned in 1937. Némirovsky had time to finish only two of her intended five parts of Suite Française before she was arrested and shipped to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942. The short novel, on the other hand, was completed. She titled it Chaleur du Sang, or in translation, Fire in the Blood.
Némirovsky's daughter, Denise Epstein -- in the now familiar literary miracle tale -- discovered the text of Suite Française in the late 1990s among the papers she and her sister Elisabeth had carried with them when they fled Issy-l'Eveque after their mother's arrest. Also in Denise's suitcase were two pages of the original handwritten manuscript of Fire in the Blood. The rest of the novel was assumed to be lost, but was later found when French scholars trolled through papers Némirovsky had sent to her editor in Spring 1942 for safe-keeping.
For those familiar with the author only through Suite Française, which is most English-speaking readers since the vast majority of her work has yet to be translated, this "new" novel will seem both similar and quite different. Like the second half of Suite, Fire in the Blood takes place in a village based on Issy-l'Eveque, and shines with Némirovsky's distinctive mix of subtle prose, clear studies of human nature, and aggressive narrative drive. Unlike Suite, however, Fire takes place before the war, and is a "smaller" story, a closely observed, intimate tale that explores how families, their individual members, and, above all, different generations, connect -- and fail to connect.
The story is told by Silvio, a middle-aged bachelor who has returned to his village after years abroad. He watches the goings-on of his happily married cousin Helene, her husband François, and their vivacious daughter Colette, and gradually unfolds three intertwined stories of passion, death and betrayal that take place over a 20-year period.
Fire in the Blood starts laconically, and gradually builds to a fevered pace. Narrative twists come at the reader on seemingly every other page, and revelations -- about youthful passions, the self-delusions of the "mature," and the tragic consequences of stifled desire -- pile on top of one another.
As she did in Suite Française, Némirovsky examines the nature of small communities, how they hide their secrets, and the way their peaceful surface is often undermined by petty, vengeful attitudes and actions. Her writing is masterful as she laces her lenient, naturalist tone with suggestions of the village's secretive, underhanded nature. Her observations of her characters are clear, simple and penetrating, qualities that have elicited comparisons to Chekhov. Her mastery of dialogue is a marvel to read as it gradually lays bare the language of deceit.
But again, Némirovsky is up to more here than another look at village life. She plunges the reader headlong into the eternal conflict of generations, the young and their "fire in the blood" versus their elders who've forgotten what that fire is like and who have their own secrets to hide. And then there are characters who, like the narrator Silvio, haven't forgotten the fire, but are content with the wisdom they earned once the fire has cooled.
Fire In The Blood doesn't have the sweep and power of Suite Française, but, again, it's a smaller, more intimate story, the kind Némirovsky had successfully written several times during her career. It's a pleasure to watch her at work here, at home with her subject matter, drawing precise portraits of locales and characters, and peeling away their pretensions layer by layer. She's empathetic toward her characters, but not merely empathetic. True, she was the kind of writer who makes you feel you understand her characters, but her descriptive clarity goes hand in hand with an icy stare that looks through the characters and digs out their self-delusions, the way they justify giving in to their own self-serving urges. And by "they," of course, I mean "we." As one reviewer wrote about Némirovsky, "Maybe that is the secret of her allure: By letting no one off the hook, she hooks us all."
Némirovsky knew something about the pretense and so-called protections of society, learned the hard way when the country she had adopted as her own turned its back on her at the last. In Fire In The Blood, a tragedy strikes and the villagers essentially look away, preferring not to get involved. The real-life models for those village characters also said nothing when Némirovsky was arrested in 1942.
Note: Knopf Publishing will release four earlier Irène Némirovsky novels in English translation in January 2008.