The afterworld

Pub date September 25, 2007
WriterMax Goldberg


REVIEW "Stress eternal life." Irène Némirovsky inscribed these words in her diary on July 1, 1942, less than two weeks before she was arrested under Vichy race laws, a month and a half before her death at Auschwitz. She wrote concerning a cycle of novels conceived to reflect the everyday qualities of life during wartime — a portrait emphasizing pettiness and pity, fear and loathing. The manuscripts for the two she finished were published as Suite Française in 2004, a discovery that seemed the improbable product of luck and literary heroism. A Russian-French Jew who converted her family to Catholicism in 1939, Némirovsky held no illusions regarding her bleak fate but maintained a Herculean work ethic during the occupation, drawing on a strong conviction — palpable in both the fiction and the journals — regarding the immemorial qualities of inner life and writing.

It would be dishonest to ignore the extratextual aura of such works, how they arrived in our hands, the time and lives bridged. And yet, Suite Française‘s literary flaws — chief among them a tendency toward simplistic moralizing and characterizations freighted with cliché — are unmistakable. What a welcome relief, then, to hold in one’s hands a slim volume of few wasted words called Fire in the Blood — another, earlier novel rescued from Némirovsky’s notebooks.

Whereas Suite‘s indirect narration delivers Némirovsky’s closely observed social realism with a brittle, didactic tone, the first-person narration of Fire in the Blood‘s Monsieur Sylvestre, a solitary, middle-aged landowner hoping only to be left alone to his gardens and journal, offers this same sensibility in fuller bloom. When Sylvestre’s reticent voice invokes the thick, guilty-by-association social atmosphere in the provinces, where the book is set, it is with the shadow of self-implication.

It being the provinces, everyone in Fire in the Blood is related, if not by blood than by deeply intertwined personal experiences, unspoken proprieties, and the land itself. Sylvestre is a cousin of Hélène, the matriarch of a proud family of landowners, and the book first takes up the narrative of the younger generation, specifically Hélène’s daughter Colette and her drowned husband, Jean.

Far from resting in peace, Jean in death reveals a web of infidelity and foul play, and the specter of an older story emerges via the youthful indiscretions at hand. Unfolding with slow mystery at first (Némirovsky occasionally overplays her hand in this regard, interjecting foreboding drumrolls), it picks up speed and urgency, until the past fully overtakes the present in the final thundering pages of the book: an enfolding, transmuting structure designed to convey the "roaring, all-consuming tidal wave of love."

Reliving his former passions, Sylvestre muses, "I felt as if I’d been asleep for twenty years and had woken to pick up my book at the very page I’d left off." Back, then, to that tonic of literary heroism and luck. We are, in the end, moved by this writing not just because the books did endure but because one senses Némirovsky willing it to be so. With 20 pages left, we finally get "But wait. Let’s start from the beginning …" As Sylvestre the narrator ends his story suspended in timeless reverie, so too does Némirovsky the writer end her book singing out to us: "What I could not foresee was the flame that would be locked inside me, whose cinders would continue to glow for years to come." What he could not foresee, she knew beyond doubt.*


By Irène Némirovsky

Translated by Sandra Smith

Alfred A. Knopf

160 pages