Fire in the Blood
Three years ago, a newly discovered manuscript became the talk of France. “Suite Française,” an uncompleted novel about the German invasion and occupation of France, attracted widespread interest in its author, Irène Némirovsky, who wrote in French and died because she was a Jew but never felt entirely French or Jewish. Indeed, as many critics have pointed out, for all its range of characters — urban and rural, peasant, bourgeois, and aristocrat, French and German, male and female, young and old — “Suite Française” lacks any Jewish character.
Now a second work joins the author’s posthumous oeuvre: “Fire in the Blood,” which Némirovsky was working on at the same time and whose manuscript, too, was only recently discovered. Though it lacks the epic breadth of “Suite Française,” it demonstrates the intensity of her moral vision.
Born in Kiev to a wealthy Jewish family that fled the Bolshevik Revolution for Paris, Némirovsky became a successful, prolific novelist in the language of her adopted country. Her relationship to her Jewish identity was, to say the least, troubled. She was a frequent contributor to the egregiously antisemitic newspaper “Gringoire,” and, though she married a Jewish banker and was eventually forced, under Vichy law, to wear a yellow star of David, Némirovsky never identified with other Jews. But her relationship with France was equally strained. The country never quite adopted her. It rejected her repeated applications for citizenship, and, despite her friendship with influential collaborationist antisemites, French police arrested her, a foreign Jew, on July 13, 1942. She died in Auschwitz five weeks later, at age 39.
“Fire in the Blood” is a récit, a short, spare narrative that modulates irony in the service of refined moral scrutiny and that is a specialty of French writers including André Gide, Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac. After years of restless wandering throughout the world, Sylvestre, the middle-aged narrator has returned to his roots in rural central France, in a region adjacent to Burgundy. “At my age, the fire in the blood has burned out,” he states, embracing melancholy solitude in the large, drafty house that is all that remains of the extensive farmlands he inherited. Colette, a young woman with fire still burning in her blood, is fond of her eccentric Cousin Sylvestre, and she idolizes her parents, Hélène and François Erard. She measures her own troubled marriage, to a miller named Jean Dorin, against their apparently perfect union. Brigitte Declos, a 24-year-old beauty who was ward to Hélène’s late half-sister Cécile, compensates for a loveless marriage to a wealthy old skinflint by consorting with handsome young Marc Ohnet.
Violence disrupts the pastoral tranquility of the novel’s rural setting, and a series of appalling revelations implicates even Sylvestre, who realizes that one can never quite extinguish fire in the blood. The idyllic beauty of a French village very like Issy-l’Evêque, to which Némirovsky, abandoning her elegant Paris apartment, fled after the German invasion, belies the moral squalor of its residents. At the center of the village, housing a café that Sylvestre occasionally visits for a drink with the local farmers, sits the Hôtel des Voyageurs, which is given the same name as the place in which Némirovsky, her husband, and their two young daughters found lodging during the months before the French deported their Jews.
“Fire in the Blood” begins on an autumn evening, and, though spanning several seasons, the novel, cast as the testimony of a man who has given up on passion and ambition, resonates with renunciation. Nevertheless, Némirovsky, who produced a book a year until racial laws restricted publication by Jews, was still writing urgently and copiously in the weeks before her arrest. Though she did not give up on literature, “Fire in the Blood” is the story of fire doused, and it is a document of disillusionment. By the final sentence of the novel, when Sylvestre reveals the full extent of perfidy within his village in the middle of France, it is hard to embrace the exalted view of France that a French governess in St. Petersburg had instilled in young Némirovsky.
The disillusionment also comes from abandoning hope that an immigrant Jew could possibly be accepted as French. In 1942, “blood” flowed as abundantly in racialist discourse as it did in the siege of Stalingrad. Fire can be extinguished, but, to a racial purist, blood cannot be expunged. Indeed, this book offers the haunting legacy of a brilliant writer who yearned to be French but faced the bitter truth that she would always be a Jew.
Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” (W.W. Norton) and recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.