Irène Némirovsky’s "new" novel Fire in the Blood opens with a scene out of a Euro-fantasy book by Peter Mayle or Frances Mayes: a engaged young couple gather with the bride’s family around a fireplace in an isolated farmhouse in Burgundy. The mother of the bride recounts the story of her courtship, while an old family friend, our narrator, looks on approvingly. The reminiscences send the young couple floating dreamily into marriage. Forty pages into their marriage, the young husband, now a young father as well, is discovered floating face down in a river. Suspicion falls immediately on the wife’s lover.
Némirovsky worked on Fire in the Blood–along with her better known, and more fully imagined, novel Suite Française–virtually up to her internment and execution in Auschwitz in 1942. Fire in the Blood was known only as a typewritten fragment until recently, when a suitcase full of Némirovsky’s manuscripts was discovered. The manuscript was 30 pages of densely written text, with hardly a cross out. The novel reads like a first draft, unfortunately. Némirovsky was clearly a confident writer, and Fire evinces some of the power and empathy of Suite Française. Both novels have a palpable sense of incompletion, but the multiple storylines of Française float nicely on an historical current, so the gaps are less troubling. Fire is a bitter, crude tragedy, offering to the reader the same maimed comfort as the narrator enjoys in his old age.
Fire is set in a permanent autumn populated by gloomy, reticent, hidebound farmers working some of the most beautiful land on the planet. Ceaseless toil, wartime casualties, and prodigious wine drinking mean the men have short lifespans, leaving the young women to make hasty marriages with hard-bitten men decades older than them. Constricted horizons and chaleur du sang lead to all kinds of bad object choices, which the narrator observes first with wise equanimity and then, startlingly, with drunken anger. The murder of the young husband is only the first rupture in the placid, self-satisfied lives of the main characters. We have a pretty good idea who killed him, and one of the nicer touches of the novel is Némirovsky’s treatment of the farmers’ code of silence that prevents the murderer from being brought to justice, or even named out loud. We become complicit in the cover up, but our own complicity is disturbed by the disquieting revelations to come.
It’s too pat to claim that Fire in the Blood shows the hidden underside of the rustic European fantasies of Mayle or Mayes, for Némirovsky was herself a sophisticated urbanite with pastoral fantasies. Frankly, her gently ironic yet romanticized vision of the lives of her Burgundians is the primary appeal of the novel. A hard day’s work in the lovely countryside concluding with a bottle of burgundy wine and a rustic stew, then a book by the fireplace–what a life! Who cares if you’re surrounded by adulterers and murderers. Of course, eventually the ideal pastoral life shows its underside: torpidity of the body and an imagination that feeds only upon itself. This underside finds its expression in the novel’s overcurdled plot and odd forgetfulness, as a major plot element is neglected at the end. Slight and uneven, Fire in the Blood is nevertheless a difficult novel to put down, or to forget.
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