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This perfect gem of a novel by the author of the posthumously acclaimed and bestselling Suite Française has never previously been published and was discovered only recently in separate archive files. A couple of pages were in the famous suitcase which her daughters saved, and the balance had been deposited with a family friend and editor during the war. A morality tale with doubtful morals, a story of murder, love and betrayal in rural France, Fire in the Blood , planned in 1937, written in 1941, is set in a small village, based on Issy-l’Evèque where Suite Française was written, and…
About the Book
This perfect gem of a novel by the author of the posthumously acclaimed and bestselling Suite Française has never previously been published and was discovered only recently in separate archive files. A couple of pages were in the famous suitcase which her daughters saved, and the balance had been deposited with a family friend and editor during the war. A morality tale with doubtful morals, a story of murder, love and betrayal in rural France, Fire in the Blood , planned in 1937, written in 1941, is set in a small village, based on Issy-l’Evèque where Suite Française was written, and brilliantly prefigures the village community in her later masterpiece. An old man looks back on a chequered life with secret regrets, concealing a truth he will not reveal until the end. Fire in the Blood is a small and beautiful chamber piece which starts quietly, lyrically, but then races away with revelations and narrative twists in a story about young women forced into marriages with old men, about mothers and daughters, stepmothers and stepdaughters, youthful passions and the regrets of old age, about peasant communities and the way they hide their secrets. Némirovsky looks at her characters, both young and old, with the same clear-eyed distance and humanity as she displayed in Suite Française, unpeeling layer after layer. Atmospheric and haunting as Embers and with the crystalline perfection of Chekhov, Fire in the Blood is a gripping literary find..top
Irene Nemirovsky interview/review
A BBC Interview with Denise Epstein on the publication of Suite Francaise
“I am going on a journey,” Irène Némirovsky told her two young daughters as she was led away by the French police in July 1942. Five weeks later this celebrated French writer, a Jew, died at Auschwitz, leaving behind handwritten notes that turned out to be her final novel.
Irène Némirovsky’s novel has taken the publishing world by storm.
As I passed a bookshop on my way to work, a face on the front cover of a book caught my eye.
It was a solemn sepia photograph of a woman in her early 30s. A woman with haunting brown eyes which seemed to follow me as I walked past.
Curious, I stopped to take a closer look.
The novel was called Suite Francaise , by a writer I had never heard of, Irène Némirovsky.
As I leafed through it, the introduction told a remarkable tale: the story behind the book and how it came to be published more than 60 years after the words themselves were written.
It is thanks to the courage of Irène Némirovsky’s daughter, Denise, that her mother’s voice is once again being heard after it was silenced at Auschwitz in 1942.
Today, Denise lives in a small flat in Toulouse, a far cry from the wealth she was born into, as the eldest daughter of a well-known writer and a Russian banker.
‘My mother told me she was going on a journey… It was a solemn farewell but we didn’t know it would be the last’
She is a slim and elegant 75-year-old with the energy of someone half her age.
Bookshelves line the small room, bearing dozens of novels bound in soft calfskin leather with her mother’s name stamped in gold.
They were editions of the 13 works that brought Irène Némirovsky fame and fortune in the Paris of the 1930s, after a turbulent childhood in which her family was forced to flee the Russian revolution, taking refuge in France.
‘My mother had a wonderful time in the 1920s and 30s,’ Denise says. “Our apartment on the Left Bank was always full of writers, talking late into the night.”
Denise’s green eyes light up as she tells me how her parents met at a ball. Her father Michel was a fellow Russian Jewish emigrant.
The children did not understand why, in 1939, their mother suddenly had them baptised into the Catholic Church, before sending Denise and her younger sister to the Burgundy countryside to live with their nurse and nanny.
But the Germans were advancing on Paris and anti-Jewish feeling was on the rise in France as well.
The baptism was in vain. By the time Denise’s parents joined them in a village called Issy L’Eveque, the whole family was made to wear the yellow star of David, marking them out as Jews.
Irene Nemirovsky’s handwritten novel Denise needed a magnifying glass and patience to decipher the work
“And yet,” Denise remembers, “they were the happiest years of my life. We lived together as a family, and my mother took long walks in the woods, during which she wrote and wrote. In the evenings, we had our parents to ourselves.”
Irene never shared her fears with her young daughters, instead scribbling ever more urgently into her leather-bound notebook, knowing there was little time left.
She refused to leave France. She had already lost one home in Russia.
Denise’s face suddenly crumples and looks as vulnerable as a child’s as she remembers the morning in July 1942 when a French gendarme knocked on the door.
“My mother told me she was going on a journey, and she went upstairs to collect her suitcase. It was a solemn farewell but we didn’t know it would be the last.”
Aged 13, Denise never saw her mother again.
She did not know that just five weeks later, her mother died at Auschwitz. A few months afterwards, her father died there too.
The girls were forced into hiding, but as they left the house, Denise picked up a small suitcase that had belonged to her mother, containing photographs and what she thought was Irene’s diary.
For two long years she carried it with her from hiding place to hiding place. After the war, it stayed closed, containing memories too painful to open up.
But as the decades passed, Denise tells me, she finally found the courage to look.
Slowly, she began to read and then transcribe her mother’s tiny handwriting – in azure ink on frail onion-skin paper – and discovered it was not a diary but a novel: her mother’s last, unsentimental account of a French village under occupation.
Suite Francaise was published in the UK in 2005.
A village not unlike Issy, in which the French bourgeoisie collaborate with the Nazis to save themselves, their houses, their precious dishes and cutlery.
So why did Denise not publish it sooner?
“I wanted to leave the manuscript to my children, as a legacy to them,” she explains. It was only a chance meeting with a friend that made her send the manuscript to a publisher last year. He read it with growing amazement and signed a contract the very next day.
Today, Irene Nemirovsky’s face once again gazes out from every bookshop in Paris, forcing the French to confront their wartime history.
Little could she have imagined, as she wrote alone in the woods, that one day her voice would again be heard by hundreds of thousands of readers.
But she must have hoped.
Denise smiles. “For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read. It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory.”top
Starting Points for Discussion
- Does a knowledge of Irene’s own story affect your reading of the novel?
- The novel revolves around events in a small village where youth and old age look across a divide of mutual incomprehension of the other’s wants and desires. Do you agree?
- ‘When you’re twenty love is like a fever, it makes you delirious. When it’s over you can hardly remember how it happened …Fire in the Blood how quickly it burns itself out’. Juxtapose this statement of Silvio’s with his revelation at the end of the novel. Do the actions of his life and those around him live up to his philosophy?
- ‘The farmers around here don’t gossip and would rather walk through fire than get involved in other people’s business.’ Explore how the villagers lives are shaped by their surroundings and their close-knit community.
- Helene’s life and marriage are held up throughout the novel as an example of love tempered with tenderness, whereas both Colette’s and Brigitte’s are obviously deeply flawed and unhappy. How does Silvio’s revelation at the end of the novel force you to reappraise the actions of the married couples in the novel?
- Fire in the Blood is a story told by the sly showman Silvio. Explore how his experience, sense of dramatic timing and philosophy deliberately shapes and subverts the actions and motivations of the characters.
- ‘At least understand that it wasn’t in my nature to be a bad wife… I was supposed to have had the life that Mama had. I was supposed to be pure-hearted, to grow old gracefully like her, with no regrets’ Irene Nemirovsky’s novels often revolve around a mother-daughter relationship. Discuss Colette’s relationship with her mother and the maternal nature of Helene.
- How does this book differ, if at all, with more contemporary novels you have read? What does it remind you of?
- ‘Like Chekhov, she observes and powerfully expresses the detail that fixes the scene’ Guardian
- Nemirovsky has been hailed as a classic writer and placed alongside Tolstoy and Chekhov – do you agree she belongs in such exalted company and why do you think these comparisons have been made?
Other Books by Irene Nemirovsky
All Our Worldly Goods
In haunting ways this wonderful, compelling novel prefigures Suite Française…
Translated by Sandra Smith, with an introduction by Patrick Marnham. In 1929,…
Fire in the Blood
This perfect gem of a novel by the author of the posthumously acclaimed and …
Suggested Further Reading
- Honore de Balzac ~ Pere Goriot
- Anton Checkov ~ The Sea-Gull
- John Galsworthy ~ The Forsyte Saga
- Irene Nemirovsky: Her Life and Works ~ Jonathan Weiss
- Bad Faith ~ Carmen Calill
Additional Online Resources