By Irene Nemirovsky
Translated from the French by Sandra Smith
Random House, $TBC | Reviewed by Jennifer Van Beynen

BOOKS often do not quite live up to the dazzling quotations smattered over their covers. Fire in the Blood however, does not disappoint after being described by the Sunday Times as “A masterpiece of French fiction”. Russian-born Irene Nemirovsky’s manuscript was recently discovered by her biographers, Olivier Philipponat and Patrick Lienhardt, and is a beautiful and compelling meditation on life and ageing.

Irene Nemirovsky began Fire in the Blood in 1938 while living in France, after unearthing a notebook containing her younger self’s first attempts at writing. The ensuing feelings of melancholy, and the realisation that she had long since departed from her youth, provoked possible subjects for new stories. Many of these ideas were concerned with the passing of time, youth, and old age, all of which form the thematic basis of Fire in the Blood. The setting for Nemibrovsky’s new book came from her visit to Issy-l’Eveque, a village in Burgundy. The local, Hotel des Voyageurs, which the narrator visits, is in fact the same hotel where Nemirovsky spent the early part of the Occupation, and where she began her final and most famous book, Suite Française. (The darkness that Nemirovsky observed lurking at the heart of village life, a darkness which underpins Fire in the Blood, became the subject of the second part of Suite Française). The original manuscript of Fire in the Blood was found amongst other papers that were packed into a suitcase by Nemirovsky in 1942. The suitcase was rescued by her daughter Denise when she and her sister Elizabeth fled Issy-l’Eveque later that year. Irene was arrested and deported to Auschwitz on 13 July 1942, around when she was likely still working on the manuscript of Fire in the Blood. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.

Fire in the Blood is narrated by Sylvestre, an elderly Frenchman who has travelled to exotic places, never married, and returned to his home village to live out the rest of his days. He lives alone, but occasionally visits his cousin Helene, her husband Françoise, and their daughter Colette. Although these characters seem settled and peaceful, as the narration progresses and changes pace, a darker side emerges. Sylvestre constantly reminds us that although the French countryside appears charming and tranquil to the casual observer, it has a savage and primal side. This savageness is not due the countryside, or forests harbouring wild beasts, but the villagers themselves.

The book builds itself around a secret – a secret in the real sense of the word, in that only two people ever truly know about it, until it is revealed decades later. Like a harvest is sown, as Helene observes, the actions of the past take time to come to fruition, and eventually past actions emerge to disrupt the tranquillity that years of silence and deception have forged. The recurring theme of Fire in the Blood is the disparity and inevitability of both youth and old age. The ‘fire’ of youth is ever-present in the book; the title phrase ‘fire in the blood’ is alluded to several times. This fire supposedly gradually dies down as one becomes stately, complacent, and settled. Sylvestre observes that between the ages of forty and sixty, people enjoy a “precarious sense of tranquillity”. He notes that when older people get together, “…you can sense they’ve tasted all the heavy, bitter, spicy food of life, extracted its poisons, and will now spend ten or fifteen years in a state of perfect equilibrium and enviable morality.” After this time will come fear of impending death, but before that all is supposedly serene.

Sylvestre himself seems the very epitome of this stately calm, although there is almost something shadow-like about him, of not being quite alive, as he describes his ideal evening sitting by his fire, with no books, newspapers, or people; just him and his silence. Sylvestre belies an almost forced calmness – in his character, as in village life, the tension between reckless youth and the ingratiated elderly is explored. He meditates on the state of youthful passion compared with old age, “I enjoy simple things…most especially, this divine solitude. What else do I need? But when I was twenty, how I burned! How is this fire lit in us? It devours everything and then, in a few years, a few months, a few hours even, it burns itself out. Then you see how much damage has been done.”

Fire in the Blood appears to flow along almost effortlessly, though the narrator’s style is often a documentation of current happenings in his village, as well as a tale intricately woven to an audience. It is definitely an easy read, yet deceptively so; Nemirovsky slips in some wonderful insights and turns of phrases, and the book as a whole sits beautifully (as much as the recovered manuscript-in-progress allows – although it seems to end a little abruptly, the ending fits well). Fire in the Blood is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying reads I have had for a while.