Saturday, November 17, 2007

A fire that was once singing gold

Irene Nemirovsky's Fire in the Blood

Let it be forgotten, as a flower is forgotten,
Forgotten as a fire that once was singing gold,
Let it be forgotten forever and ever,
Time is a kind friend, he will make us old.

If anyone asks, say it was forgotten
Long and long ago,
As a flower, as a fire, as a hushed footfall
In a long-forgotten snow.

- Sara Teasdale

Two years ago, while working on a biography of Irene Nemirovsky (the early twentieth century French-Russian author whose Suite Francaise - published in translation last year - was, to me, the best book of 2006), Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt stumbled upon an important find - the missing manuscript of Nemirovsky's Fire in the Blood, a novel believed to have been left unfinished by Nemirovsky's death at Auschwitz in 1942.

Newly released, and now available in an English translation by Sandra Smith (who also translated Suite Francaise), Fire in the Blood is, at just under 130 pages, a delightful if somewhat insubstantial read. If Suite Francaise was a grand symphony of a book, Fire in the Blood is more like a lilting etude, an elegaic slow movement scored for piano and cello, every bit as consummate in its artistry as the greater work, but on an entirely different scale. Go in expecting a second Suite Francaise and you'll be disappointed; but read it expecting a longish Flaubertian short story and you'll come away entranced.

At the heart of the book is the Heraclitean idea of the essential separation between our old and young selves. Time, Nemirovsky argues, divides us forever from the people we once were, and while our memories may cling to the facts of those bygone times, it cannot hold on to the spirit of being young - the fire in the blood that gives the book its title. We may romanticize the past or disown it, laugh it off, but in either case what we are left with is necessarily a reinterpretation, and a reinterpretation, moreover, that requires the complicity of others to make us whole, so that we can only truly reclaim our old self (or whatever version of it we choose to believe in) if the others who shared that past with us will go along with the deception. Where they will not, where their version of things contradicts our own, we are set adrift on a sea of uncertainty, trying to make sense of our lives anew. This is why, perhaps, we seek out others to love and cherish - not to share our future with, but for the security of knowing in that future, that we have a shared past. For the porousness of memory divides us not only from our own past, but also from the present of the generations who come after us, who know us only as we are now - correct, proper, secure - and cannot imagine us ever sharing the excitement and abandon that torments and bewilders them.

As the narrator, an aging bachelor named Sylvestre remarks, watching young people dance at a wedding:

"I went into the marquee and watched them; I listened to their laughter. I wondered how they could get such enjoyment from prancing around in time to the music. For some time now, when I'm with young people, I feel a kind of astonishment, as if I'm looking at a species utterly different from mine, the way an old dog watches the comings and goings of little mice. I asked Helene and Francoise if they ever felt anything similar. They laughed and said I was nothing but an old egotist, that they weren't losing contact with their children, thank God. So that's what they believe! I think they're deluding themselves. If they could see their own youth resurrected before them, it would horrify them, or else they wouldn't recognise it; they would stare and say, "That love, those dreams, that fire are strangers to us." Their own youth...So how can they possibly expect to understand anyone else's?"

It's an interesting notion, but one that developed as insistently as it is here, soon comes to feel programmatic and a little too pat. The interactions through which these ideas are laid out seem, at times, a little too contrived (writing about the idea for the novel in her diary, Nemirovsky notes that "a play would be better" and some of that theatricality shows) and the conversation has a tendency to wander into cliche. Consider this exchange:

"Ah, dear friend, when something happens in life, do you ever think about the moment that caused it, the seed from which it grew? How can I explain it...Imagine a field being sowed and all the promise that's contained in a grain of wheat, all the future harvest...Well, it's exactly the same in life. When I saw Francois for the first time, the instant we looked into each other's eyes, so much happened in that makes me feel faint to think of it. Our love, our separation, those three years he spent in Dakar, when I was someone else's wife, and...everything else...Then the war, the children...Happy things, but sad things as well, the idea that he could die, or I might, and the desperate unhappiness of the one left behind."

"Yes", I said, "but who would bother sowing his fields if he knew in advance what the harvest would bring?"

"But everyone would, Silvio," she replied, calling me by the name she hardly ever used now. "That's what life is all about, joy and tears. Everyone wants to live life, everyone except you."
There's a great deal of movement under the surface of this exchange that makes sense only in context, but the dialog itself, with its shop-worn Old Testament metaphor feels so artificial. If this were all there were to the book, then it would be a meager book indeed. Three things, however, add just enough richness to Fire in the Blood to make it rewarding.

The first is the warmth and tone of Nemirovsky's prose (or at least, of Nemirovsky's prose as rendered by Sandra Smith), her ability to evoke mood and landscape, the delectable flavor of sentence after sentence that rolls off your tongue like fine burgundy.

The second is Nemirovsky's ability to bring to life, not just the individual characters in her book, but an entire society, the attitudes, norms and lifestyle of a segment of the rural middle-class, captured as surely and as vividly as in a painting. In her writing, Nemirovsky combines a poetic sensibility with the insight of a sociologist, so that the long vanished culture her story is set in seems familiar, almost lived. The finest scenes in this book are not the ones involving the main protagonists, they are the exquisitely done descriptions of the marginal figures - the farmers gossiping among themselves at a village in, the miserly old man confronting death, the shallow mix of curiosity and propriety that makes these people both petty and noble.

The third is the way Nemirovsky subtly undermines her own narrator, making us doubt his witness and leading us to suspect him of both insincerity and self-delusion. This is an old trick (though, in all fairness, perhaps less so in 1940 than today) but it is done superbly here, and the effect of it is to cause the novel to open up towards the end into a variety of perspectives, each of which, casting new light on the story from its own angle, makes what is otherwise a short, simple tale, seem like a rich palimpsest of emotional and moral choices. The point is not that the facts are unclear - this is not a murder mystery - the point is that the 'truth', when applied to things as ephemeral as feelings, is both subjective and retrospective, and therefore, like Nemirovsky's narrator, impossible to pin down.

Overall then, Fire in the Blood is a fascinating book - not quite in the same league as Suite Francaise, which is a true classic - but an accomplished work by a writer of great skill and insight.


Space Bar said...

Excellent post. Even making allowances for it being an unfinished work, it appears to be - from all I've read about it - more forceful than a lot of what's written (and praised) these days.

I wonder what it is about that period that made its writers examine so closely questions of memory, the past and the ways in which it is reconstructed.

Falstaff said...

space bar: Thanks. Just to be clear, though - it's not an unfinished work any more - the whole point is they found the rest of the manuscript. It was incomplete before they did.