Found: another Némirovsky
From the author of 'Suite Française,' a melancholy tale of French paysans.
In a village in Burgundy, a middle-aged Frenchman sits by a fire, "not reading, not drinking, not dreaming." Sylvestre, a prodigal son come home too late – "even the fatted calf had died of old age" – has settled into a cozy, if impoverished, retirement.
Wealthy cousins interrupt Sylvestre's solitude by inviting him to the wedding of their daughter, Colette. Colette's life as a bride at the Moulin Neuf causes Sylvestre to reflect on a long-hidden secret and the "fire in the blood" of youth. "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."
The plot of Fire in the Blood isn't in itself remarkable. The novella's strength comes from its identity as a newly published novel by Irène Némirovsky, who became an internationally bestselling writer 60 years after her death at Auschwitz.
A Russian émigré who had lived in France since 1919, Némirovsky fled to a French village with her husband and two daughters before the fall of Paris. In July 1942, she was taken to Auschwitz, where she died a month later. The book Némirovsky was working on, "Suite Française," survived World War II in a suitcase saved by her daughter and was published to much acclaim in 2004.
Now, another lost story has been found. Its existence is a welcome surprise, but "Fire in the Blood" doesn't pack the same wallop as "Suite Française." For one thing, its aims are smaller. Instead of an epic tale of the fall of Paris and the German occupation, this is an intimate story of hypocrisy and adultery among French paysans. The most stunning aspect of "Suite Française" is that it was written almost simultaneously with the events it depicted. "Fire in the Blood" is set before and after World War I and so lacks that immediacy.
Nor is it fair to judge the story by usual critical standards, since it's hard to tell just how complete a work it is. Parts of the novella feel unfinished – some chapters are literally one paragraph long, and there's a plot thread left dangling.
But it is with elegant authority that Némirovsky writes about her paysans: "Their houses are imposing and isolated, built far from the villages and protected by great forbidding doors with triple locks, like the doors you find in prisons. Their flat gardens contain almost no flowers, nothing but vegetables and fruit trees trained to produce the best yield. Their sitting rooms are stuffed full of furniture and always shut up; they live in the kitchen to save money on firewood."
And there's enough of Némirovsky's intelligence and caustic powers of observation to make "Fire in the Blood" more than a mere curiosity. For those who loved "Suite Française," the existence of this quiet, melancholy story is good news.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.