Although Irene Nemirovsky only features on my blog once (The Dogs and the Wolves way back in 2010), she is, in fact, a writer whose work I have steadily devoured as it has been translated into English (largely by Sandra Smith). The Fires of Autumn is (as far as I know) her final book – both in terms of translation (published in 2014, nothing has appeared since, and I suspect all her major work is now available in English) and also her final completed novel, written around the same time as Suite Francois and published posthumously in 1957.
The Fires of Autumn is a novel of two world wars. In her first chapter Nemirovsky skilfully introduces all her characters in a pleasant domestic setting, a Sunday meal followed by a stroll, representing the comfortable life before the First World War. Both Therese and Bernard are at the point where they are beginning to leave their childhoods behind:
“Since Therese had just turned fifteen a few days ago, she had put her curls up in a chignon, but her silky hair was not yet used to the style she tried to hold in place with hairpins, so it was escaping all over the place, which made Therese unhappy.”
“Bernard did not reply because at the age of fifteen, the company of adults still intimidated him. He was still in short trousers. (But this was the last year…)”
Therese is destined, however, for the twenty-seven-year-old Martial Brun, who is training to be a doctor. We also meet his friend, the charismatic Raymond Detang, and Madame Humbert and her daughter Renee, who survive by selling hats since Monsieur Humbert died and left them penniless. These are the middle classes: not poor, but not rich enough to put money out of their minds.
War changes everything. Even before he enlists, Bernard is aware that the experience will change him:
“’They aren’t really like us’, thought Bernard as he recalled the soldiers he’d seen when they’d returned from the front. They were different, unusual.”
Martial’s father, Adolphe, is also aware of the change:
“There was something about all this that frightened him: he no longer recognised the French. Its people spoke a new language… The most sacred words – ‘Frugality…Marital fidelity…Virginity…’ – had gradually become old-fashioned, almost laughable.”
Bernard scandalises his own father when he loses five thousand francs gambling when on leave. Nemirovsky identifies the First World War with a collapse in middle class values, a loss of morals which she dramatises by polarising her characters between those who embrace this and those who stay ‘honest’. Detang, who has already offered Bernard work during the war in America buying equipment for the army while being sure to feather his own nest, best exemplifies the new attitude:
“There was an enormous fairground where anyone who wanted to could get in; it wasn’t even necessary to hide your background like in the good old days: they were living in a cynical world which glorified the sludge from which a man had risen.”
Nemirovsky is not suggesting that corruption entered French society with the war, but that it infected the middle classes who had previously been excluded both by snobbery and a sense of propriety. Bernard is torn between the morality of the past and the attraction of easily acquired wealth, as we see in his love for Therese and his affair with Detang’s wife, Renee. This allows Nemirovsky to demonstrate these tensions using the relationships, for example when he invites Therese and her mother to his (luxurious) home only to fail to appear.
In Nemirovsky’s eyes, it is this collapse in the moral fabric of society which leads to France’s defeat in the Second World War. She demonstrates this in practical terms in a plotline which echoes All My Sons (which was, of course, based on a true story). This is, naturally, simplistic, and Nemirovsky’s morality can seem a little dated now: whereas men become corrupted by greed, for women it is only sexual morality which matters, hence Renee is Therese’s nemesis. However, Bernard’s corruption reflects an attitude we continue to see damaging society in the way which Nemirovsky suggests: why be honest when others achieve success through dishonesty? Nemirovsky also has something to tell us about corrupt politicians:
“[Detang] was not even cynical about himself, except for very rare moments when he felt depressed. He honestly considered himself an eminent statement who exists solely for the good of the people.”
Nemirovsky, of course, did not survive the Second World War and was therefore tasked with concluding her story before reality had concluded its. The title comes from Madam Pain’s comment that “these are the autumn fires; they purify the land; they prepare it for new seeds.” In many ways, for Western Europe at least, this is what happened; in the UK the lives of ordinary people were vastly improved after World War Two. As we begin to undo these improvements, the warnings of Nemirovsky’s novel become more relevant.