Posts Tagged ‘irene nemirovsky’

The Fires of Autumn

August 2, 2016

fires of autumn

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.

WITmonth

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.

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The Dogs and the Wolves

November 30, 2010

From the opening description of the Ukrainian city where the novel’s protagonists begin their lives it is clear that the division between rich and poor will be a central concern of the latest of Nemirovsky’s novels to be translated into English by Sandra Smith:

“It was like a medieval painting: the damned were at the bottom, trapped among the shadows and flames of Hell; the mortals were in the middle, lit by a faint, peaceful light; and at the top was the realm of the blessed.”

What separates these “three distinct regions” is wealth. While those at the bottom struggle to survive, facing not only poverty but the threat of anti-Semitic violence, those at the top remain aloof and secure behind their “gilded gates”.

The key scenes in this novel are therefore those where the two worlds intersect, however briefly. More than once we witness the novel’s heroine, Ada, who begins her life in the Hell of the lower part of the town, glimpsing that other life, represented by her distant relation, Harry. Though she is only a child when she first sees him, the slightly melodramatic love story that will follow is quickly telegraphed to the reader:

“She spoke this strange and mysterious name, with its unique and noble sound, as if it were a kiss.”

This scene is repeated later in Paris one night when she looks up at Harry’s house as she passes:

“Here was an entire world of pleasure and refinement that was foreign to her, a world she had never even dreamed of because it was so distant from her, so strange.”

Before this they have met twice, the first time when Ada and her cousin Ben look for refuge from a pogrom in the lower town, and later, some faint family ties having been established, at a party. Here the distance between them is again emphasised:

“Harry raised his eyes and recognised the child he had seen two years before…She surged up out of a horrible sordid world, a world of dirt, sweat and blood, far removed yet, despite everything, mysteriously, terrifyingly linked to him.”

In some ways, however, their relationship is one of the least interesting aspects of the novel, except in what it reveals about Nemirovsky feelings about class, and, more especially, her Jewish roots. This is a novel which frequently discusses Jewish culture and identity, with phrases such as, “It is characteristic of the Jewish way of thinking…” peppering the narrative. The divide between Ada and Harry is not simply one of class: Harry represents those Jews who have amassed enough wealth to escape, superficially at least, the ghetto of prejudice. When Ada and Ben turn up on his doorstep as children the reason for the family’s hostility is clear:

“the famished children stood before these wealthy Jews as an eternal reminder, a shameful and atrocious memory of what they themselves had once been or might have been. No-one dared to add: ‘what they could be again one day.’”

Nemirovsky understands that while wealth may divide families from their roots, this is because it unites the wealthy. For Jewish families, however, that class unity, as no doubt she was already aware in 1940, was a very fragile one. The fragility of their existence is something that permeates the novel, the transition from the Ukraine to Paris, from poverty to wealth, from unhappiness to happiness notwithstanding. Interestingly, almost everything that is gained in the novel is also lost, and it is peopled with characters who move from place to place, either following their dreams or escaping from their nightmares. When Ada, having attained her dream, renounces it, she is not only making a sacrifice out of love, but, it seems to be suggested, facing up to reality. Nemirovsky’s view of this seems as complex and uncertain as her relationship with her own Jewishness.