Fire in her blood

Suite Française was a posthumous literary sensation for Irène Némirovsky. Now there’s more from the same suitcase.

They may not be up there with the Dead Sea scrolls, but the contents of a tattered brown leather suitcase must still rank among the world’s greatest literary finds. The case belonged to the writer Irène Némirovsky, and it contained the sensation of 2004: the two-part novel Suite Française, which tells, in vivid prose, the story of the early days of the second world war in France, and of the reaction of the French to the German invasion. Left unfinished in 1942 – when the author was arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where she died – it was hailed as a masterpiece by critics and became a best-seller in more than 25 countries. Now another gem from the same suitcase is about to be published, a novella called Fire in the Blood. As with the second part of Suite Française, it is set in Issy-l’Evêque, the village in Burgundy where Némirovsky fled with her family after the fall of Paris.

She was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker. The family lived in Russia until 1918, when they fled the revolution, first to Finland, then to France. Némirovsky married a banker, Michel Epstein, and they had two daughters. Her first novel, David Golder, was an instant success, launching her into the heart of Parisian literary life. She continued to produce novels and newspaper books and articles, sometimes for the right-wing press, for which she has been criticised. She had an uncomfortable relationship with her own Jewish roots. In David Golder, for example, the title character is a Jewish banker, and her portrayal of him is at times deeply unsympathetic.

Némirovsky formed a strong emotional attachment to her new homeland. “She loved France,” says her daughter, Denise Epstein. “She loved the French culture. When my grandfather suggested we all go to America to avoid the Nazis, she refused.” Némirovsky wanted to make her family’s life in the country permanent. She applied for French citizenship, which was still pending when she died. In another move that has since proved controversial, she converted her children to Catholicism; yet that saved their lives, as they fled the Nazis during the war under the protection of Catholic guardians. On July 13, 1942, she was arrested for being a “stateless person of Jewish descent”, interned at Pithiviers, a French concentration camp, then transported to Auschwitz, where she died a month later in the infirmary, officially of typhus, aged 39.

Némirovsky had the idea for Fire in the Blood in 1937. “New subjects and a novel,” she writes in her notebook. “I thought about The Young and the Old . .. The impossibility of understanding that ‘fire in the blood’. A good idea. Disadvantage: no clear characters.” It wasn’t until a visit to Issy-l’Evêque in 1938 that she stumbled across the ideal setting. “Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money and doesn’t give a thought to the rest of the world,” says Sylvestre, the narrator of the novella.

Two pages of Fire in the Blood were found in the famous suitcase lined with green material and embossed with the letters LN, the initials of Némirovsky’s father. They were in the form of a manuscript typed by her husband; the rest had been entrusted, along with some short stories, to a close friend during the war. The complete novella was discovered in 2005 by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, who were researching a biography of Némirovsky that comes out in France this week. They found it among papers that Denise Epstein had donated to the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine – 30 pages of her mother’s neat, small handwriting. The beginning was the same as the two typed pages found in the suitcase.

Fire in the Blood is about the contrast between youth and old age, about the “fire in the blood” that rages when we’re young, and the gradual process of growing old and finding peace. It is also a brilliant portrayal of French paysan society: of the underlying cruelty, the secrets, the currents that motivate people and rule their deceptively simple lives. Némirovsky is as skilled as Chekhov at pinpointing an emotion or a gesture. Her observations are often brutally honest and always compelling. One of the characters, for example, has married a rich older man. She lies in bed, “dreaming of her lover, counting her husband’s sighs, wondering, ‘When will he finally stop breathing?’ ”.

Epstein, now 77, and living in Toulouse, describes it as a “lovely book. No war and no Jews, which is a good start”. Without the backdrop of wartime, when life is charged with tension, the book has a slower, less dramatic feel than Suite Française. But, after a languid start in the Burgundy countryside, the drama of the characters’ lives unfolds in a rush. It is thanks to Epstein that her mother’s work has survived to find acclaim. When the time came for the 13-year-old to flee from the French police, she had three things to take with her: her younger sister, the leather suitcase containing her mother’s notebooks, and her favourite doll. “As I had only two hands,” she recalls, “I took my sister and the suitcase. I often wonder what happened to that doll. I feel as if I’ve been searching for it ever since.”

The final work from Némirovsky’s suitcase is a collection of short stories; these will be published, according to Epstein, though not in the immediate future. It will mark the end of an unrivalled posthumous career for a woman who is surely one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Yesterday, I left my house early to go to Coudray. Old Declos has purchased one of my fields and owes me eight thousand francs. I got held up in the village, and when I got to Coudray it was dusk. I crossed a small wood. The trees were already casting shadows on the ground, making it night in there. I love our silent woods. You never meet a soul ordinarily. So I was surprised to hear, all of a sudden, a woman’s voice calling out, quite close to me. A high-pitched call, on two notes. Someone whistling in reply. The voice fell silent. I was near the small lake by then. The woods in these parts have many little lakes; you can’t see them because they’re surrounded by trees and hidden by rows of rushes. But I know them all.

I moved softly. The water shimmered, giving off a pale light, like a mirror in a dark room. I saw a man and a woman walk towards each other along a path between the rushes. I couldn’t see their faces, only the shapes of their bodies (they were both tall and well built); the woman was wearing a red jacket. I continued on my way; they didn’t see me; they were kissing.

When I arrived at Declos’s house, he was alone. He was dozing in a large armchair beside the open window. He opened his eyes, let out a deep, furious sigh and stared at me for a long time without recognising me.

I asked him if he was ill. But he’s a true farmer: illness is shameful and must be hidden until the last possible moment, until death is seeping from your pores. He replied he was in excellent health, but the yellowish colour of his skin, the purple circles round his eyes, the folds in his clothing that hung loose from his body, his shortness of breath, his weakness, all betrayed him. I’ve heard people say he’s got a “bad tumour”. It must be true. Brigitte will soon find herself a widow.

“Where’s your wife?” I asked. “My wife, you say?” He had the old habit of a horse trader (he’d been one when he was younger) of pretending to be deaf.

He ended up mumbling something about his wife being at Colette Dorin’s place. “She’s got nothing to do, that one, except stroll about and go to see people all day long,” he concluded bitterly. He gestured to me to have a seat. He’s so stingy that it pains him to have to offer anyone something to drink, and I took malicious pleasure in asking him for a glass of wine so I could drink to his health. “Can’t hear you,” he muttered. “I have a terrible buzzing in my ear: it’s from the wind.”

I mentioned the money he owes me. He sighed, pulled a big key out of his pocket and pushed his chair over to the cupboard. But the drawer he wanted to open was much too high; he made several vain attempts to reach it, refused to give me the key and finally said that his wife would surely be home soon and would pay me.

“You have a beautiful young wife, Declos.” “Too young for my old carcass, is that what you think, Monsieur Sylvestre? Well, if she finds the nights long, at least the days pass quickly.”

At that moment, Brigitte came in. She was wearing a black skirt and a red jacket, and there was a young man with her. In my mind I finished the old man’s sentence: “Quicker than you might think.” But he didn’t seem like a fool. He looked at his wife, and his half-dead face suddenly lit up with passion and anger. “Well, finally! I’ve been waiting for you since midday.”

She shook my hand and introduced the young man. He’s called Marc Ohnet; he lives on his father’s land. He has a reputation for getting into fights and for being a womaniser. He’s very handsome. I had never realised that Brigitte and Ohnet “stepped out together”, as they say in these parts. But around here, malicious gossip stops at the edge of town, and in these isolated houses separated by fields and deep woods, many things happen that nobody knows about. As for me, well, even if I hadn’t seen that red jacket near the lake, I still would have guessed these young people were in love: their calm, arrogant demeanour, and a kind of stifled passion concealed in their movements, in their smiles, gave them away. Especially her. She was burning. “She finds the nights long,” old Declos had said. I could picture those nights, nights in her old husband’s bed, dreaming of her lover, counting her husband’s sighs, wondering, “When will he finally stop breathing?”

She opened the cupboard that I imagined to be stuffed full of money beneath piles of sheets; this isn’t the kind of place where we make bankers even richer; everyone keeps his possessions close, like a cherished child. I glanced at Ohnet to see if I could catch a glimmer of envy on his face, for nobody’s rich in his family: his father was the eldest of 14 and his share of the property is small. But no. As soon as he saw the money, he turned away quickly. He went over to the window and stared out of it for a long time.

Extracted from Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky, published by Chatto & Windus on Sept 27 at £12.99. To buy it for £11.69 (inc p&p), call The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585 or visit timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

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