Review Of Fire In The Blood

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 10/24/07


  I was interested in reading the second American released fiction work by Irene Nemirovsky whose book Suite Française had achieved much popularity—mainly due to the author’s tragic death. She died in Auschwitz in 1942 just shy of turning 40. Now in this novella, called Fire in the Blood (also translated from the French by Sandra Smith) I have a bit better indication of where Nemirovsky stands as a writer. My main criticism with Suite Française was that despite showing some glimmers of talent, structurally the ‘novel’ was a mess. I say ‘novel’ because the book itself is actually 2 novellas—and had the author not perished so soon, she probably would have finished the work as the 5 part series she planned. But unfortunately she did not live to finish it, and so I had to critique it as is. I admit to also being a bit agitated by some comments from readers accusing me of being ‘unsympathetic’ to her situation, as though her cruel death should weigh in as to whether a work artistically succeeds or fails. People who say these things don’t realize how condescending it is to the writer, as well as disrespectful—to expect not to be regarded as other writers, simply because of one’s deficiency, which in this case, would have been Nemirovsky’s inability to complete the work. So one must rely on what is in the book alone. How appalling.

  Now having said all that, Fire in the Blood is a complete book and structurally a much better one than is Suite Française. The title is actually referring to those days of ‘youth’ and ‘passion’ or rather the ‘Fire in the Blood’ that dictated choices that upon memory can appear foolish or naive. The theme actually much reminded me of Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, where in that novel the ‘Floating World’ is (as stated in my review of it) “the idea of the nightlife, of pleasure and drink, things viewed as ephemeral.” Told from the point of view of Silvo, an old man who is revisiting his memories, he gives us glimpses of his past and present. Much like the Ishiguro novel, Silvo, however, isn’t as memorable a character. Overall, Fire in the Blood is not a great work, and it probably lacks the dramatic ‘highs’ present in Suite Française. But despite having said that, structurally it is still the superior work.

  Much of the time, whenever one considers a translated work, one has to read through and find the ideas and insights—which is essentially the ‘core’ of the novel. Nemirovsky has them, but that does not escape the book from suffering from the occasional clunky cliché. For example, here is a very trite sentiment:

What I could not foresee was the flame that would be locked inside me, whose cinders would continue to glow for years to come, to burn my heart.

  Now, anyone reading this should be cringing, but it is difficult to tell if the clichés are due to Sandra Smith’s choosing of pedestrian-style prose in her translation, or if Nemirovsky wrote in such a way. I’m inclined to believe it is due to the translation, for the language in this book never soars like Carol Brown Janeway’s translation of the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai’s great novel Embers does. But having said that, there are still good ideas and insights in Nemirovsky’s writing, since the above sentence is actually layered with metaphor that relates back to the title, despite it not being stated well. Very often when reading poetry translation, for example, to get a real feel for the poet it is always a good idea to read more than one translator of that poet’s work. There are several Russian poets whose great poems lean more towards mediocre with lesser translators. Boris Pasternak is a perfect example.

  So what are these good ideas and insights, you are wondering? For example, in this one passage regarding adultery and suffering Nemirovsky writes why a man would keep his affairs secret:

“Even if he knows she’s cheating on him, he’ll make very sure to behave in such a way that no one else suspects her adultery. It’s both a matter of pride and loyalty to the family; a kind of solidarity that ties husband and wife, father and son. In order to avoid scandal, to make sure no one knows anything, all hatreds are hidden. It’s not that they seek approval: they’re too primitive for that and too proud. What they fear most of all is that others might know their business. To feel judgemental eyes upon them is unbearable suffering. That’s what makes them incapable of vanity: they do not wish to be envied any more than they wish for others to feel sorry for them. They just want to be left in peace. Peace, that’s how they put it. To them, peace is synonymous with happiness, or rather, it replaces the happiness they lack.”

  And earlier on the page Nemirovsky seems to have somewhat of a visionary view of the shallow, narcissistic culture of today:

“It’s true: the people around here have a kind of genius for living in the most difficult way possible. No matter how rich they are, they refuse pleasure, even happiness, with implacable determination, wary perhaps of its deceptive promise.”

  And by ‘pleasure’ one means the pleasure for happiness in and of itself, not in the way of bored rich people who go jet setting and shopping for frivolous things and yet are never satisfied.

  Overall, Fire in the Blood is worth the read, especially to anyone who noticed the soggy narrative of Suite Française. While not a great novella, it is a work that has its merits, and even more so—how remarkable is it that a writer now 60 years later is finally getting her ‘due’? Just as the publishers and literary agents ignore the great writers of today by choosing not to publish them or take them as clients and instead invest in bad writers like James Frey, this has proven that quality wins in the end, even if that end takes 60 years or more. That should account for something at least, and just one of the more reasons to await a second translator for this author’s work.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Van Der Galien Gazette website.]


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