Translated by Sandra Smith
Reviewed by Harriet
The Fires of Autumn, first published in France in 1957, is the most recent of Irène Némirovsky’s novels to be translated into English. As with her most celebrated work, Suite Française, it’s pretty well impossible to read it without thinking about Némirovsky, her life, and the circumstances of its composition. There can be few people who don’t know the tragic story of her final years – a French resident since she was fifteen, when her Jewish family had fled from Kiev, she had converted to Catholicism, left Paris for the comparative safety of Vichy France when the Germans invaded, but was nevertheless arrested in July 1942 and died in Auschwitz a few months later. Neither Suite Française nor The Fires of Autumn had been published at the time, and, like the earlier novel, this one has been reconstructed from manuscripts edited by Némirovsky.
Unlike Suite Française, which covers a period of just a year, 1940-41, when the Germans occupied Paris, The Fires of Autumn begins in 1912 and ends in 1942. It follows the intertwined lives of several bourgeois families in Paris as they struggle with the changes, both personal and social, brought about by the two world wars. The novel begins with a dinner chez the Bruns, ‘Parisians of some small independent means’ who live in a working-class area near the Gare de Lyon. Their comfortable household life is wonderfully evoked in the opening paragraph:
There was a bunch of fresh violets on the table, a yellow pitcher with a spout that opened with a little clicking sound to let the water pour out, a pink glass salt cellar decorated with the inscription ‘Souvenir of the World Fair, 1900’. (The letters had faded over twelve years and were hard to make out). There was an enormous loaf of golden bread, some wine and – the pièce de résistance, the main course – a wonderful blanquette of veal, each tender morsel hiding shyly beneath the creamy sauce, served with aromatic baby mushrooms and new potatoes.
These are people who are used to living modestly but well – their favourite outing is a trip to the Champs Elysees to watch the fashionable world go by. The girls and boys are growing up, and beginning to look at each other with shy liking. Soon, though, all this will change.
The main focus of the novel is on the lives of Thérèse Brun and of Bernard Jaquelain, the man she falls in love with and eventually marries. At the beginning, they are a couple of innocent teenagers, but both will be irrevocably altered by the war. Thérèse agrees to marry her cousin Martial, but he is killed two weeks after the wedding. Bernard, meanwhile, returns ‘aged without having had time to grow up; he was like a piece of fruit picked too early: bite into it and all you will taste is hard bitter flesh’. His youthful innocence and hope has disappeared, and he decides to ‘live for me, and me alone’. He quickly gets sucked into a world where everyone is out for themselves, where people fall easily into adulterous liaisons, where corruption and double-dealing are the norm. The social world of 1920s Paris, seen through Bernard’s eyes, is in vivid contrast to the quiet domestic scene at the start of the novel:
Everything was exactly as it should be, and just as it was everywhere at that time: an orchestra of black musicians wearing red jackets, smoke so thick you could cut it with a knife, a crush of people endlessly chattering, ice cream melting in little Venetian glass bowls, cigarettes with gold tips, swizzle sticks for the champagne, flowers, lipsticks carelessly tossed into the ornamental vases, couples stretched out on the low loveseats in the dark corners of the room, a bar set up in the long entrance hall, old women with dyed hair on the dance floor, necklaces bouncing and clicking against their dried-up, sunken chests.
He soon gets drawn into a decidedly dodgy business, selling American aeroplane parts to the French, whose planes they will not fit, and starts a passionate affair with his boss’s wife. He becomes rich and successful, and at some point of relative repentance marries Thérèse but finds it impossible to remain faithful to her. By 1939, their son is old enough to enlist, and the two of them set off together to the war, where young Yves is soon killed, a death for which his father realises he has been largely responsible. The last part of the novel, in which Thérèse and her two young daughters suffer terrible privations at home while Bernard endures almost unbearable agony, initially separated from his regiment and finally taken prisoner, makes painful reading, especially when you realise that this is war as Némirovsky was witnessing it, at first hand. Amazingly, though, the novel ends on a note of relative optimism, one which the title presumably points us towards, as it echoes the words spoken by Thérèse’s dying grandmother before the start of the second war:
‘these are the fires of autumn; they purify the land; they prepare it for new growth. You are still young. These great fires have not yet burned in your life. But they will. They will destroy many things. You’ll see, you’ll see…’
Despite the note of apparent hope at the end, this is overall a dark novel, a meditation on the corruption and subsequent downfall of France, which is seen as having begun long before the start of the second war. Beautifully translated, like Némirovsky’s earlier novels, by Sandra Smith, this is a serious and thought-provoking read, and highly recommended.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Irène Némirovsky, The Fires of Autumn, translated by Sandra Smith (London, Chatto & Windus, 2014). 978-0701186593, 240 pp., hardback.