Review: The Fires of Autumn

Creation on the eve of destruction


By Irène Némirovsky
Chatto & Windus, £16.99

Irène Némirovsky fled revolutionary Russia in 1918 with her family. She was 15 years old. The only daughter of a hugely wealthy Jewish businessman and alienated all her life from her hated mother, she was close to her French governess. Everything desirable, culturally, linguistically, imaginatively, was French. The family holidayed in Provence; they felt themselves to be a part of the country.

Paris, the family's final destination in exile, was a dream come true for young Irène. She had at last "come home". And France was good to her. She published her first novel, David Golder, an intense study of her own father, in 1929 and went on to write 11 more books. Her work became fashionable reading throughout the '30s. She married and had two daughters, the family prospered and Irène was widely celebrated.

Yet all that bright success ended abruptly with what the French still call the "Débâcle" - the disastrous defeat of their army in June 1940 and the German occupation of their country.

Némirovsky was first marginalised and then arrested. She was deported to Auschwitz in 1942, and died there soon afterwards. Her work was largely forgotten until the chance discovery in 1998 of Suite Française, her last, unfinished novel of war and occupation. Immediately preceding it was The Fires of Autumn, also written in Némirovsky's brief years of seclusion, lying low from the occupying Nazi régime.

And, like Suite Française, although The Fires of Autumn was composed in the uncertain - and treacherously deceptive - shelter of the remote village of Issy L'Évèque, far from the Parisian glamour of the author's life, this book exudes a compelling strength and confident maturity.

That the novel is such an intense and compulsive read in English owes everything to the brilliant translation by Sandra Smith. In a near miraculous alchemy, Smith has produced a fresh, contemporary language, free from mannered, 1930s archaisms - the kind of speech that often acts as a barrier between writer and reader. This edition presents a bright, vivid vocabulary and natural, colloquial exchange. It's a subtle skill: fidelity to the text and awareness of the reader.

The plot is simple. An eager recruit to the First World War returns to a transformed Paris, now packed with greedy men and available women. Cynical already at 22, alienated from his puzzled parents, Bernard marries the simple, loving playmate of his youth but soon takes up with Renée, the wife of the book's entrepreneur-in-chief.

Life is full of luxury, sex and money. Too late, Bernard realises his son is a stranger and, as the infernal chaos of the Nazi occupation explodes around him, he has to fight for a second time, now burdened with the waste of his life and his profound betrayal of his family.

Into this bare structure, Némirovsky pours her reflections on the power of money, the compulsion of sex and the value of human life. It is a triumphant tour de force, a powerful, cinematic, real-time account of a European nation in full, panicked flight from a merciless invader.

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