Irène Némirovsky was an acclaimed author at 26 years old, following the success of her first novel, David Golder. Her publishers, then as now, could not get enough of her. Her cool writer's eye took a pitiless view of the post-First World War France where she had made her home having fled from the brutalities of Revolutionary Russia, but by her mid-30s she was the biggest selling author in France and Paris was at her feet. Then came 1940 and what the French still call grimly the "débâcle". German Panzer divisions poured across the open border and in one appalling sweep, took three million French soldiers prisoner. Némirovsky and her family fled Paris and took up residence in Issy-l'Eveque, a village just within the Occupied territory of France – a few kilometres short of the self-governing, if largely fascistic, Vichy administration.
It was here that Irène made her last artistic stand. Isolated in this rural fastness, she wrote in tiny handwriting on rationed paper. Suite Française, the book that has made her an international star 60 years after her squalid death in Auschwitz, was the amazing fruit of this frightening time. It charts life under the enemy's eyes with a tender lyricism and odd detachment that readers worldwide (it has now been translated into 26 languages) have recognised as the work of a great author. And in the darkening, damp woods around Issy l'Eveque, she worked on Fire in the Blood, her last complete work, only discovered by her biographers last year – Némirovsky had smuggled these last fruits of her creative life out of the small Burgundy townlet.
Fire in the Blood is a miniature masterpiece. Némirovsky, once the chronicler of the dizzily rich and famous, shrinks her canvas to the country town, and restricts her writing palette to the muted beauty of the autumn countryside. Shadowed by the certainties of ageing and decay, it is darkly elegiac. Its narrator, an older man who has returned to his village after years away, reflects upon the ironies of life, the hidden passion of ordinary people, the spontaneity of youth, the fire in the blood. Némirovsky asks some keen questions. What is the nature of passion? Can the young ever understand the old? Who really knows a woman better, her long-term faithful husband or her passionate lover?
"And how can I describe the pleasures I find here?" muses Silvio, the narrator. "I enjoy simple things, things within reach, a nice meal, some good wine, the secret bitter pleasure of writing in this notebook; but, most especially, this divine solitude. Are we not all somewhat like these branches burning in my fireplace, buckling beneath the power of the flames?"
The beauty of the prose and the dark fatalistic reflections of her ingenious story make this a sad, compelling read. Sandra Smith's imaginative and lucid translation brilliantly complements Némirovsky's ironic story: never too faithful to be tedious, nor too adventurous to be untrue to her author.
Denise Epstein, Némirovsky's daughter, told me in an interview that she still puzzled about those last months.Why Issy l'Eveque, so near the border with the Vichy territory? You sense a dark resignation, an exhaustion with the politics and the people who were so very determined to take her to her untimely and disgraceful death. Némirovsky the artist, even at 39, seems to have had enough. Her own personal survival became blurred next to the real, urgent business of writing, her true life's work.