The Fires of Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky, book review: A promising prequel to Suite Française

But this book comes with its own baggage, argues Michele Roberts
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A prolific and acclaimed writer in her own day, Irène Némirovsky is best known in this country for her novel Suite Française, written over 50 years ago but not published in France until 2004.

It came out here in 2006, translated by Sandra Smith. Charting the fates of a broad range of panic-stricken Parisians fleeing the capital at the start of the Second World War, Némirovsky seemed to be recording history as it happened. She herself took part in that mass exodus, ending up in a small provincial village, where she courageously continued to write. However, she did not survive. In 1942 she was rounded up as a Jew and deported to Auschwitz, where she died soon afterwards.

Combining acute social observation, strong characterisation and lively vignettes, Suite Française has been proclaimed a masterpiece. That was a judgement made in retrospect: the novel arrived encased in a heroic and sorrowful narrative that affected how it was read, as though through a prism of tears. Némirovsky had perished, suffering the fate of so many French Jews, but the manuscript of her novel had survived, miraculously it seemed, kept in a suitcase by her daughter, guarded and cherished for many years. Suite Française thereby acquired mythic status.

The author's own life had been tragically cut short, but her novel, so lovingly preserved, continued to live. The admiration readers felt for the brave writer and her loyal daughter could be easily transferred onto the text. It was possible to ignore how dull some of the writing was. Némirovsky was not, of course, allowed the time to redraft it.

The language of another novel written at about the same time, Welcome to the Free Zone, by Nathalie and Ladislas Gara, published in France in 1946 and in the UK in 2013, sparkles by contrast. Similarly inspired by contemporary events, focusing on the lives of Jewish refugees fleeing the big cities to hole up in the Ardèche countryside, it wittily dramatises the cultural clashes between locals and visiting urban intellectuals, the chaos of life in wartime France, the hypocrisy of bureaucrats matched by the wiliness of survivors. Using life in one particular village as the lens through which to view normality gone topsy-turvy, flattening large and small-scale events into the same plane of incongruous comedy, the novel transforms horrors into a brilliant theatre of the absurd.

In The Fires of Autumn, the most recent of her novels to be translated into English (again by Sandra Smith), Némirovsky, like the two Garas, takes political and personal confusion as her subject, but aims for a panoramic view and deploys less dark humour. As Smith points out in her introduction, The Fires of Autumn, written probably in tandem with Suite Française and first published in 1957, serves as a prequel to it, exploring French life on the eve of the First World War and continuing up to the outbreak and early years of the Second.

The novel's initial setting is a Parisian petit-bourgeois milieu of cosy families, small shops, modest apartments. We move to the bloody realities of the Flanders battlefields, and finally to a decadent post-war world of luxurious salons swanned through by greedy, amoral speculators manipulating international markets.

The novel opens in 1912. The close-up, intimate narrative perspective reveals "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 … an enormous loaf of golden bread, some wine and … a wonderful blanquette of veal". The people around this Sunday lunch table soon have to abandon such comforts, their idyllic domestic dream. In order to cope, they indulge in fantasies of heroic self-sacrifice and glory.

As the novel progresses, the narrative perspective opens out to include a wider cast of characters, thereby dramatising the ugly effects of war on all members of society. Where necessary, the tone becomes informative, didactic: "The war dragged on; a long-range cannon fired on Paris … but everyone, even the Germans, knew that peace would come eventually… At the beginning of November, the first formal meeting of the 41 states that made up the League of Nations took place in Geneva."

Despite this use of the omniscient voice, sometimes Némirovsky seems to be anxious she has not sufficiently made her point. The novel is marred by unnecessary narrative asides. People's thoughts and spoken words are given coherently but then explained: "She continued thinking calmly… He continued thinking with a sudden surge of sincerity… He murmured with painful determination." At times the dialogue sounds scripted for melodrama: "'It's over, over,' he cried, 'it's all over! Those people and their vile schemes, their money, their pleasures! I've had enough! I loathe them!'"

This occasional clumsiness is perhaps connected to Némirovsky's organising her grand themes, her vast mass of material, around a love story. Her main protagonist, Bernard, initially an ardent volunteer, returns home in 1918 broken and cynical. His childhood acquaintance, Martial, serving selflessly as a doctor just behind the front lines, has been killed. Martial's widow Thérèse realises she has always been in love with Bernard.

Their romance is frequently disrupted by history: episodes of battle, Bernard's subsequent entanglement with fraudsters and crooks, his ensnaring by a social-climbing femme fatale who is the very opposite of the loyal, faithful, submissive Thérèse. Not for Némirovsky the critiques of femininity that her sister writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Madeleine Bourdouxhe and Violette Leduc were making.

The fragile vehicle of the love story collapses under the weight of political events. Fires of Autumn gets trapped in the tropes of conventional narrative structures that it cannot, finally, subvert. The final paragraph awards Thérèse her own happy ending, which I could only read ironically.

The novel apparently exists in two different typescripts, one bearing annotations by Némirovsky. Some chapters deleted by her were reintroduced by her French editors for their new edition in 2011. The novel's unfinished, beautifully promising state bears powerful, poignant witness to its author's life so brutally cut short.