The Fires of Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky, book review: Staring into the flames

As befits a writer who was sent to her die at Auschwitz Nemirovsky does not flinch from the dreadful truths

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Irene Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz, having completed the first two instalments of a planned five-part saga about the German occupation of France, Suite Française. This celebrated manuscript, which did not come to light until 2004, has been made into a Hollywood film, which will be released early next year. Incredibly, The Fires of Autumn was written at the same time, 1940-42. And this slim but ambitious document is an even greater achievement.

For a start it is a completed and rounded work, an impressive feat given that her family had been evacuated from Paris to a village in rural France – Nemirovsky was forbidden from publishing her work because of her Jewish background. And the scope of the novel is huge: it covers the period from 1912 to 1941, yet it runs to a mere 229 pages. This is a testament to the storytelling powers of an author who was grossly underrated before the discovery of Suite Française.

The book, like its hidden accomplice, follows the fortunes of several Parisian families whose lives are intertwined. The protagonist is Bernard, who volunteers for the Western Front when war breaks out in 1914, survives and – brutalised by the trenches – indulges his every whim and caprice in the inter-war years before being captured during Hitler’s Blitzkrieg.

Here the survivors of the first war feel that society owes them for the ordeal, and do their utmost to ensure that that debt is paid, not least in the rapacious accumulation of wealth. In Bernard’s case this comes at the expense of the French war machine, which was then abominably exposed. After the loss of almost a generation of Frenchmen, the Belle Époque led to the betrayal of the next generation too.

The fires burn in the fields to clear the way for new growth. “The smell of smoke reached Therese. There were fires everywhere, those purifying pyres of autumn.” But the Phoenix will not rise from the ashes, the sacrifice has been made in vain. As Bernard retreats from the latest invaders he thinks: “The battle has been fought and lost. And it didn’t happen yesterday .... The battle of France was lost 20 years ago.”

As befits a writer who was sent to her death – she died of typhus in the camp – Nemirovsky does not flinch from the dreadful truths. When Bernard’s mother reflects on how her son has changed in the trenches, she thinks the unthinkable: “I’d really prefer it if he never came home.” Bernard is no longer her offspring; instead he is a by-product of history.