The fires of autumn, p.1
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       The Fires of Autumn, p.1

           Irene Nemirovsky
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The Fires of Autumn


  The Fires of Autumn

  Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 into a wealthy banking family and immigrated to France during the Russian Revolution. After attending the Sorbonne in Paris, she began to write and swiftly achieved success with David Golder, which was followed by more than a dozen other books. Throughout her lifetime she published widely in French newspapers and literary journals. She died in Auschwitz in 1942. More than sixty years later, Suite Française was published posthumously for the first time in 2006.

  Also by Irène Némirovsky

  Suite Française

  Fire in the Blood

  David Golder

  The Ball

  Snow in Autumn

  The Courilof Affair

  Dimanche and Other Stories

  All Our Worldly Goods


  The Wine of Solitude


  Translation copyright © 2015 by Sandra Smith

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House LLC, New York, a Penguin Random House company. Originally published in France as Les Feux de, l’Automne by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, in 1957. Copyright © 1957 by Éditions Albin Michel. This translation originally published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus, a division of the Random House Group Limited, London, in 2014.

  Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House LLC.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  The Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress.

  Vintage Books Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-101-87227-7

  eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-87396-0

  Cover design by Stephanie Ross

  Cover photograph © akg-images / ullstein bild. Photograph colorization by Dana Keller


  This book is dedicated to the memory of Denise Epstein, Irène Némirovsky’s daughter, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 83. From 2004, when Suite Française was first published in France, until her death, Denise travelled the world, working tirelessly to promote her mother’s canon and re-establish her as one of the most respected writers in twentieth-century France. It was my privilege to meet her in 2006, when Suite Française was first published in English. She told me, ‘I could not accept my mother had died until I saw her re-born.’ We became great friends and shared many happy memories of travelling and speaking together at events. Denise was an extraordinary woman who is greatly missed.



  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page



  Translator’s Introduction

  Part One: 1912–1918

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Part Two: 1920–1936

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Part Three: 1936–1941

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10


  Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the only child of a wealthy Jewish banker and his adulterous wife. At the time, upper-class Russian families spoke French, and since her mother had no interest in raising a child, a French governess was engaged for Irène. The family also spent most holidays on the French Riviera, so Irène considered French her first language. The Némirovskys were forced to flee their home after the Russian Revolution and finally settled in Paris where Irène attended the Sorbonne, studying French and Russian literature.

  Irène married Michel Epstein, another Russian Jewish immigrant, in 1926 and had her first daughter, Denise, in 1929, the year that her first published novel, David Golder, made the writer an instant commercial success. Their second child, Élisabeth, was born in 1937. Irène continued writing at least one novel and several short stories every year until she was deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died soon afterwards.

  The Fires of Autumn is the eleventh novel to be translated into English by this prolific author who was almost entirely forgotten before the publication of her unfinished masterpiece, Suite Française, written in a small village in Vichy France as the Second World War raged all around.

  The Fires of Autumn, written at about the same time, was no doubt inspired by the reminiscences of many French soldiers and their families who had suffered through the First World War and were once again re-living those horrible experiences. As the Editor’s Note to the new French edition (2011), which I have used for my translation of the novel, explains:

  Irène Némirovsky completed The Fires of Autumn in the spring of 1942. It was published posthumously in 1957 by Albin Michel.

  L’Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC) – a French association that archives literature of the twentieth century – is in possession of two copies of the typescript of this novel, one of which contains handwritten corrections by Irène Némirovsky. The first was used as the basis for the 1957 publication. The current edition is based on the second typescript, the result of the author’s revision in which she made cuts, additions and modifications that were sometimes quite significant.

  Olivier Philipponnat, Irène Némirovsky’s biographer, and Teresa M. Lussone, who wrote her philology dissertation on Némirovsky, worked together to produce this new edition, retaining nonetheless three chapters from Part I of the novel – the fifth, sixth and ninth chapters – that the author wanted to remove but which allow the contemporary reader better to understand the ravages of the 1914–18 war.

  Like Suite Française, this novel follows the fate of several families, whose paths intertwine. It is a riveting study of French, especially Parisian, life from the eve of the First World War right through to the outbreak and early years of the Second World War, depicting the terrible human cost of war as well as the corruption, greed and political expediency that were factors leading to a breakdown of morality in inter-war France.

  The Fires of Autumn provides us with insight into the minds of ordinary people, their lives and loves in the midst of war, and the scars that remain when war ends. Through Némirovsky’s beautiful, lyrical writing, this novel works as a prequel to Suite Française, offering a panoramic exploration of French life between 1913 and 1942. It is both an important historical document and a sensitive depiction of both the best and worst of human emotions.

  I would like to express my gratitude to Alison Samuel for her invaluable help in editing this book.

  Sandra Smith

  Robinson College, Cambridge

  Part One



  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 decorate
d 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. No first course, nothing to whet the appetite: food was a serious business. In the Brun household, they always started with the main course; they were not averse to roasts – when properly cooked according to simple, strict rules, these were akin to classics of the culinary art – but here, the woman of the house put all her effort and loving care into the skilled creation of dishes simmered slowly for a long time. In the Brun household, it was the elderly Madame Pain, the mother-in-law, who did the cooking.

  The Bruns were Parisians of some small private means. Since the death of his wife, Adolphe Brun presided over the table and served the meal. He was still a handsome man; bald and with a large forehead, he had a small upturned nose, full cheeks and a long, red moustache that he twisted and turned in his fingers until its slender tips nearly poked his eyes. Sitting opposite him was his mother-in-law: round, petite, with a rosy complexion crowned with fine, flyaway white hair that looked like sea foam; when she smiled, you could see she still had all her teeth. With a wave of her chubby little hand, she would brush aside everyone’s compliments: ‘Exquisite … You’ve never made anything better, dear Mother-in-law … This is just delicious, Madame Pain!’ She would put on a falsely modest little face and, just as a prima donna pretends to offer her partner the flowers presented to her on stage, she would murmur:

  ‘Yes, the butcher did me proud today. It’s a very nice cut of veal.’

  To his right sat Adolphe Brun’s guests – the three Jacquelains – and to his left, his nephew Martial and Brun’s young daughter, Thérèse. Since Thérèse had just turned fifteen a few days ago, she had put her curls up in a chignon, but her silky hair was not yet used to the style she tried to hold in place with hairpins, so it was escaping all over the place, which made Thérèse unhappy, in spite of the compliment her shy cousin Martial had whispered to her:

  ‘It’s very pretty, Thérèse,’ he said, blushing quite a bit. ‘Your hair I mean … it’s like a cloud of gold.’

  ‘The little angel has my hair,’ said Madame Pain. She was born in Nice, and even though she left at the age of sixteen to marry a ribbon and veil merchant from Paris, she still had the accent of her native city, as sonorous and sweet as a song. She had very beautiful dark eyes and a lively expression. Her husband had left her destitute; she had lost a daughter who was only twenty – Thérèse’s mother – and was supported by her son-in-law; but nothing had affected her cheerful disposition. With dessert, she happily drank a little glass of sweet liqueur as she hummed a song:

  Joyful tambourines, lead the dance …

  The Bruns and their guests sat in a very small dining room flooded with sunlight. The furniture – a Henry II sideboard, cane chairs with fluted legs, a chaise longue upholstered in a dark fabric with flowers – bouquets of roses against a black background – an upright piano – everything huddled together as best it could in this small space. The walls were decorated with drawings bought in the large department stores near the Louvre: young girls playing with kittens, Neapolitan shepherds (with a view of Mount Vesuvius in the background) and a copy of The Abandoned Woman, a touching work depicting a woman who is obviously pregnant sitting on a marble bench in autumn, weeping as a Hussar of Napoleon’s Army disappears in the distance among the dead leaves.

  The Bruns lived in the heart of a working-class area near the Gare de Lyon. They heard the long, wistful whistles of the trains, full of resonance, that passed them by. But at certain times of the day, they could feel the faint, rhythmic, metallic vibrations coming from the large iron bridge the metro passed over as it emerged from deep beneath the city, appearing for a moment under the sky before fleeing underground again with a muffled roar. The windows shook as it passed.

  On the balcony, canaries sang in a cage and, in another, turtledoves cooed softly. The typical sounds of Sunday rose up through the open windows: the clinking of glasses and dishes from every floor, and the happy sound of children from the street below. The brilliant sunlight cast a rosy hue over the grey stonework of the houses. Even the windows of the apartment opposite, dark and grimy all winter long, had recently been washed and sparkled like shimmering water in the bright light. There was a little alcove where the man selling roasted chestnuts had been since October; but he was gone now, and a young girl with red hair selling violets had materialised to take his place. Even this dark little recess was filled with a golden mist: the sun lit up the dust particles, the kind you get in Paris in the spring, that joyful season, dust that seems to be made of face powder and pollen from flowers (until you realise that it smells of dung).

  It was a beautiful Sunday. Martial Brun had brought in the dessert, a coffee cake with cream that made Bernard Jacquelain’s eyes light up with joy. They ate it in silence; nothing was heard but the clinking of teaspoons against the plates and the crunching of the little coffee beans hidden in the cream, full of heady liqueur. After this brief moment of silence, the conversation started up again, just as peaceful and devoid of passion as a kettle simmering gently on a stove. Martial Brun was a young man of twenty-seven with beautiful doe eyes, a long, pointy nose that was always a bit red at the tip, a long neck he kept tilted to one side in a funny way, as if he were trying to hear some secret; he was studying medicine and talked about the exams he was soon to take.

  ‘Men have to work so hard,’ said Blanche Jacquelain with a sigh, looking over at her son Bernard. She loved him so much that she felt everything applied to him; she couldn’t read about an epidemic of typhoid that had broken out in Paris without imagining him sick, even dying, and if she heard any military music, she immediately imagined him a soldier. She looked darkly, sadly, at Martial Brun, replacing in her imagination his nondescript features with those of her adored son, and thinking that one day Bernard would graduate from one of the great universities, showered with prizes.

  With a certain sense of complacency, Martial described his studies and how he sometimes had to stay up all night. He was overly modest, but a thimbleful of wine made him suddenly eager to talk, to impress others. As he was bragging, he ran his index finger along the back of his collar – it was a bit tight and irritating him – and he puffed his chest out like a rooster, until the doorbell rang and interrupted him. Thérèse started to get up to answer it, but little Bernard got there first and soon came back accompanied by a plumpish, bearded young man, a friend of Martial, a law student named Raymond Détang. Because of his liveliness, his eloquence, his beautiful baritone voice and his effortless success with women, Raymond Détang inspired feelings of envy and gloomy admiration in Martial. He stopped talking the moment he saw him and nervously began brushing up all the breadcrumbs scattered around his plate.

  ‘We were just talking about you young men and your studies,’ said Adolphe Brun. ‘You see what’s in store for you,’ he added, turning towards Bernard.

  Bernard did not reply because at the age of fifteen, the company of adults still intimidated him. He was still in short trousers. (‘But this is the last year … Soon he will be too big,’ his mother said, sounding regretful but proud.) After this hearty meal, his cheeks were fiery red and his tie kept slipping. He gave it a hard tug and pushed his blond curls off his forehead.

  ‘He must graduate from the Polytechnique, the most prestigious Engineering School, among the top of his class,’ his father said in a booming voice. ‘I would do anything in the world to give him a good education: the best tutors, anything; but he knows what I expect of him: he must graduate from the Polytechnique among the top of his class. He’s a hard worker though. He’s first in his class.’

  Everyone looked at Bernard; a wave of pride rushed through his heart. It was a feeling of almost unbearable swe
etness. He blushed even more and finally spoke in a voice that was breaking, sometimes shrill and almost heart-rending, sometimes soft and deep:

  ‘Oh, that, it’s nothing really …’

  He raised his chin in a gesture of defiance and pulled at the knot in his tie so hard it nearly ripped, as if to say:

  ‘We’ll see about that!’

  He was excited by the dream of one day seeing himself become an important engineer, a mathematician, an inventor, or perhaps an explorer or a soldier, having encounters with a string of beautiful women along the way, surrounded by devoted friends and disciples. But at the same time, he glanced furtively at the bit of cake sitting on his plate and wondered how he could manage to eat it with all those eyes staring at him; fortunately his father spoke to Martial and diverted everyone’s attention, leaving him in obscurity once more. He took advantage of the moment by wolfing down a quarter of his cake in one mouthful.

  ‘What branch of medicine are you planning to specialise in?’ Monsieur Jacquelain asked Martial. Monsieur Jacquelain suffered from terrible stomach problems. He had a blond moustache, as pale as hay, and a face like grey sand; he was covered in wrinkles like dunes furrowed by the sea breeze. He looked at Martial with a sad, eager expression, as if the very fact of speaking to a future doctor might be enough to discover some secret cure, but one that wouldn’t work on him. He instinctively placed his hand on the spot where the illness made him suffer, just below his sunken chest, and repeated several times:

  ‘It’s a shame you haven’t got your qualifications yet, my dear boy. A shame. I would have come to you for a consultation. A shame …’

  Then he sat there, deep in anguished thought.

  ‘In two years,’ Martial said shyly.

  Urged on by their questions, he admitted he had his eye on an apartment, on the Rue Monge. A doctor he knew wanted to retire so would pass it on to him. As he spoke, he could picture all the pleasant days ahead …

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