Fire in the blood, p.1
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       Fire in the Blood, p.1

           Irene Nemirovsky
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Fire in the Blood


  Suite Française

  This newly discovered novel by my mother is dedicated to Olivier Rubinstein and to the two men who found it, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt; but also to everyone else who has been part of this Fire in the Blood.



  Translator's Note

  A Note on the Text

  Preface to the French Edition


  Throughout this translation of Fire in the Blood I have used various terms to express an important concept that recurs in the novel: the paysan. This French term is extremely difficult to translate: “peasant” in English has different connotations and “farmer” is too limited. The “paysan” is not just a farmer, but an entire rural social class, often not necessarily working class, but still not the “bourgeoisie,” middle class, despite some paysans being quite wealthy landowners. Irène Némirovsky's vivid description of her paysans illustrates the multifaceted subtleties implied in the term and brings them to life for us, her readers. Fire in the Blood is a gem of a novel: compact, and brilliant.

  I would like to dedicate this translation to the memory of Malcolm Bowie, distinguished French scholar, mentor, friend.




  Until recently, only a partial text of Fire in the Blood was thought to exist, typed up by Irène Némirovsky's husband, Michel Epstein, to whom she often passed her manuscripts for this purpose. However, Michel's typing breaks off at the words “I felt so old” (see p. 37), leaving the novel unfinished. Did Michel stop typing when Irène was arrested and deported to Auschwitz on 13 July 1942? Or perhaps even earlier in 1942, when she could no longer find a way to get her novels and short stories published?

  As readers will learn from the Preface to the French edition of this novel found at the back of the book, it is likely that Némirovsky was still working on Fire in the Blood in 1942. We know this thanks to the work of Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, who were commissioned to write a biography of Némirovsky, and who began extensive research into her archive. Two pages of the original manuscript were found to have been in the suitcase that Némirovsky's daughter, Denise Epstein, carried with her from Issy-l'Évêque when she and her sister, mother's arrest, and which contained Némirovsky's great lost novel Suite Française. And as Philipponnat and Lienhardt trawled the Némirovsky archive at the Institut Mémoires de l'édition contemporaine (IMEC), they discovered, amidst papers given by Némirovsky for safe-keeping to her editor and family friend in the spring of 1942, the rest of the missing manuscript: thirty tightly packed pages of handwriting, with very few crossings out, the beginning of which corresponded to Michel's typed version.

  It is an extraordinary collection of papers, which adds to our understanding of Némirovsky's oeuvre. As well as the manuscript of Fire in the Blood, it contains Némirovsky's working notebooks dating back to 1933, successive versions of several of her novels—including David Golder —as well as outlines for Captivité, the projected third part of Suite Française.

  W E WERE DRINKING A LIGHT PUNCH, the kind we had when I was young, and all sitting around the fire, my Erard cousins, their children and I. It was an autumn evening, the whole sky red above the sodden fields of turned earth. The fiery sunset promised a strong wind the next day; the crows were cawing. This large, icy house is full of draughts. They blew in from everywhere with the sharp, rich tang of autumn. My cousin Hélène and her daughter, Colette, were shivering beneath the shawls I'd lent them, cashmere shawls that had belonged to my mother. They asked how I could live in such a rat hole, just as they did every time they came to see me, and Colette, who is shortly to be married, spoke proudly of the charms of the Moulin-Neuf where she would soon be living, and “where I hope to see you often, Cousin Silvio,” she said. She looked at me with pity. I am old, poor and unmarried, holed up in a farmer's hovel in the middle of the woods. Everyone knows I've travelled, that I've worked my way through my inheritance. A prodigal son. By the time I got back to the place where I was born, even the fatted calf had waited for me for so long it had died of old age. Comparing their lot with mine, the Erards no doubt forgave me for borrowing money I had never returned and repeated, after their daughter, “You live like an animal here, you poor dear. You should go and spend the summer with Colette once she 's settled in.”

  I still have happy moments, though they don't realise it. Today, I'm alone; the first snow has fallen. This region, in the middle of France, is both wild and rich. Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money and doesn't give a thought to the rest of the world. No châteaux, no visitors. A bourgeoisie reigns here that has only recently emerged from the working classes and is still very close to them, part of a rich bloodline that loves everything that has its roots in the land. My family is spread over the entire province—an extensive network of Erards, Chapelains, Benoîts, Montrifauts; they are important farmers, lawyers, government officials, landowners. Their houses are imposing and isolated, built far from the villages and protected by great forbidding doors with triple locks, like the doors you find in prisons. Their flat gardens contain almost no flowers, nothing but vegetables and fruit trees trained to produce the best yield. Their sitting rooms are stuffed full of furniture and always shut up; they live in the kitchen to save money on firewood. I'm not talking about François and Hélène Erard, of course; I have never been in a home more pleasant, welcoming, intimate, warm and happy than theirs. But, in spite of everything, my idea of the perfect evening is this: I am completely alone; my housekeeper has just put the hens in their coop and gone home, and I am left with my pipe, my dog nestled between my legs, the sound of the mice in the attic, a crackling fire, no newspapers, no books, a bottle of red wine warming slowly on the hearth.

  “Why do people call you Silvio?” asked Colette.

  “A beautiful woman who was once in love with me thought I looked like a gondolier,” I replied. “That was over twenty years ago and, at the time, I had black hair and a handlebar moustache. She changed my name from Sylvestre to Silvio.”

  “But you look like a faun,” said Colette, “with your wide forehead, turned-up nose, pointed ears and laughing eyes. Sylvestre, creature of the woods. That suits you very well.”

  Of all of Hélène 's children, Colette is my favourite. She isn't beautiful, but she has the quality that, when I was young, I used to value most in women: she has fire. Her eyes laugh like mine and her large mouth too; her hair is black and fine, peeping out in delicate curls from behind the shawl, which she has pulled over her head to keep the draught from her neck. People say she looks like the young Hélène. But I can't remember. Since the birth of a third son, little Loulou, who's nine years old now, Hélène has put on weight and the woman of forty-eight, whose soft skin has lost its bloom, obscures my memory of the Hélène I knew when she was twenty. She looks calm and happy now.

  This gathering at my house was arranged to introduce Colette 's fiancé to me. His name is Jean Dorin, one of the Dorins from the Moulin-Neuf, who've been millers for generations. A beautiful river, frothy and green, runs past their mill. I used to go trout fishing there when Dorin's father was still alive.

  “You'll make us some good fish dishes, Colette,” I said.

  François refused a glass of punch: he drinks only water.

  He has a pointy little grey beard that he slowly strokes.

  “You won't miss the pleasures of this world when you've left it,” I remarked to him, “or rather once it has left you, as it has me …”

  For I sometimes feel I've been rejected by life, as if wa
shed ashore by the tide. I've ended up on a lonely beach, an old boat, still solid and seaworthy, but whose paint has faded in the water, eaten away by salt.

  “No, since you don't like wine, hunting or women, you'll have nothing to miss.”

  “I'd miss my wife,” he replied, smiling.

  That was when Colette went and sat next to her mother.

  “Mama, tell me the story of how you got engaged to Papa,” she said. “You've never said anything about it. Why's that? I know it's a very romantic story, that you loved each other for a long time … Why haven't you ever told me about it?”

  “You've never asked.”

  “Well, I'm asking now.”

  Hélène laughed. “It's none of your business,” she protested.

  “You don't want to say because you're embarrassed. But it can't be because of Uncle Silvio: he must know all about it. Is it because of Jean? But he 'll soon be your son, Mama, and he should know you as well as I do. I so want Jean and me to live together the way you live with Papa. I'm positive you've never had a fight.”

  “It's not Jean I'm embarrassed about, but these great oafs,” said Hélène, nodding towards her sons with a smile. They were sitting on the floor, throwing pine cones into the fire; they had pockets full of them; the cones burst open in the flames with a loud, crackling sound.

  Georges was fifteen and Henri thirteen. “If it's because of us,” they replied, “go ahead, don't be embarrassed.”

  “We 're not interested in your love stories,” Georges said scornfully. He was at that age when a boy's voice starts to change.

  As for little Loulou, he 'd fallen asleep.

  But Hélène shook her head and was reluctant to speak.

  “You have the perfect marriage,” Colette 's fiancé said shyly. “I hope that we too … one day …”

  He was mumbling. He seemed a good lad, his face thin and soft, with the beautiful anxious eyes of a hare. Strange that Hélène and Colette, mother and daughter, should have sought out the same type of man to marry. Someone sensitive, considerate, easily dominated; almost feminine, but at the same time guarded and shy, with a kind of fierce modesty. Good Lord, I was nothing like that! Standing slightly apart, I looked at the seven of them. We 'd eaten in the sitting room, which is the only habitable room in the house, except for the kitchen; I sleep in a kind of attic room under the eaves. The sitting room is always rather gloomy and, on this November evening, was so dark that when the fire was low, all you could see were the large cauldrons and antique warming pans hanging from the walls, whose copper bottoms reflected even the dimmest light. When the flames rose again, the fire lit up their calm faces, their kind smiles, Hélène 's hand with its gold wedding band stroking little Loulou's curls. Hélène was wearing a blue silk dress with white polka dots. My mother's shawl, embroidered with leaves, covered her shoulders. François sat next to her; both of them looked at the children sitting at their feet. I picked up a flaming twig from the fire to relight my pipe and it illuminated my face. It seems I wasn't the only one observing what was happening around me for Colette, who doesn't miss a thing either, suddenly exclaimed, “Why, Cousin Silvio, you have such a mocking look sometimes. I've often noticed it.”

  Then she turned to her father. “I'm still waiting to hear all about how you fell in love, Papa.”

  “I'll tell you about the first time I ever met your mother,” said François. “Your grandfather lived in town, then. As you know, he 'd been married twice. Your mother was his child from the first marriage and her stepmother also had a daughter from her first marriage. What you don't know is that I was supposed to marry the other young lady, your mother's half-sister.”

  “How funny,” said Colette.

  “Yes, you see how chance comes into it. So I went to their house, trailing behind my parents. I was as keen on getting married as a dog is on getting whipped. But my mother, poor woman, insisted I settle down and she told me that, after a great deal of coaxing, she had managed to arrange this meeting, with no obligation, of course. We went inside. Picture the coldest, most austere sitting room in the whole province. Above the fireplace there were two bronze candelabra depicting the flames of love. I can picture them to this day … horrible.”

  “And what about me?” Hélène said, laughing. “Those frozen flames were symbolic in that sitting room where no one ever lit a fire.”

  “Your grandfather's second wife, well, I won't mince words, was by nature …”

  “Don't,” said Hélène, “she 's dead.”

  “Fortunately … But your mother is right: the dead should rest in peace. She was a heavy woman with very pale skin who wore her red hair in a large bun. Her daughter looked like a turnip. The whole time I was there, that poor creature kept crossing and uncrossing her hands over her knees; she had chilblains on her fingers and she didn't say a word. It was winter. We were offered six biscuits out of a fruit bowl and some chocolates that were so old they'd turned white. My mother, who was sensitive to the cold, couldn't stop sneezing. I left as soon as I could. But as we were at the door, looking at the snow that had just begun to fall, I saw some children coming home from the local school. I noticed one of them, running and slipping in the snow. She was wearing big wooden clogs and a red cape; she had rosy cheeks, her black hair was all dishevelled, and there was snow on the tip of her nose and on her eyelashes. She was a young girl, only thirteen. It was your mother: she was being chased by some boys who were throwing snowballs down the back of her neck.

  She was only a few steps away from me; she turned around, gathered up some snow and threw it straight up in the air, laughing; then, since one of her clogs was full of snow, she took it off and stood on the doorstep, hopping on one foot, her black hair flying around her face. You can't imagine how lively and attractive I found this little girl after that icy sitting room and those boring people. My mother told me who she was. It was at that very moment that I decided I would marry her. Go ahead and laugh, my darlings. What I felt was less a desire, or a wish, than a kind of vision. In my mind's eye I could picture her in the future, coming out of church by my side, as my wife …

  “She wasn't happy. Her father was old and ill; her stepmother didn't care about her. I managed to get her invited to my parents' house. I helped her do her homework; I lent her books; I organised picnics, little outings for her, her alone. She never suspected …”

  “Of course I did,” said Hélène, and beneath her grey hair she gave a girlish smile and her eyes lit up with a mischievous gleam.

  “I went away to Paris to finish my studies. You don't ask for the hand of a thirteen-year-old girl in marriage; I went off thinking I'd come back in five years and would then ask to marry her. But at seventeen she married someone else. Her husband was a very good man, much older than her. She would have married just about anyone to get away from her stepmother.”

  “Towards the end she was so mean,” said Hélène, “that my half-sister and I only had one pair of gloves. In theory we were meant to take turns wearing them when we went out to see people. But my stepmother managed to punish me for something every time we were supposed to go somewhere, so it was her own daughter who always wore the gloves. They were beautiful kid gloves. They made me so envious I decided I would say yes to the first man who asked to marry me, even if he didn't love me, just to have a pair of my own, my very own. The young are so foolish…”

  “I was very upset,” said François, “and when I came home and saw the lovely, rather sad young woman my friend had become, I fell very much in love … As for her …” He fell silent.

  “Oh, see how they're blushing,” cried Colette, clapping her hands, looking back and forth between her mother and father. “Come on, now, tell all! That 's when your love story started, isn't it? You spoke to each other, you had an understanding. He went away again, with a heavy heart, because you weren't free. He waited faithfully and when you were widowed, he came back and married you. You lived happily ever after and had many children.”

s, that's right,” said Hélène, “but, my God, before that, what anxiety, what tears! Everything seemed impossible to put right. But how long ago all that was … When my first husband died, your father was away, travelling. I thought he 'd forgotten all about me, that he was never coming back. When you're young, you're so impatient. Every day that passes, every day without your love rips you apart. Finally, he came back.”

  It was pitch black outside now. I got up and closed the heavy wooden shutters; their mournful creak broke the silence and made everyone jump. Hélène said it was time for them to go. Jean Dorin obediently stood up and went to get the ladies' coats from my bedroom. I heard Colette ask, “Mama, what happened to your half-sister?”

  “She died, my darling. Do you remember, it was seven years ago and your father and I went to a funeral at Coudray, in the Nièvre. That was poor Cécile 's funeral.”

  “Was she as mean as her mother?”

  “Cécile? Not at all, the poor thing! You couldn't find a sweeter, nicer person. She loved me dearly and I loved her too. She was a real sister to me.”

  “It's odd that she never came to see us …”

  Hélène didn't reply. Colette asked her another question; again, no reply. Colette wouldn't let it go.

  “Oh, but it was all so very long ago,” her mother said finally, her voice altering to become strangely distant, as if she were speaking through a dream.

  Colette 's fiancé came back with the coats and we all went outside. I walked my cousins back to their house. They live in a lovely house about four kilometres from here. We took a narrow, muddy road, the boys in front with their father, then Colette and Jean, with Hélène and me bringing up the rear.

  Hélène talked about the young couple.

  “Jean Dorin seems like a good lad, don't you think? They've known each other for a long time. They have every chance of being happy together. They'll live as François and I have, they'll be close, they'll have a dignified, peaceful life … yes, peaceful … tranquil and serene … Is it really so difficult to be happy? I think there 's something soothing about the Moulin-Neuf. I've always dreamt of having a house near a river, waking up in the middle of the night, all warm in my bed, listening to the flowing water. Soon, they'll have a child,” she continued, dreaming out loud. “My God, if only one could know at twenty how simple life is …”

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