Friday, July 24, 2009

Review 3: Fire in the Blood

Irène Némirovsky, Fire in the Blood

Némirovsky died in a concentration camp in WWII and this novel, along with the famous Suite Francaise, was found amongst her papers, handwritten and unedited. The blurb on the cover says “a morality tale with doubtful morals, a story of murder, love and inheritance of harmful secrets, Fire in the Blood, written in 1941, is set in a small village ...” but, as in the case with most blurbs about books like this one, I find that I’ve read something else in the book other than the list in the blurb. It isn't always obvious to me that the person who wrote the blurb and I both read the same book.

Yes, there was something about doubtful morals, murder, love and harmful secrets and there is probably something of a morality tale in this story, but there are other books more obsessed about murder and love and harmful secrets and lesser books that better deserve the label “morality tale”. What I got out of this book was a story that unraveled throughout the book, in a simple tone and calm. The calmness is like the calm after the storm, wherein one reflects on follies committed so long ago that they’ve shed their moral deficiencies and foolishness.

Her writing reminded me very much of Flaubert and Tolstoy in that she describes the same types of mannerisms of the people. The traits of the villagers that Némirovsky tells of are the kinds of traits that Flaubert draws to attention. This book is however not like Madame Bovary; it is a much smaller work. Firstly, this is a short book and secondly, its setting is contained completely within the little village; characters may think passively of places outside the village but most of the ideas and actions of the story take place within Issy L’Evêque. Madame Bovary needs the faraway splendour and richness in novelty of Paris or Rouen to draw its characters away from their mundane setting, but this book needs no other thing in the world but Issy L’Evêque.

There’s some seemingly randomly determined but consistent set of rules that govern what people may do for each other in Issy L’Evêque. There, no one defies these set standards; the person who may have witnessed the murder does not speak up because it is just not the way. Silvio makes no heroic defiance of what one does and does not do to defend Collette, even when she asks him to. Despite his refusal, he still helps her, in a quiet way and in the way of those people. This is what I mean by “contained”; the story happens in Issy L’Evêque and everyone has behaved in ways harmonious with the ways of the people of Issy L’Evêque. The story and Issy L’Evêque needs no other places to exist. It is such a small world and yet it is such a lovely story and unfolds like the unpacking of children’s clothes, long unworn, stored lovingly by a doting parent in an old box with moth balls. There’s such mystery in something that may seem mundane.

This is probably one of my favourite books right now. This is what I underlined in my copy as I read (something on a theme of risk-taking, failed endeavours, etc. that I might know a little something about):

“My blood burned at the thought of the vast world that existed, while I simply remained here. So I left, and now I cannot understand the demon that drove me far from my home, I who am so unsociable and sedentary. [...] How is this fire lit within us? It devours everything and then, in a few years, a few months, a few hours even, it burns itself out. Then you see how much damage has been done. You find yourself tied to a woman you don't love any more; or ruined, like me. Perhaps, born to be a grocer, you struggle to become a painter in Paris and end up in a hospital. Who hasn’t had his life strangely warped and distorted by that fire so opposite to his true nature? Are we not all somewhat like these branches burning in my fireplace, buckling beneath the power of the flames?”
Némirovsky, Fire in the Blood

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