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July 25, 2008

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky is a funny little book. Although twisting in its plot, it is rather straightforward in its twists, and I thought I had it all figured out when I finished reading. I had its two main points summed up, but there was just one problem– that these two main points were entirely contradictory, and so I delved further into the text to try to solve this problem, and discovered there is a whole lot going on in this novel than what I’d first assumed.

My experience being quite analogous to the story, a similar theme to Suite Française— that rural tranquility can belie all variety of human drama, and that even in Arcadia, there be– in addition to death– murder in particular, and love, and lust, and secrets and lies.

Fire in the Blood is narrated by Silvio, structured as a notebook, as he observes the passage of time during the autumn of his life. The novel beginning upon his young niece Colette’s engagement, and he reflects upon her happiness, “the fire in her blood” that he remembers from his own youth. That seems so distant from him now, so much so that he supposes if he ever happened to meet his young self, he wouldn’t even recognize him. The past is past, and he is old, and, as his cousin remarks to him, “My god, if only one could know at twenty how simple life is…”

This is a novel quite obvious in its imagery, full of images of burning and fever, of fire and flame. This sort of energy similar to “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”, I suppose, Silvio’s cousin remarking to him, “Ah, dear friend, when something happens in life, do you ever think about the moment that caused it, the seed from which it grew?… Imagine a field being sowed and all the promise that’s contained in a grain of wheat, all the future harvests…”

When Colette’s husband is murdered, however, and the points of a complicated love triangle become clear, notions of “promise” become dark and ominous. Raising questions of chance or destiny, what happens to our fire, how the past changes as it gets away, and that youth is eternal, always the same, that promise. Silvio asking, “But who would bother to sow his fields if he knew in advance what the harvest would bring?” but still we do, knowing full well what the end is.

This story’s simplicity is deceptive, and perhaps undermined by the fact of this book’s history. Némirovsky’s own story being well known, as well as the story of Suite Française and its remarkable discovery. Fire in the Blood has similar origins, part of it thought missing for years and only found quite recently among the author’s other papers. And it is clear to me that this novel wasn’t finished, wasn’t quite polished, for though the writing is strong (this partly due to translator Sandra Smith, of course), the novel’s structure is clunky and fragmented. Not to the point where the reading is compromised, but the effect is not that of the greatness that was so evident from Suite Française. This being wholly understandable within its context, and so the context becomes necessary, enhancing. This reader being grateful for the author still having sowed her seeds.

One thought on “Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky”

  1. Elizabeth Sinnreich says:

    I recently read your post about Irène Némirovsky and wanted to let you know about an exciting new exhibition about her life, work, and legacy that will open on September 24, 2008 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage —A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, which will run through the middle of March, will include powerful rare artifacts — the actual handwritten manuscript for Suite Française, the valise in which it was found, and many personal papers and family photos. The majority of these documents and artifacts have never been outside of France. For fans of her work, this exhibition is an opportunity to really “get to know” Irene. And for those who can’t visit, there will be a special website that will live on the Museum’s site
    The Museum will host several public programs over the course of the exhibition’s run that will put Némirovsky’s work and life into historical and literary context. Book clubs and groups are invited to the Museum for tours and discussions in the exhibition’s adjacent Salon (by appointment). It is the Museum’s hope that the exhibit will engage visitors and promote dialogue about this extraordinary writer and the complex time in which she lived and died. To book a group tour, please contact Tracy Bradshaw at 646.437.4304 or Please visit our website at for up-to-date information about upcoming public programs or to join our e-bulletin list.
    Thanks for sharing this info with your readers. Let me know if you need any more.
    -Elizabeth Sinnreich (

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