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Memento Mori

By (November 1, 2007) No Comment

Fire in the Blood
By Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith
Knopf, 2007

The heartbreak of the surfaced remnants of World War II, and especially of the Holocaust, is that we can never decide whether they bear testimony to life or to death. In any reasonably peaceful era it’s more straightforward, if not exactly easier; the personal items bequeathed to posterity speak with touching simplicity. The letters, diaries, photographs, clothing, jewelry—they evoke the life they were attached to. It’s life that shines from a scribbled postscript, a silver centerpiece, or a powder-blue smoking jacket. From these things (and surely especially from the writing) we can reconstruct personalities, pastimes, passions. Memorabilia are a rampart against death.  

But it’s not this way when death is premature and unforeseen, when we can’t ever fully accept it without sacrificing our concept of justice, and it’s not this way with the things that have survived the fires of the Holocaust. The pall of that event casts its shadow with a thoroughness that darkens even the merest trifles of the time. It’s no wonder that artists have sought to distill the meaning of such a momentous period into small and otherwise unremarkable lineaments of daily life. Cynthia Ozick charges a shawl with portentous power, and Stephen Spielberg does the same with a red coat. Primo Levi gives shape to salvation with handmade cigarette lighters. Vasily Grossman places in a son’s hand a letter sent by a mother virtually from the edge of a mass grave.

In recent years, the most extraordinary artifacts to be publicly sifted from the cinders of the Holocaust are Irène Némirovsky’s unfinished and previously unpublished novels. When the first of these, Suite Française, was published last year in an edition that also included her journal and final correspondence, Americans became familiar with her, although tellingly, less with her life than with her death.

  She was born in Kiev in 1903 but moved to Paris at the age of sixteen, the culmination of a few dislocated years following the Soviet Revolution. Her father had been a wealthy banker with a pied-a-terre in Moscow, and though the Bolshevik coup put an end to that he was quickly able to reestablish himself in France during the volatile boom market of the early 1920s. Immersed in Paris’s great émigré art culture, Irène Némirovsky took early to writing and at the age of 26 completed the novel David Golder, which became a bestseller and immediately made her a minor celebrity.

From then on, her life progressed with the outward mundanity of most men or women of letters. She married a scholarly Jewish man named Michel Epstein, raised two children, and spent long hours every day writing prose. She lived and worked during the polemical interwar phase during which all art was to some degree forcibly politicized, and her professional allies—the people who paid and published her—tended to be right-wing nationalists (given her background she was unlikely to have much sympathy for the French socialist left) and, uncomfortably for her admirers today, anti-Semites. Némirovsky was a Jew who seems to have been repelled by what she perceived as the furtive insularity and mysticism of the European Orthodox, which was distinctly at odds with what was then accepted as enlightened humanism. Eventually she converted to Catholicism, the prevailing faith of the upper classes.

But while Némirovsky was by no means immune to the tendencies of her time, she strove throughout it to stay detached from an explicit party or ideology. “I hardly need to say that I have never concerned myself with politics, and that I have written only literary works,” she wrote in a pleading letter to Vichy Chief of State Philippe Pétain in 1940, and she certainly believed in the distinction. The only cause to which she was passionately devoted was that of writing her books. It’s amazing and in some ways heartening to realize that had the Nazis won World War II she would have continued writing her sharp, sapient novels as long as they would have let her (what’s heartening in that thought quickly turns to heartbreak when we in turn realize that the Nazis would not have—and did not—let her for long).

We know that she would have kept writing in spite of any outcome because she did keep writing, even after the German invasion and during the occupation of France, producing the work that makes up the incomplete Suite Française.

Némirovsky envisioned an epic work spanning the length of the war, with short interconnected novels like symphonic movements conveying each distinct phase, from the shocking capitulation of the French Army to the protracted drôle de guerre, the so-called “phony war” during which the only steady fighting took place in the ocean, to, she assumed, future battles and an ultimate peace, although she had no idea how these later events would unfold (“the fourth and fifth [parts of Suite Française] are in limbo,” she wrote in her journals, “and what a limbo!”).

Storm in June, the book about the invasion, is a jagged, dissonant allegro somewhat calling to mind Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—now ominous, now shrill, now romantic, now violent. It presents a panorama of middle- to upper-class Parisians during the hectic evacuation of the capital, and although there is some gallantry amid the frenzy, the arrival of the Germans is mostly a time of dog-eat-dog survival. When, for instance, she realizes that the markets are out of food, wealthy Madame Péricand swiftly abandons her lifelong belief in the virtue of largesse:

Christian charity, the compassion of centuries of civilization, fell from her like useless ornaments, revealing her bare, arid soul. She needed to feed and protect her children. Nothing else mattered any more.

The panicked lapse of morals leads to caricatured extremes: blackmail, highway banditry, and a grotesque murder. The acidic satire on display here—aimed almost exclusively at Némirovsky’s countrymen—seems wonderfully audacious in its contempt for the sentimental pabulum about unity and self-sacrifice that circulated the country after its defeat, encouraged particularly by the collaborators in Vichy. But not even stinging satire can ward off the cloud originating from the incinerators of Eastern Europe; the acerbity and wildness of Storm in June only make it sadder. On an aesthetic level, Némirovsky would certainly have rounded away the more absurdly melodramatic edges from the story if she had been given time (she says as much in her journals). More painful to consider is the irony of her fate. The barbarous every-man-for-himself outlook she exposes in Storm in June was the very mentality of the French authorities who compliantly gave her up to the Nazis for being a Russian-born Jew.

Dolce, the second book of Suite Française (and the last that Némirovsky completed, although she made headway into a third), is a beautiful largo little matched for the psychological clarity with which it renders up the average French citizen during the days of occupation. In an attempt to stay inconspicuous from authorities, Némirovsky and her family fled Paris for a tiny Dijon village called Issy-L’Evêque; Dolce takes place in such a village. Its stately and gradual power is the product of extraordinary depths of observation. Somehow she seems here to write at a great emotional distance from the war, with a prescient and calming knowledge that the occupation cannot but be temporary and that human errors derive less from evil natures than from weakness during evil times. Self-serving folly is still pinned to the corkboard at every opportunity, but the satire is now more controlled, gentler and humorous. Madame Pericand’s disavowal of charity melodramatically revealed her “bare, arid soul”; in Dolce, the following passage about another stingy and well-to-do matriarch, Madame Angellier, is by contrast subtle and perceptive:

Madame Angellier warmly asked Madame Perrin to sit down again…. She didn’t experience the disagreeable feeling she always had when Madame de Montmort came to visit. She knew the Perrin ladies approved of everything: the mock fireplace, the musty smell, the half-closed shutters, the slip covers on the furniture, the olive-green wallpaper with silver palm leaves. Everything was as it should be; she would soon be offering her guests a pitcher of orangeade and some stale shortbread. Madame Perrin would not be shocked by the stinginess of this offering; she would simply see it as one more proof of the Angelliers’ wealth, for the richer one is, the stingier as well; she would identify with her own tendency to save money and the inclination towards asceticism that lies at the heart of the French middle classes and makes their shameful secret pleasures even more bittersweet.

Némirovsky applies the same wise and empathetic long view to the behavior not only of young French women during the German occupation, but to the young German occupiers themselves, who are more or less teenaged conquerors, at once vain and fastidiously well-mannered, conditioned killers anxious to earn the respect of their new subjects but hopelessly susceptible to falling in love with the pretty girls whose husbands are enemy prisoners-of-war someplace far away; and the lonely girls are also vulnerable to the attentions of these friendly, impressive young men. Némirovsky makes from this inherently tense scenario an impeccably crafted story of crossed allegiances and ambiguous betrayals, a situation only relieved when the soldiers are shipped to the Eastern Front to fight the Soviets (a surprisingly melancholy ending, but Némirovsky has made us feel for these doomed young men). And there, terribly, Suite Française ends.

Except that it turns out that Némirovsky worked on an altogether different book at the same time as Suite Française, which has now been published under the title Fire in the Blood, with the benefit of another fine translation by Sandra Smith. Fire in the Blood is also a pastoral drama, although in this case it is set sometime before World War II and is exclusively preoccupied with the homegrown troubles in its own somewhat haunted idyll. It’s a quick, beguiling little book, nimbly constructed by a writer whose experience with serialization has taught her how to draft effective plots, and fleshed out with further sparkling observations about the habits of French paysans, or villagers.

The narrator is an aging bachelor called Silvio, who has settled into a deep rut after years of wandering and now describes this as his perfect evening:

I am completely alone; my maid 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 book, a bottle of red wine warming slowly on the hearth.

Silvio’s only real human contact is with his cousin Hélène and her family, by whom he is rather patronizingly doted upon as an unregenerate recluse, wizening lovelessly in dirty lodgings. Hélène is of course married (only married people have the cheek to pity bachelors), to a stolid, constant man named François. Their devoted marriage is the paradigm of connubial perfection for their daughter Colette, who is about to wed a similarly reliable and unexceptional young farmer from the village.

However, in short order Silvio discovers that Colette is having an affair. Then Colette’s husband winds up dead, drowned in the river that crosses his property. Only Silvio knows about Colette’s faithlessness and only Colette and her lover know what happened to her husband, whose death is at first suspiciously deemed an accident. In a neat and persuasive series of confessions these and other secrets emerge to disclose a long familial pattern of infidelity and recklessness.

There is nothing revelatory in the conception of this little novel, but nevertheless the prose that dwells upon the common themes of fidelity and adultery, of emotional complacency and lust, has a languorous beauty and knowing confidence that make some passages feel indelible. While considering the men and women his age at Colette’s wedding, Silvio reflects,

When older people get together there is always something unflappable about them; you can sense they’ve tasted all the heavy, bitter, spicy food of life, extracted its poisons, and will now spend ten or fifteen years in a state of perfect equilibrium and enviable morality. They are happy with themselves. They have renounced the vain attempts of youth to adapt the world to their desires. They have failed and, now, they can relax. In a few years they will once again be troubled by great anxiety, but this time it will be a fear of death; it will have a strange effect on their tastes, it will make them indifferent, or eccentric, or moody, incomprehensible to their families, strangers to their children. But between the ages of forty and sixty they enjoy a precarious sense of tranquility.

Their daughter’s tragedy, the looming doubts behind it, and the guilt it provokes in them conspire to disturb the precarious tranquility of Hélène and François’s marriage. Again Silvio observes the subtle change that comes over them:

They have aged a lot, and have lost that look of serenity that I liked so much and found so touching. I don’t know whether people make their own lives, but what is certain is that the life you live ends up transforming you: a calm, happy existence gives the face a gentleness and dignity, a warm, soft look that is almost like a sheen, like the varnish on a painting. But now the smoothness and decorum of their features had vanished and you could see their sad, anxious souls peering through the surface. Those poor people! In nature, there is a moment of perfection when every hope is realized, when the luscious fruits finally fall, a crowning moment towards the end of summer. But it quickly passes and the autumn rains begin. It’s the same for people.

But Silvio too, we learn, before he took refuge in a secluded routine was altered by the kind of desire that possessed Colette. “I enjoy simple things,” he tells us,

things within reach: a nice meal, some good wine, the secret, bitter pleasure of writing in this notebook; but, most especially, this divine solitude. What else do I need? But when I was twenty, how I burned! How is this fire lit in 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.

The final chapters of Fire in the Blood are consumed by the fire in the title, but Némirovsky keeps possession of her material and there are few shrill notes to be found. The potency of the prose and the dexterity of the storytelling win the day (though it remains difficult to encourage people to pay $24 for a book they’ll finish in three hours); with its mature social commentary and surprise twists, Fire in the Blood is a lot like a long late-career story by Edith Wharton, a splendid addition to an already substantial canon.

In short, it should be a bagatelle. In all likelihood, that’s how Némirovsky thought of it, since she appears to have worked on it as a means of cleansing her palate of the labor of Suite Française (she also wrote during this time a biography of Chekhov). But even in this book with the war nowhere in sight, we are not let off so lightly. The lacunae in Fire in the Blood are less obvious than those of Suite Française, but it is still almost certainly incomplete (it’s hard to imagine that Némirovsky would have been content to end it where it does, and some of the chapters are only a paragraph long). And so her death projects back upon these pages, darkening the gaps, saturating the book with a sense of bleakness and tragedy that was never supposed to be there.

In the summer of 1942, Némirovsky and the rest of the Jews in occupied France were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David in public (her conversion was irrelevant to the injunction). On July 13 she was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in a nearby village. From there she was sent to the French internment camp Pithiviers, and from there she was sent by cattle-car to Auschwitz. Because she was 39 and of sound health she was not at once gassed, but after a month she died of typhus.

Her death is thus one of the many millions that is impossible to reason out, to come to terms with. For all the book’s air of steady assurance there is no way not to read Fire in the Blood as a work composed by a woman with her leg caught in a bear-trap. The sheer brute enormity of the Holocaust—both in its size and nature—instantly silences every classroom debate about the appropriateness of considering an author’s life when reading his books. The dark knowledge of Auschwitz is forever reflected onto the white space of the book’s pages. Like Suite Française, it is literature, but by cruelest circumstance it is also a memento mori.

A few years ago, I found, mixed in with a bundle of my grandfather’s war correspondence, some letters written by my great-grandfather in the years before he was killed in a death camp. This was a dramatic discovery, as not a whole lot is known about him. He had the historically jarring but otherwise ordinary name Adolf Marx and he was a fairly well-off industrialist, a Berlin burgher of old and respected stock. His marriage had been arranged, and he had a daughter. After the Nazis rose to power, he was dispossessed of all his holdings and the entitlements of his class. He and his family were sent to Dachau; they bought the freedom of his wife and daughter (my grandmother), who managed to immigrate to New York. In a letter dated December, 1938, he wrote them:

So, like how we, almost 14,000 people from good Jewish families, were loaded outside of Dachau, so should, and so must the small Hellendall Heilbron Silberman Marx family be. We must forget everything and hang together like we were in snow and ice, wind and weather. So I ask you now in all urgency to send me my papers by the fastest way. To stay here is impossible and life is going to be unbearable. See to helping me so that I can finally emigrate. A Jewish heart knows when haste is needed. Don’t forget, your first duty to help me are the papers. It was very bitter for me that on November 18th no one could think about me, but it was even more bitter that I did not have the opportunity to offer my dear daughter a timely happy birthday.

He survived until at least 1942—his last letter is from that year written from a hotel in France; its stamps bear the image of Marshal Pétain—but little more is known, not even where he died, though it’s logical to guess it was in Auschwitz. My grandmother evidently did not often discuss him. Apart from some photographs in which he appears dapper and well-groomed the memorabilia we have are these final letters, the desperate communication of a hunted man.

Adolf Marx lived into his fifties, but who he was—the precious particulars of his long and valuable life—are all but lost to us in the little of him that’s survived. The most enduring fact of his existence will always be that he was snuffed out as part of an attempted extermination of a people, a fact that the sad last letters only underscore. His death all but blots out the rich decades of his life. So little escapes its pall. We’re pretty sure that he played the violin.

The symbols of Holocaust deaths are in their rawest form unbearable because they unanswerably belie every ordained and organized system of belief, of morality, of rightness, of larger principled meaning. There is no adequate way of understanding those deaths if we’re not willing to simply conclude that humans are essentially evil and existence is essentially a nightmare. That intolerable conclusion is about all that we can draw from a case like Adolf Marx’s: a man killed and almost nothing left but the appalling evidence of the crime.

And such a summation weighs upon Irène Némirovsky’s unfinished books too, weighs unfairly, unbearably…yet in these remnants there is more, there is a countervailing force, because the books contain as well the stored and sensitive talent of a woman who had enjoyed a long, loving engagement with life. That word “life” appears constantly in her last works with a patient relentlessness that will not let us forget its presence or its strange glory. The holes of Fire in the Blood are dark and the missing half of Suite Française is an open gash, but the beautiful, sighted writing in each is still beautiful and still inspires joy and wonder in spite of all the rest. The consolations of art are rarely so palpably felt as in these sad, moving books. They are full of light.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.