It’s 1912 and the future is looking bright. We have entered ‘the century of science, of progress’. Russian bonds are considered to be a safe investment. The Bruns and the Jacquelains, middle class Parisians, look forward to seeing their children grow up, marry, embark on respectable careers (the men, that is; their women will hopefully be spared the vulgarity of having to work). Then war breaks out and scuppers their plans.
So opens Irene Némirovsky’s penultimate novel The Fires of Autumn, which focuses on the First World War and the hedonistic post war years leading up to the Second World War; spanning a period from 1912 to 1941. Némirovsky was a prolific writer: over the 20 year period from the early 1920s until 1942 when she was interned in Auschwitz she wrote over twelve novels, four of which (unfinished and published posthumously) were written during the first few years of the Second World War.
The Fires of Autumn, which is one of the war group, spans the same time period as the slightly earlier village tragedy All our Worldly Goods, but this time the focus is on the Parisians and the hedonism of life in the capital. The anchor is the young (and then not so young) Thérèse and Bernard’s relationship: these two are used as reflections of the tensions in French society at the time. After the ordeals of the first war Bernard feels he deserves more than the honest grind by which his parents earned a living.
‘Mentally, … , he had been wounded in a way that nothing in future could ever heal, a wound that would grow deeper every day of his life: it was a kind of weariness, a chink in his armour, a lack of faith, pure exhaustion and a fierce hunger for life. ‘And I’ll live for me, and me alone,’ he thought.’
Thérèse represents the old school bourgeoisie, scandalised by high living, doing whatever is necessary to make ends meet when things take a turn for the worse. Inevitably their marriage isn’t happy. Bernard gets in with political animal Bernard Détang, begins an affair with Détang’s wife Renée, and embarks on a shady get rich quick scheme which will have tragic personal consequences (like pretty much all Némirovsky’s work, hardly anyone gets to have a happy life). The high point of Némirovsky’s novels is always the perceptive observation of people and society. Her work is preoccupied with power, money and flawed human nature: companies and countries go bust, civilised societies descend into chaos, old men kill themselves by working too hard, husbands and wives have affairs, mothers mistreat their daughters. And the moments when The Fires of Autumn seems most alive are when it is portraying the seamier side of things.
‘He was earning money. Money, at this point in time, had not yet become the wild, wayward beast it turned into between 1930 and 1939 when it could only be captured through dangerous close combat; now, it was a small, tame animal that was easy to catch.’
The Fires of Autumn takes a more subdued tone, however, than the earlier novels, where acerbic portrayals of Nemirovsky’s – often Jewish – characters caused her to be accused of anti-Semitism. Given the amount of time which elapses over a mere 228 pages of book, in terms of social events it’s a whistle stop summary to say the least. It can feel a little insubstantial, sometimes even trite. The story ends where Suite Francaise begins, but to describe it as a prequel risks overselling because as a novel it’s more of what came before rather than a suggestion of things to come. Némirovsky is an accomplished novelist and an astute documenter of society, however once you’ve read a few they do start to feel a bit samey. The incomplete Suite Francaise is the first novel to break away from this trend and begin forging a new style; I’m certainly not the first person to wonder what Némirovsky would have produced had she survived the war.
Any Cop?: Perceptively observed and neatly constructed, undemanding to read and valuable as a documentation of Paris in the interwar years, but lacks both the fizzing wit of her earlier novels and the promise of Suite Francaise. Worth reading if you’re a fan, otherwise start with one of the others – Suite Francaise if you’re after a war story, otherwise The Misunderstanding or David Golder are great examples of Némirovsky’s polished and sparky earlier work.