“And aren’t the most beautiful follies the ones linked to love?” — On Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky; translated by Sandra Smith

Such madness! When you’re twenty, love is like a fever. It makes you almost delirious. When it’s over you can hardly remember how it happened. Fire in the blood, how quickly it burns itself out. Faced with this blaze of dreams and desires, I felt so old, so cold, so wise.

Oh you — Fire in the Blood, another rescued novel by Irène Némirovsky — I very much enjoyed. As slim as you are, hell, I figured that I’d read a few pages then set you aside. How could I forget that that was the same thing I said about Ethan Frome? And so I finished reading you in one sitting, and dammit, I loved you.

[And with much thanks to Sandra Smith, the translator — the language was fluid, and had the grace that I so missed when I read Dimanche and Other Stories, which was translated by someone else.]

So. It’s a very insular tale — compact and organic, too, so finely crafted. It’s easy to assume that this is a lesser work of a celebrated author, given it’s tiny-ness. But, man, this is a beauty of a book, and it’s all the more lovely because it accomplished so much in such a slim package — such focus, such detail, and such heightened emotions because of this.

With scope and concentration, this novel has a lot in common with Dolce, the second book of the author’s Suite Française: rural life, a community, a family—with high passions lurking and raging beneath seemingly placid lives—ah! the drama of love and hatred, the deception and betrayal within a family we first encounter in an idyllic scene around a hearth—

With the children, we are told a tale of how a love flourished, basically a quaint little story about how the love of the patriarch and matriarch survives such odds [or, as I scribbled on my notebook, survived all the shit life threw at them].

But things get more compelling, you see. It’s a book of stories beneath the surface. Of histories best left forgotten, or those you pretend never occurred. And that particular family curse of parallel lives, or, to be more precise, parallel mistakes.

With a less talented writer, this could all have been melodramatic, implausible, verging on ridiculous. Like a haciendera soap opera. But there’s a simplicity and subtlety to Némirovsky’s tale — despite those raging passions — and a lot of this is  hinged on 1] the language, and 2] our narrator Silvio.

Ah, Silvio. As [in my opinion] the best narrators go, Silvio is both distant to the story that he is capable of chronicling it, and yet he’s eventually revealed as fundamental to it, thus not sacrificing any emotional investment in his chronicles.

Is he a friend? A distant cousin? Just a sad person moping about?

For I sometimes feel I’ve been rejected by life, as if washed 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.

But he never seems pathetic to me, or miserable. But resigned, as though he’s accepted the life he leads now, never mind that it’s a consequence of the life he led when he was younger.

I was being propelled forward by the fire in my young blood. But as these passions are now extinguished, I no longer know who I am. I feel I’ve traveled a long, pointless road, simply to end up where I began.

Should it baffle me that I don’t find this pathetic? Silvio with a life that closes in on itself even more, or so it seems — the space it offers to the outside world grows even smaller: long hours spent sitting by the fire doing nothing, not reading, not drinking, not even dreaming. No, not a pathetic life. Just lonely. Very, very lonely. More so, considering what bright fires he stoked when he was younger.

It’s his past, too, that makes him an even better narrator. At first, when Silvio is an observer, he notes things with the enlightenment of his own experiences — on, well, infidelities, which is the preoccupation of this novel, for seriously:

What else could I do? I’m neither her father nor her husband. Besides, to tell the truth, I don’t have the right to criticize, having committed enough folly in my youth. And aren’t the most beautiful follies the ones linked to love? Quite apart from the fact that we usually pay so dearly for our follies, we should be generous about them, to ourselves and others. Yes, we always pay for them, and sometimes the smallest indiscretions cut as much as the largest. Might as well be hanged for sheep as a lamb.

And then we learn that Silvio is inextricably tangled in this family’s life, in its past. And the novel’s thrust develops into one about parallel, intergenerational infidelities. Sins of the father, that familial curse, and all that jazz.

There are revelations. About the past, how it reverberates to the present. About the infidelities. About Silvio. About what’s happening all around him. And with these revelations, it’s all the more awesome how he reflects on the foibles of the youth around him. And I kept looking back to “normal” events, seeing those undertones even in the most mundane of exchanges.

That was what we wanted. To burn, to be consumed, to devour our days just as fire devours the forest.

Everything is charged! It’s all intense suddenly, because of the things people don’t say, refuse to say, or insist they have left behind them. Goodness! The pain, as well, the pain!

Ah, let me share the last line, one goddamn heartbreaking line, about that momentous first kiss:

We didn’t move. She seemed to be drinking me in, breathing in my heart. As for me, by the time I finally let her go I knew I had already begun to love her less.

I wailed when I turned the page and saw nothing there.

6 thoughts on ““And aren’t the most beautiful follies the ones linked to love?” — On Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky; translated by Sandra Smith

  1. When you love a book, it just oozes from the blog post, in such a wonderful way. Your posts are so well-written. I loved reading this post almost as much as I imagine I would love reading this book.

  2. I completely fell in love with this whisp of a book earlier this year (I have a review up if you’re interested) and I definitely agree with what you say. I recently purchased Suite Francaise so I can finally get to experience it. I will beware of the bad translations though, those are always a shame.


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