The enduring mysteries of Irène Némirovsky

The Némirovsky industry grinds on. A new novel in translation has appeared at a rate of more than one per year in the decade since the sensational publication of her hitherto undiscovered masterpiece, Suite Française. The latest to be translated (by the indefatigable Sandra Smith) is The Fires of Autumn, completed, according to an endnote in the French edition of 2011, in the spring of 1942, a few months before Némirovsky’s arrest. Its scope is ambitious, covering the period from just before the outbreak of the First World War to the fall of France in 1940, ending, ambiguously but with a kind of cautious (and unwarranted) optimism, at almost the precise moment Némirovsky was writing it.

The novel opens in 1913, just months before the teenage Bernard Jacquelain signs up to fight for France. He returns from the trenches a changed man. Cynical and world-weary, nothing like the idealistic teenager who went off to fight, he embarks on a life of easy pleasure and dubious financial dealing. Eventually, spurned by his married lover Renée, the wife of his business associate, he marries Thérèse, the widow of his childhood friend Martial, who was killed on the Front in 1916, having left to join the army just a day after his wedding. By framing the novel between two cataclysmic wars, Némirovsky chronicles a country in the process of losing its soul, exchanging the traditional values of patriotism and Catholic rigour for hedonism and the pursuit of wealth. “They democratised vice and standardised corruption.” The fall of France, Némirovsky seems to be saying, was as much a moral as a military defeat. “The battle for France was lost twenty years ago”, says Bernard. “Everyone has become a schemer, a gambler, a profiteer.”

While Suite Française takes place over barely two years, from the Parisian exodus in 1940 to the summer of 1942, when Némirovsky was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, this considerably shorter novel spans almost three decades. It lacks the formal virtuosity and ambition of Némirovsky’s final work, and arguably merits the charge levelled by some of the author’s critics that her characters lack depth. Bernard, Thérèse and Renée are little more than ciphers, allegorical figures representing elements of the moral and political maelstrom into which France was plunged between the two wars. Renée, pleasure-seeking and dissolute, Thérèse, drab but irreproachable and loyal in her love for the unfaithful Bernard; and Bernard himself, in thrall to money, power and sex, swinging wildly, like a compass that has lost its bearings, between the two women.

The most striking aspect of Fires of Autumn is its stunning punch of a narrative twist towards the end. What are the odds that two writers on two different continents, writing in different languages and from entirely different perspectives about the Second World War, would hinge their plots on almost exactly the same disastrous outcome of a father’s shady dealings with faulty aircraft parts during the early years of the war? Arthur Miller’s All My Sons came out in the United States in 1947, with Elia Kazan’s film version released a year later. In 1949 a French adaptation of the play by Marcel Duhamel was produced at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in Paris. Of course Némirovsky (who died in August 1942) could not have been influenced by Miller. And Miller could not have been influenced by Némirovsky, whose novel was not published in France until 1957. In fact she seems to have based her story on the machinations of Guy La Chambre, who became the French Air Force Minister in 1938 and who negotiated the purchase of a number of American fighter planes, which some politicians claimed were defective and key to France’s defeat. According to Némirovsky’s American biographer Jonathan Weiss, La Chambre’s trial in March 1942 forms the basis of the pivotal episode in The Fires of Autumn.

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