‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky (1957) 229 pages – Translated by Sandra Smith Grade: A-
In ‘The Fires of Autumn’, Irene Nemirovsky again vividly demonstrates her ability to deal with both the large scale events of nations as well as their impact on individual families. She captures what life was like for her fictional families in Paris from 1912 to 1941.
One aspect of Irene Nemirovsky that isn’t pointed out often enough is that she was highly educated. She started writing fiction when she was eighteen years old while she attended the Sorbonne University in Paris from 1920 to 1925. First she studied Russian literature and language at the university and later studied comparative literature. She published her first novel, ‘David Golder’, in 1929, and it was an immediate success. Both it and her second novel ‘Le Bal’ were so popular that they were immediately turned into movies.
Nemirovsky completed ‘The Fires of Autumn’ in the spring of 1942 just before she was arrested for the crime of being “a stateless person of Jewish descent” by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered soon afterward. She apparently wrote ‘The Fires of Autumn’ and ‘Suite Francaise’ at the same time.
‘The Fires of Autumn’ starts out with three neighborhood families taking a stroll on the Champs-Elysees in 1912, and we get a sense of the stately peace of the stroll at that time. But then World War I breaks out, and everyone is soon caught up in the horrors of war.
“Oh how he had hated death, how he had feared it, just as he had doubted God and blasphemed as he looked at the little blackish heaps lying between two trenches, dead bodies as numerous and insignificant as dead flies in the first cold snap of winter…And yet even that moment held a rather tragic beauty.”
After the war, there is a shortage of men, an abundance of women. The men who are left have been devastated by the war and just want to enjoy life. There is a loosening of morals not only in relations between the sexes but also in the business world. Fortunes can be made overnight by travelling to the United States to impress financiers. The novel implies that these underhanded business dealings led to the French army being shoddily and inadequately equipped so that when the next war, World War II, breaks out the French military is easily defeated.
Lately I’ve tried to pinpoint the qualities of the writers I most admire. One thing that has not sufficiently been noted about Irene Nemirovsky is her intelligence. Certainly we get a family drama in ‘The Fires of Autumn’ but we see this family in the panoramic context of national and world events over thirty years. I cannot name another writer besides Irene Nemirovsky who captured this era between the wars in fiction so well.