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Book review: In the tradition of Turgenev and Chekhov


Irene Nemirovsky and her daughter Denise pictured in 1930

Irene Nemirovsky and her daughter Denise pictured in 1930

Irene Nemirovsky - The Fires of Autumn

Irene Nemirovsky - The Fires of Autumn


Irene Nemirovsky and her daughter Denise pictured in 1930

Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, which was written as she hid from the Nazis in rural France but wasn't published until 2003, brought her posthumous international acclaim, and since then I've reviewed four other novels by this remarkable writer who had been a bestseller in her French heyday, but who was unknown to most readers for over 60 years.

Brief in length, all four of these novels (superbly translated by Sandra Smith) are extraordinary and so, too, is The Fires of Autumn, which was completed soon before this Kiev-born daughter of a Jewish banker was apprehended and taken off to Auschwitz, where she perished at the age of 39 in August 1942.

In the tradition of Turgenev and Chekhov, Nemirovsky has that great Russian gift of being able to instantly set a scene, convey an atmosphere and establish characters in a way that seems so casual as to be almost effort-less, and she achieves this here in a 12-page opening chapter that introduces us to most of the principal players as they sit around a Parisian dinner table, the elders contented with their lot and the young people eagerly anticipating the future.

It's 1912 and within a couple of years, teenage Therese will be wedded to recently-qualified doctor Martial, who will soon be killed in Flanders as he tries to save a local man's life. However, young family friend Bernard will survive the combat and in the inter-war years will devote his now cynical energies to a life of liberty, egalitarianism and debauchery - along with his war-shirking friend Raymond, a heartless political and financial fixer with whose wife Bernard becomes sexually embroiled.

Yet, although knowing him to be unfaithful and amoral, the besotted young widow Therese persuades him into a marriage that will leave her with three children but also with a husband who's unable to change his philandering and mercenary ways in a France that by now had "democratised vice and standardised corruption". Meanwhile, another world war was looming.

Seemingly written at the same time as Suite Francaise, The Fires of Autumn was originally published in France in 1957, though for this new edition, three early chapters the author wished to be removed have been restored - a sensible decision, I feel, as two of them vividly convey the terrifying reality of a combat in which Bernard "had aged without having had the time to grow up".

Nemirovsky's pacing of a narrative that, within 230 pages, takes in two world wars and 30 years of French history is brilliant and her eye for the vanities and venalities of social behaviour is telling.

But it's her feeling for the frailties of her all-too-human characters that lends her books their real poignancy.

The Fires of Autumn; Irene Nemirovsky. Chatto & Windus, hdbk, £16.99

Indo Review