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Fire in the Blood A Novel; Irène Némirovsky, translated from the French by Sandra Smith; Alfred A. Knopf: 138 pp., $22

September 23, 2007|Heller McAlpin | Heller McAlpin is a critic whose reviews have appeared in Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle and a variety of other publications.

Irène NÉMIROVSKY has had a literary resurrection most writers can only pray for. Her incomplete masterpiece, "Suite Française," has sold some 1.5 million copies in 30 languages since its publication in France in 2004. Written in tiny script -- to conserve paper and ink -- while in exile with her family in the German-occupied Burgundy village of Issy-l'Evêque, it presents a penetrating portrait of France under siege.

The publication of a second, recently found novel, "Fire in the Blood," and the reissue of many of Némirovsky's earlier works (four of which are due from Everyman Library in January) make it clear that "Suite Française" was no fluke. But the phenomenal success of her posthumous publications raises interesting questions about this very French, Russian-Jewish novelist who died at Auschwitz in 1942 at age 39. Her tragic fate and the miraculous survival of her manuscripts -- preserved in a suitcase by her two daughters, who were hidden from the Nazis after their father was hauled off to Auschwitz, three months after their mother -- make for a riveting back story that has fanned interest in her work. But this is not enough to explain her renaissance.

Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, and her first language was French. Because of her Jewish banker father's privileged relationship with imperial Russia, the Némirovskys had to flee after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. By 1919, they made their way to Paris, where her father promptly rebuilt his fortune, and Némirovsky made a name for herself as a Balzacian novelist.

It is noteworthy that of her prolific output, about a dozen novels and many short stories, the two books first offered to American readers in the 21st century are not only previously unpublished but also her most purely French in subject matter and setting: no Russian or Jewish characters, and no hint of the stereotyped "hook-nosed," "frizzy-haired" Jews that populate her earlier work, including her 1929 French bestseller, "David Golder."

It is impossible to read "Suite Française" without being profoundly moved -- especially if one knows its heartbreaking provenance. Némirovsky's ability to capture a wide spectrum of French society under duress with such unblinking, pitiless acuity is astonishing. "Suite Française" is much more than a feat of on-the-spot reporting, however. Ambitiously conceived as a cycle of five novellas structurally modeled on Bach's "French Suites," its prose resonates with echoes of Tolstoy and Flaubert.

But looked at more closely, "Suite Française" is almost as remarkable for what it doesn't include as for what it does: There is no mention of anti-Semitism. This, despite the fact that while writing it, Némirovsky was subjected to increasingly hideous restrictions, which required Jews to sew yellow stars on their clothing, prohibited them from publishing, barred them from libraries, theaters and restaurants, and held them to rigid curfews.

Writing about the fall of France without mentioning the Jewish plight is akin to writing about Hurricane Katrina without mentioning New Orleans' impoverished. One has to wonder about Némirovsky's self-censorship. Was it aimed at self-preservation? Was it an attempt to distance herself even further from the religion of her birth (but never her practice) than her earlier fiction and her expedient conversion to Catholicism in 1939 already had done? Did she hope that her omission would enable her to publish her work and keep supporting her family despite the interdictions? Did she want to prove herself, once and for all, as a French novelist? Her motivations remain unclear. Notes for "Captivité," the third section of "Suite," indicate that Némirovsky intended to take on the collaborationist Vichy regime; whether that would have included its treatment of Jews is also unclear.

Némirovsky's resurgence in the adopted country that betrayed her so brutally, and responds even today in frightening numbers to far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen's xenophobic racism, raises further questions. Although she skewers French hypocrisy and moral flaccidity in both "Suite" and "Fire in the Blood," this criticism is mitigated by her silence on France's rampant anti-Semitism, and by having perhaps provided fodder for it in her early novels. The result is a more sympathetic and palatable portrait of occupied France.

Jonathan Weiss notes in his 2007 book, "Irène Némirovsky: Her Life and Works," that Némirovsky always felt removed from the country and ethnicity of her birth. Her work, Weiss claims, represented a protracted search for an identity, which led her to cast a critical eye first on her Russian-Jewish roots and later on French culture.

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