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  • Fire in the Blood
  • Written by Irene Nemirovsky
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Fire in the Blood

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Written by Irene NemirovskyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Irene Nemirovsky


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: December 30, 2008
Pages: 160 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49545-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf

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On Sale: September 25, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-7393-5777-4
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From the celebrated author of the international bestseller Suite Française, a newly discovered novel, a story of passion and long-kept secrets, set against the background of a rural French village in the years before World War II.Written in 1941, Fire in the Blood – only now assembled in its entirety – teems with the intertwined lives of an insular French village in the years before the war, when "peace" was less important as a political state than as a coveted personal condition: the untroubled pinnacle of happiness. At the center of the novel is Silvio, who has returned to this small town after years away. As his narration unfolds, we are given an intimate picture of the loves and infidelities, the scandals, the youthful ardor and regrets of age that tie Silvio to the long-guarded secrets of the past.


Chapter One

We were drinking a light punch, the kind we had when I was young, and all sitting around the fire, my Erard cousins, their children and I. It was an autumn evening, the whole sky red above the sodden fields of turned earth. The fiery sunset promised a strong wind the next day; the crows were cawing. This large, icy house is full of draughts. They blew in from everywhere with the sharp, rich tang of autumn. My cousin Hélène and her daughter, Colette, were shivering beneath the shawls I’d lent them, cashmere shawls that had belonged to my mother. They asked how I could live in such a rat hole, just as they did every time they came to see me, and Colette, who is shortly to be married, spoke proudly of the charms of the Moulin-Neuf where she would soon be living, and “where I hope to see you often, Cousin Silvio,” she said. She looked at me with pity. I am old, poor and unmarried, holed up in a farmer’s hovel in the middle of the woods. Everyone knows I’ve travelled, that I’ve worked my way through my inheritance. A prodigal son. By the time I got back to the place where I was born, even the fatted calf had waited for me for so long it had died of old age. Comparing their lot with mine, the Erards no doubt forgave me for borrowing money I had never returned and repeated, after their daughter, “You live like an animal here, you poor dear. You should go and spend the summer with Colette once she’s settled in.”

I still have happy moments, though they don’t realise it. Today, I’m alone; the first snow has fallen. This region, in the middle of France, is both wild and rich. Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money and doesn’t give a thought to the rest of the world. No châteaux, no visitors. A bourgeoisie reigns here that has only recently emerged from the working classes and is still very close to them, part of a rich bloodline that loves everything that has its roots in the land. My family is spread over the entire province—an extensive network of Erards, Chapelains, Benoîts, Montrifauts; they are important farmers, lawyers, government officials, landowners. Their houses are imposing and isolated, built far from the villages and protected by great forbidding doors with triple locks, like the doors you find in prisons. Their flat gardens contain almost no flowers, nothing but vegetables and fruit trees trained to produce the best yield. Their sitting rooms are stuffed full of furniture and always shut up; they live in the kitchen to save money on firewood. I’m not talking about François and Hélène Erard, of course; I have never been in a home more pleasant, welcoming, intimate, warm and happy than theirs. But, in spite of everything, my idea of the perfect evening is this: I am completely alone; my housekeeper has just put the hens in their coop and gone home, and I am left with my pipe, my dog nestled between my legs, the sound of the mice in the attic, a crackling fire, no newspapers, no books, a bottle of red wine warming slowly on the hearth.

“Why do people call you Silvio?” asked Colette.

“A beautiful woman who was once in love with me thought I looked like a gondolier,” I replied. “That was over twenty years ago and, at the time, I had black hair and a handlebar moustache. She changed my name from Sylvestre to Silvio.”

“But you look like a faun,” said Colette, “with your wide forehead, turned-up nose, pointed ears and laughing eyes. Sylvestre, creature of the woods. That suits you very well.”

Of all of Hélène’s children, Colette is my favourite. She isn’t beautiful, but she has the quality that, when I was young, I used to value most in women: she has fire. Her eyes laugh like mine and her large mouth too; her hair is black and fine, peeping out in delicate curls from behind the shawl, which she has pulled over her head to keep the draught from her neck. People say she looks like the young Hélène. But I can’t remember. Since the birth of a third son, little Loulou, who’s nine years old now, Hélène has put on weight and the woman of forty-eight, whose soft skin has lost its bloom, obscures my memory of the Hélène I knew when she was twenty. She looks calm and happy now.

This gathering at my house was arranged to introduce Colette’s fiancé to me. His name is Jean Dorin, one of the Dorins from the Moulin-Neuf, who’ve been millers for generations. A beautiful river, frothy and green, runs past their mill. I used to go trout fishing there when Dorin’s father was still alive.

“You’ll make us some good fish dishes, Colette,” I said.

François refused a glass of punch: he drinks only water. He has a pointy little grey beard that he slowly strokes.

“You won’t miss the pleasures of this world when you’ve left it,” I remarked to him, “or rather once it has left you, as it has me . . .”

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.

“No, since you don’t like wine, hunting or women, you’ll have nothing to miss.”

“I’d miss my wife,” he replied, smiling.

That was when Colette went and sat next to her mother.

“Mama, tell me the story of how you got engaged to Papa,” she said. “You’ve never said anything about it. Why’s that? I know it’s a very romantic story, that you loved each other for a long time . . . Why haven’t you ever told me about it?”

“You’ve never asked.”

“Well, I’m asking now.”

Hélène laughed. “It’s none of your business,” she protested.

“You don’t want to say because you’re embarrassed. But it can’t be because of Uncle Silvio: he must know all about it. Is it because of Jean? But he’ll soon be your son, Mama, and he should know you as well as I do. I so want Jean and me to live together the way you live with Papa. I’m positive you’ve never had a fight.”

“It’s not Jean I’m embarrassed about, but these great oafs,” said Hélène, nodding towards her sons with a smile. They were sitting on the floor, throwing pine cones into the fire; they had pockets full of them; the cones burst open in the flames with a loud, crackling sound.

Georges was fifteen and Henri thirteen. “If it’s because of us,” they replied, “go ahead, don’t be embarrassed.”

“We’re not interested in your love stories,” Georges said scornfully. He was at that age when a boy’s voice starts to change.

As for little Loulou, he’d fallen asleep.

But Hélène shook her head and was reluctant to speak.

“You have the perfect marriage,” Colette’s fiancé said shyly. “I hope that we too . . . one day . . .”

He was mumbling. He seemed a good lad, his face thin and soft, with the beautiful anxious eyes of a hare. Strange that Hélène and Colette, mother and daughter, should have sought out the same type of man to marry. Someone sensitive, considerate, easily dominated; almost feminine, but at the same time guarded and shy, with a kind of fierce modesty. Good Lord, I was nothing like that! Standing slightly apart, I looked at the seven of them. We’d eaten in the sitting room, which is the only habitable room in the house, except for the kitchen; I sleep in a kind of attic room under the eaves. The sitting room is always rather gloomy and, on this November evening, was so dark that when the fire was low, all you could see were the large cauldrons and antique warming pans hanging from the walls, whose copper bottoms reflected even the dimmest light. When the flames rose again, the fire lit up their calm faces, their kind smiles, Hélène’s hand with its gold wedding band stroking little Loulou’s curls. Hélène was wearing a blue silk dress with white polka dots. My mother’s shawl, embroidered with leaves, covered her shoulders. François sat next to her; both of them looked at the children sitting at their feet. I picked up a flaming twig from the fire to relight my pipe and it illuminated my face. It seems I wasn’t the only one observing what was happening around me for Colette, who doesn’t miss a thing either, suddenly exclaimed, “Why, Cousin Silvio, you have such a mocking look sometimes. I’ve often noticed it.”

Then she turned to her father. “I’m still waiting to hear all about how you fell in love, Papa.”

Translated from the French by Sandra Smith

From the Hardcover edition.
Irene Nemirovsky

About Irene Nemirovsky

Irene Nemirovsky - Fire in the Blood

Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 into a wealthy banking family and immigrated to France during the Russian Revolution. After attending the Sorbonne in Paris, she began to write and swiftly achieved success with David Golder, which was followed by more than a dozen other books. Throughout her lifetime she published widely in French newspapers and literary journals. She died in Auschwitz in 1942. More than sixty years later, Suite Française was published posthumously for the first time in 2006.



“Beautiful. . . . An enjoyable . . . portrait of manners from the first half of the last century.”
The Washington Post Book World

"Courageous, uncompromising. . . . An entire world, vividly rendered, emerges from [these] pages.”

“An almost perfect miniature, a tale of divided loves and loyalties set in an insular rural French village.”
O, Oprah Magazine

“[Némirovsky] coolly explores the heat of passions old and new. . . leav[ing] readers profoundly satisfied with this portrait of la vieille France…so manifestly dear to her.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Beautiful. . . . An enjoyable . . . portrait of manners from the first half of the last century.”
The Washington Post Book World

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Irène Némirovsky's extraordinary novel, Fire in the Blood, written in 1941 and now available for the first time in its entirety.

About the Guide

Set in the idyllic French countryside just prior to World War II, Fire in the Blood is a classic love story, a tale of youth and age, passion and regret, truth and deception. It is also a novel about adultery-the great theme of nineteenth-century fiction-told with a subtle narrative mastery that even Tolstoy and Flaubert would have admired.

The novel is narrated by Silvio, a solitary old man looking back at his life, the passions of his youth, and the folly still being committed because of the madness of love. As a young man, Silvio fled the stifling confines of village life. He sought out adventure, selling cocoa in Congo, buying horses in Canada. Having squandered most of his inheritance, Silvio returned, nearly penniless. As the novel begins, he has no illusions about his situation: “I am old, poor and unmarried, holed up in a farmer's hovel in the middle of the woods” [p. 3]. But he enjoys his peace and solitude, and from this vantage he can look on coldly as the “fire in the blood” that once consumed him draws Colette, the daughter of his friend Hélène, and the orphaned Brigitte into its flame.

Silvio paints an idyllic picture of Hélène's marriage to François, a companionable union free of strife and filled with deep affection. But when Colette marries the unremarkable and naïve Jean, the peace that Silvio values so highly, in himself and others, begins to unravel. Colette begins a passionate affair with the handsome Marc. Brigitte, married to Declos, a bitter man many years her senior, also begins an affair with Marc. And when Jean is drowned mysteriously in a river he has crossed every day for years, the truth of his death is covered up by the villagers who, as Silvio says, would rather “walk through fire than get involved in other people's business” [p. 74]. But these secret entanglements are only the tip the iceberg. Silvio gradually reveals his own youthful adultery, its connection to the current romantic dramas being played out, and the flame of passion that still burns within him.

A novel about the most powerful of human passions and their often disastrous consequences, Fire in the Blood paints a vivid picture of village life in prewar France, a place where secrecy, jealousy, and ill will lie just under the placid surface.

About the Author

Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 into a wealthy banking family and emigrated to France during the Russian Revolution. After attending the Sorbonne, she began to write and swiftly achieved success with an early novel, David Golder, which was followed by The Ball, Snow in Autumn, Dogs and Wolves, and The Courilof Affair, among others. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.

Discussion Guides

1. Is Silvio a reliable narrator? Is he honest with himself? How does he change over the course of the novel?

2. Silvio writes: “I enjoy simple things, things within reach: a nice meal, some good wine, the secret, bitter pleasure of writing in this notebook; but, most especially, this divine solitude” [p. 52]. Why is writing in his notebook a “bitter pleasure”? Why does he value his solitude so highly?

3. In the same passage, Silvio says, “What else do I need? But when I was twenty, how I burned! How is this fire lit within us? It devours everything and then, in a few years, a few months, a few hours even, it burns itself out. Then you see how much damage has been done” [p. 52]. What does this “fire,” which Silvio mentions many times over the course of the novel, represent? What kinds of damage does it cause to the lives of the main characters in Fire in the Blood? How does it get “lit”?

4. Silvio refuses to help Colette tell her parents the truth about her husband's death and tells her that, after she leaves, he'll do what he does every night: “I'll shut the gate. I'll lock the doors. I'll wind the clock. I'll get my cards and play a few games of Solitaire. I'll have a glass of wine. I won't think about anything. I'll go to bed. I won't sleep much. Instead I'll dream with my eyes open. I'll see people and things from the past. As for you, well, you'll go home, you'll feel miserable, you'll cry, you'll get out Jean's photograph and ask his forgiveness, you'll regret the past, fear the future. I can't say which of us will have a better night” [p. 86]. Which state of mind is, in fact, preferable? Does the novel seem to support one way of living-passionately or coldly-over the other?

5. What role does repetition play in the novel? In what ways do Brigitte and Colette both repeat the mistakes of their parents?

6. Silvio says that he's lived long enough to know that there's “no such thing as uncomplicated emotions” [p. 103]. Why does Silvio feel this way? What extremely complicated emotions-and complex emotional entanglements-does the novel explore?

7. Silvio tells Colette, “To you, Jean's death is a horrific catastrophe. . . . He was a poor, jealous, clumsy lad who's better off where he is. You blame yourself for his death? The way I see it, the only things to blame are chance or destiny” [p. 85]. Is Colette responsible for her husband's death? What does Silvio mean by suggesting that only chance or destiny are to blame?

8. François tells Silvio: “These people are incredible. . . .They can watch a man being murdered before their very eyes and still not say a word to avoid 'getting involved'”[p. 75]. Why do the farmers suppress what really happened in Jean's death? What ethos governs how they view and treat their neighbors? Why are they so reluctant to get involved?

9. When a carful of Parisians stop in Moulin-Neuf to get their car repaired, Silvio remarks: “They'll pass silent, sombre country estates and will not begin to imagine the dark, secret life within-a life they will never come to know” [p. 63]. What role do secrets play in the novel? What causes these secrets to come out?

10. Why doesn't Silvio reveal his own past secret relationship with Hélène as he tells the story of Colette's and Brigitte's affairs? Why does he wait until Brigitte confronts Hélène and François?

11. Brigitte disputes François's claim that she freely chose to marry Declos, a many forty years her senior. In what ways was hers not a free choice? What does the novel as a whole suggest about the position and relative power of women in rural French society in the years just prior to World War II?

12. The Preface to the French edition includes a journal entry in which Némirovsky outlines a novel idea: “Austerity, purity of parents who were guilty when they were young. The impossibility of understanding that 'fire in the blood'” [p. 133]. In what ways does this brief sketch accurately describe the main themes of Fire in the Blood? Why would Némirovsky write a novel about something that is “impossible to understand”?

13. Near the end of the novel, Silvio engages in a long, slightly drunken monologue in which he finally speaks his mind about Hélène. Why doesn't he actually say these things to her? Is he right in thinking that her happiness with François is only a pretense?

14. In many ways, Fire in the Blood describes a historical period and social milieu vastly different from contemporary America. What essential human emotions does the novel explore? In what ways does it illuminate issues that are still with us today?

Suggested Readings

Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper's Wife; Anton Chekov, Stories of Anton Chekov; Kate Chopin, The Awakening; Sebastian Faulks, Charlotte Gray, Birdsong; Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary; Primo Levi, If This is a Man; Katherine Mansfield, Stories; Ian McEwan, Atonement; Irène Némirosvsky, Suite Francaise; Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient; Nevil Shute, Pastoral; Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

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