IN A NUTSHELL
- The Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith (Vintage International, 2015)
- In 40 words or less: Through the lives of three interconnected families, the many changes to France’s working- and middle-class from WWI to the early days of WWII are shown. Némirovsky’s keen eye for the import of social status carries the story.
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Locale: Primarily Paris
- Time: 1912-1941
- Read this for a character-driven tour of the vast changes in daily life over the quarter-century between WWI and WWII.
Irène Némirovsky came to fame in the US more than 60 years after her death in Auschwitz in 1942. Russian and Jewish by birth in 1903, she fled to France after the Revolution and saw herself as French, though never accorded citizenship. Némirovsky converted to Catholicism in 1939. She received acclaim for her novels during her life though some were criticized as anti-Semitic. While three novels were published posthumously in France after the war, the discovery of the manuscript of Suite Française by her daughter in the late 1990’s led to the publication of it, and many of her other works, both in French and in translation.
The Fires of Autumn, written as World War II loomed, is reflective of the many changes in the early decades of the 20th century. Three families, the Jacquelains, the Bruns, and the Humberts, all have children whose choices are altered by the advent of WWI. Rather than opening his medical office, Martial enlists as a military doctor on the front. This “heroic” choice leads to an unexpected engagement with Thérèse. And Bernard, the scion of the Jacquelain family, destined for the university, enlists as soon as he is of age, shortly after Martial’s death.
Bernard returns jaded from the war, disinterested in his family’s aspirations or concerns for him. Quickly caught up in the hedonism emblematic of the 1920s, he connects with wheeler-dealer new style businessman changing the course of his life. He marries Thérèse and through their relationship and the interaction with their families and childhood friends, the fracturing of many societal norms are seen.
Having found Suite Française overwhelming, I was hesitant about reading The Fires of Autumn. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Némirovsky tells a good story and her characters are well-formed. The strength of The Fires of Autumn is the timing of the telling of the story. As seen in her life choices, Némirovsky knows all too well that politics can alter fortunes in mere moments and that choosing sides can exact a heavy price. While at times the dramatics of Némirovsky’s life receive more attention than her writings, The Fires of Autumn is a good reason for her inclusion among noteworthy writers of pre-WWII France.