The Fires of Autumn

Irène Némirovsky; San­dra Smith, trans.
  • Review
By – April 6, 2015

Irène Némirovsky was a well-regard­ed writer in France between the World Wars. Born a Jew, but a con­vert to Catholi­cism, her writ­ings and pol­i­tics are con­tro­ver­sial in the lit­er­ary world. She came to be known to the world with her book Suite Fran­caise, pub­lished posthu­mous­ly, under the direc­tion of her sur­viv­ing daugh­ter, Denise. This new book pre­cedes the events in Suite Fran­caise, depict­ing events from the begin­ning of World War I through the ear­ly years of World War II. The nov­el begins slow­ly, describ­ing two French fam­i­lies and a Sun­day out­ing. Grad­u­al­ly the peace­ful ambiance of pre-war France gives way to the dis­tant sounds of war. The con­ver­sa­tion turns from every­day domes­tic issues to the pol­i­tics of when, not if, France will go to war with Ger­many. Bernard Jacque­lain as the cen­tral char­ac­ter of the nov­el is pre­sent­ed to us as a naïve young man; still in short pants, want­i­ng to fight for the hon­or of France. He rep­re­sents the nation­al­is­tic fer­vor of the day. Through Bernard’s eyes we wit­ness a nation about to embark on one of the blood­i­est con­flicts in human his­to­ry. But Bernard will not remain ide­al­is­tic for long as the hor­ror of the war turns him into a cyn­i­cal, self-absorbed man, long­ing for the com­forts of wealth and pow­er. Upon return­ing from the war, Bernard embarks on a busi­ness career and becomes caught up in the spec­u­la­tion and cor­rup­tion of the 1920’s.

The sec­ond main char­ac­ter, Therese, a child­hood friend of Bernard, mar­ries only to lose her hus­band in the war. Left a child­less wid­ow, she seeks a new life, with Bernard, the man she has always loved. They will mar­ry but the mar­riage will not always be the ide­al imag­ined by Therese. The book is two sto­ries: one of domes­tic­i­ty in a coun­try rav­aged by two world wars, and, a sto­ry that is a more pro­found, cyn­i­cal view of soci­ety. The ear­ly pages set the tone, paint­ing a soci­ety that on the sur­face appears to be cul­tured, but under­neath is a deep­er cur­rent of self­ish­ness and greed. The read­er will leave the book won­der­ing who Bernard real­ly is and if he has come to terms with his iden­ti­ty, not unlike his nation and per­haps, the author as well.

Relat­ed Content:

Bar­bara Andrews holds a Mas­ters in Jew­ish Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has been an adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion instruc­tor, and works in the cor­po­rate world as a pro­fes­sion­al adult educator.

Discussion Questions