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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Fire in the Blood

Irène Némirovsky

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To purchase Fire in the Blood

Title: Fire in the Blood
Author: Irène Némirovsky
Genre: Novel
Written: (2007) (Eng. 2007)
Length: 138 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Fire in the Blood - US
Fire in the Blood - UK
Fire in the Blood - Canada
Chaleur du sang - Canada
Chaleur du sang - France
  • French title: Chaleur du sang
  • Presumably written 1938-42
  • Translated by Sandra Smith
  • With the Preface to the French Edition, by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt

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Our Assessment:

B : decent picture of French country-life, if a bit melodramatic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 25/9/2007 Yvonne Zipp
L'Express . 8/3/2007 Delphine Peras
Financial Times . 29/9/2007 Carmen Callil
Financial Times . 3/11/2008 James Urquhart
The Globe & Mail . 3/11/2007 Janice Kulyk Keefer
The Guardian . 29/9/2007 George Szirtes
The Independent . 12/10/2007 Paul Bailey
Independent on Sunday A 11/11/2007 Anne Garvey
The LA Times . 23/9/2007 Heller McAlpin
The New Republic . 30/1/2008 Ruth Franklin
New Statesman . 18/10/2007 Joanna Fiduccia
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/10/2007 Christopher Benfey
The Observer . 18/11/2007 Katie Toms
Salon A 6/2/2008 Allen Barra
Scotland on Sunday . 23/9/2007 Anna Millar
The Spectator . 11/12/2007 Patrick Marnham
Sunday Times A 23/9/2007 Peter Kemp
The Telegraph . 27/9/2007 Anne Chisholm
The Times . 6/10/2007 Ruth Scurr
TLS . 2/11/2007 Emilie Bickerton

  Review Consensus:

  Generally quite impressed, though many not exactly bowled over by the story.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The plot of Fire in the Blood isn't in itself remarkable. The novella's strength comes from its identity as a newly published novel by Irène Némirovsky (...) Nor is it fair to judge the story by usual critical standards, since it's hard to tell just how complete a work it is. Parts of the novella feel unfinished -- some chapters are literally one paragraph long, and there's a plot thread left dangling. (...) And there's enough of Némirovsky's intelligence and caustic powers of observation to make Fire in the Blood more than a mere curiosity." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "(C)ette histoire racontée par le vieux Silvio, patriarche d'une famille dans une campagne où l'ennui le dispute à la mesquinerie, où les mariages sont arrangés et les passions tenues au secret, possède tout le charme d'un roman de Mauriac. L'atmosphére, presque poisseuse, est rendue avec une formidable minutie. On retrouve dans ce rècit bref et intimiste les èclats du style Nèmirovsky." - Delphine Peras, L'Express

  • "Nemirovsky’s delineation of the life of the French peasant is more than a little stereotypical. But, as is always the case with her work, she is so clever, quick and observant that every character in the story bounds into life and cliches are forgotten in the sheer longing to turn every page, to unravel the secrets Silvio reveals." - Carmen Callil, Financial Times

  • "A subtle interplay of social status, private morality and emotional brittleness gives a Chekhovian feel to this taut tale of domestic intrigue, with glances to Proust in its fascination with the "foreign language" of youthful passion." - James Urquhart, Financial Times

  • "Némirovsky's vivid descriptions of landscape, her mastery of the layers and textures of social relations, and her creation of a marvellously complex thematic form make of a slender, even clichéd story a compelling tour de force." - Janice Kulyk Keefer, The Globe & Mail

  • "It is a claustrophobic vignette. (...) In order to bring this out, the novel has recourse to a number of violent twists and as a result feels somehow willed. The template of truth-telling has been so hammered into the characters that they are in danger of being thinned out, forced into the required shapes. As the story distances itself in the mind -- and it is a very readable page turner -- the twists begin to seem almost comical, like a cross between French farce and Royston Vasey. It is all sinister and inescapable." - George Szirtes, The Guardian

  • "The novella is a model of storytelling, with each surprise appointed its appropriate place. One guilty façade after another is stripped away, but the ending has to be ambiguous. These wretched men and women will go on hoarding their money, and distrusting their neighbours as much as they distrust themselves. What a hellish Arcadia Némirovsky conjures up, and with what refinement and subtlety, even as the fire in the blood ignites and destroys." - Paul Bailey, The Independent

  • "Fire in the Blood is a miniature masterpiece. (...) Shadowed by the certainties of ageing and decay, it is darkly elegiac. (...) The beauty of the prose and the dark fatalistic reflections of her ingenious story make this a sad, compelling read. Sandra Smith's imaginative and lucid translation brilliantly complements Némirovsky's ironic story: never too faithful to be tedious, nor too adventurous to be untrue to her author." - Anne Garvey, Independent on Sunday

  • "Némirovsky hits the themes of youth versus age hard. (...) Although it is hard to match the power of Suite Française, Fire in the Blood is strangely engaging despite its overheated prose. Némirovsky again excavates the hypocrisy and self-serving impulses embedded in French culture -- and, perhaps, all human nature. Maybe that is the secret of her allure: By letting no one off the hook, she hooks us all." - Heller McAlpin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The book is laced with reflections on aging, identity and the effort to justify our endings by forgetting those possibilities that would have altered them. Némirovsky’s restraint counters the occasional melodrama, but her emotional intelligence performs the greatest redemption: surpassing her flaws with a grave awareness of love’s vagaries." - Joanna Fiduccia, New Statesman

  • "Némirovsky, who wrote a life of Chekhov and considered casting Fire in the Blood as a play, seems to have aimed for the kind of wrenching revelations we associate with Ibsen. She also seems to have wrestled, not always successfully, with some of the challenges of writing a convincing thriller. (...) If I had read Fire in the Blood knowing nothing of its author or the circumstances of its composition, I would have guessed it was by some elegist of the French countryside like Jean Giono." - Christopher Benfey, The New York Times Book Review

  • "From the beginning, this is a joy as Nemirovsky perfectly evokes the richness of the countryside (.....) But, like Nemirovsky, we can never get too cosy in an alarming world where evils lurk beneath the sleepy surface." - Katie Toms, The Observer

  • "The novella (it's about 120 pages of text) is haunting and enigmatic, the age-old relationships among the villagers summed up in deft brushstrokes (.....) Unfortunately, what Fire in The Blood brings to our appreciation of Némirovsky as a literary artist is eroded by the four short novels newly published by Everyman's Library. (...) Fire in The Blood is superb; it is also short and atypical of much of her work." - Allen Barra, Salon

  • "Here she skilfully presents a scene rich with love and betrayal, memory and (dis)illusion. (...) Stripped of the backdrop of war, the natural surroundings of Fire In The Blood add a depth and resonance to each of the story's characters, whether young or old, male or female. Subtle in its intention, this novella takes humanity in all its guises and captures the deep-seated desire for belonging and understanding." - Anna Millar, Scotland on Sunday

  • "From this simple opening Némirovsky weaves a plot so complex that the short book demands an immediate second reading to pick up all the clues that one has inevitably missed. Her technique of gradually stripping layers of deception away from her characters to show us more and more about their real behaviour, gives the story its excitement and pace." - Patrick Marnham, The Spectator

  • "Passion and dispassion stare at each other with mutual lack of understanding. In a book fuelled with images of fire and embers, Némirovsky brilliantly depicts a closed-in, inward-looking community, then gives what happens in it universal resonance by exhibiting not only what people do to each other but what the passing of time does to us all." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

  • "Fire in the Blood, on which it seems she was still working when she was taken away to her death, confirms Némirovsky's brilliance as a storyteller with a deep understanding of the hidden flaws and cruelties not just in French society but in the human heart." - Anne Chisholm, The Telegraph

  • "As the narrative gathers pace, unearthing one buried secret after another, like a disgruntled child kicking through fallen leaves, Issy-l’Evêque comes clearly into view. The café, the mill, the bridge, the river: a beautiful place darkened by human purposes. (...) Her own reflection on the journey from youth to old age maps the birth and death of impetuous passion to the absence of fire in the blood. In the end, there is bitterness, but also calm." - Ruth Scurr, The Times

  • "The story of Fire n the Blood is unremarkable, and, although Némirovsky keeps her characters quite intriguing to the end, her treatment of the idea of youth is disappointing" - Emilie Bickerton, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Fire in the Blood is an odd little novella. Némirovsky writes here about French paysan-life, 'paysan' a term translator Smith makes a point of explicating in a Translator's Note, since it doesn't translate readily into English. Némirovsky certainly was not of this specifically French "rural social class", and the portrait she offers feels like an outsider's: even where she gets the general atmosphere and characterisation right there seems to be something missing.
       The story is narrated by Sylvestre, known as Silvio ("A beautiful woman who was once in love with me thought I looked like a gondolier" and changed it, he explains). He lives alone and seems to have few ambitions left in life, puttering along. But he's hardly alone in this attitude -- the paysans don't seem to like to make things easy and comfortable:

     It's true: the people around here have a kind of genius for living in the most difficult way possible. No matter how rich they are, they refuse pleasure, even happiness, with implacable determination, wary perhaps of its deceptive promise.
       The book opens when Silvio's cousin Hélène and her daughter Colette and the rest of the family come over to introduce Colette's fiancé. Hélène is prompted to tell the story of how she and and her husband got together. In fact, François wasn't her first husband. Though he fell in love with her when she was barely more than a child he waited -- and waited even after she was married off to a wealthy older man, returning only when Hélène's first husband died, true --- or romantically idealised -- love then finally taking its course.
       Such a situation isn't that uncommon: even now there's a similar case in the neighbourhood, where mean, rich old Declos married the very young Brigitte. Declos hasn't got long to live, but he still hangs on for the time being .....
       Némirovsky is artful in her presentation, careful in the clues she strews from the first page on. As it will turn out, there are many more secrets and connexions here, but she only very gradually lets on what the various relationships and histories are and were.
       Silvio frequently muses about youthful passion -- yes, 'fire in the blood.' He was a wild man in his younger days, too, trying to make his fortune abroad, living in remote places -- a marked contrast to the very quiet, deliberate man he has become.
       As he repeatedly notes (and observes), for the young passion can be overwhelming. Tied to the grim old man, it's hardly surprising that Brigitte needs more than he can offer and finds love elsewhere, for example. But she's not the only one to fall for Marc Ohnet .....
       Némirovsky keeps adding the twists -- though, in fact, they've all been foreshadowed -- and the complications that arise from the fire in the blood of the younger generation turn out to have quite a bit to do with the older generation as well. There's tragedy, of course, and scandal, though in this close-knit community the last thing anyone wants is to involve the authorities or anyone from outside:
     "These people are unbelievable," François whispered to me. "They can watch a man being murdered before their very eyes and still not say a word 'to avoid getting involved.'
       The only strong suggestion from the locals is that those who have gone too far move away .....
       Philosophical Silvio tries to put even tragedy in perspective:
To me ... well, I've seen so many die. 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 and destiny. Your affair with Marc ? Well, you got some pleasure from it. What else do you want ?
       Of course, even Silvio has his secrets, which, when they are finally all put on the table, help explain his attitude.
       Fire in the Blood is a novel full of skeletons in closets (and new mistakes being made) in a closed society that lives by its own rules. It's very cleverly constructed: Némirovsky does not really leave clues, since the way she presents the information does not allow the reader to figure out the connexions and references before she reveals them, but everything she does reveal has been suggested and hinted at before, often repeatedly; on a second reading one understands exactly why Silvio expresses himself as he does (down to the specific way he phrases some of his sentences), and relates what he does. (Indeed, in some respects the book is better on a second reading, when one can truly appreciate what Némirovsky has done.)
       As a slice of paysan-life Fire in the Blood doesn't feel entirely authentic. The characters and even their actions seem plausible enough, but something in the tone makes the whole feel slightly off. The melodramatic story also is a bit of a burden, as Némirovsky is very ambitious here but perhaps doesn't take the time that would allow it to unfold more convincingly. Silvio's repeated variations on 'fire in the blood' alone are already annoying, Némirovsky trying way, way too hard to convey a specific message.
       Though there is much to admire here -- especially, in retrospect, its artful construction -- Fire in the Blood remains a relatively minor effort, Némirovsky having set the bar too high elsewhere (and writing so much more convincingly about her own class).

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Fire in the Blood: Reviews: Irène Némirovsky: Other books by Irene Nemirovsky under review: Books about Irène Némirovsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Irène Némirovsky was born in Russia in 1903. Her family moved to France, where she became a successful and popular author in the 1930s. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.

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