The Fires of Autumn, by Irene Nemirovsky

Review published on November 6, 2014. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

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The Fires of Autumn is essentially the prequel to Nemirovsky’s most famous work, Suite Francaise. The novel sets the historical and political scene which Suite Francaise then builds upon. The Fires of Autumn was completed in 1942, and was published posthumously in 1957, after Nemirovsky’s death in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Fires of Autumn, the eleventh novel of Nemirovsky’s to be translated into English, is split into three separate parts, covering the period between 1912 and 1941, and following the Brun family, ‘Parisians of some small private means’. The opening scene uses a meal eaten by the whole family as its backdrop – a simple technique, but a wonderful way in which to introduce multiple characters.

As with her other fiction, Nemirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful. Madame Pain, the elderly mother-in-law of patriarch Adolphe Brun, has ‘hair that looked like sea foam’, and a voice ‘as sonorous and sweet as a song’. Each member of the family is constructed of different characteristics – for instance, twenty seven-year-old Martial is ‘overly modest’ and focuses almost solely upon his studies and marrying his young cousin Therese, two of the mothers touched upon are either anxious or ambitious, and young Bernard is a dreamer, forever envisioning his future. When viewed as a familial unit, the Bruns feel realistic. Generationally, The Fires of Autumn is interesting too; each character is at a slightly different point in his or her life.

The view of Paris and her suburbs is built up over time, and Nemirovsky uses all of the senses to ensure that it stands vividly in the mind of her readers. Her use of light and darkness illuminate each scene: ‘Even this dark little recess was filled with a golden mist: the sun lit up the dust particles, the kind you get in Paris in the spring, that joyful season dust that seems to be made of face powder and pollen from flowers’. Nemirovsky’s inclusion of social and political material ensures that The Fires of Autumn is historically grounded. Spanning such a long period also works in the novel’s favour.

As with many of Nemirovsky’s novels, The Fires of Autumn has been translated by Sandra Smith, who has such control over the original material and renders it into a perfectly fluid and beautiful piece. She is the author of the book’s introduction too, and believes that it offers ‘a panoramic exploration of French life’. Indeed, The Fires of Autumn is a beautiful piece of writing, which encompasses many different themes and marvellously demonstrates the way in which Paris altered over several decades, and how this drastic change affected families just like the Bruns.

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