Némirovsky: Fire in the Blood | Gille: The Mirador

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

Because I arrange my books based on geography, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Grossman, and Irène Némirovsky among a few others share a spot on my shelf. They were all born in Ukraine while it was still under the Russian Empire.

Fire in the Blood was thought to be unfinished when Némirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942. It was only through subsequent research years later that the rest of the manuscript was found and published posthumously.

She wrote this around the time she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, but there is no pain of epic proportions in this book. There are none of Gogol’s ghosts, none of Bulgakov’s political caricatures, and none of Grossman’s wars.

At the beginning I was so convinced that this was simply a charming picture of rural life in an idyllic French village. She makes the reader believe that, until one surprising revelation after another piles up towards the end, and it reveals its own unique depth.

“Are we not all somewhat like these branches burning in my fireplace, buckling beneath the power of the flames?”

Fire in the Blood, the fire of youth contrasted with the sobriety of old age through the introspection of Sylvio and the lives of those around him leaves the reader with a subtle sting that leads to a silent contemplation on, or the questioning of, passion, love and life.

There may have been none of Gogol’s dark humor, none of Bulgakov’s satire, and none of Grossman’s reportage on tragedy, but perhaps Némirovsky deserves her place alongside these men as someone who lays bare the human heart.

 “No, it wasn’t that simple. The flesh is easy to satisfy. It’s the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire… That was what we wanted. To burn, to be consumed, to devour our days just as fire devours the forest.”

The Mirador by Élisabeth Gille

Don’t you love it when an underexposed book surprises and transcends expectations? I had not anticipated The Mirador to contain this much beauty!

Having read nothing by Élisabeth Gille prior to this, I approached it as someone who was simply curious about her famous mother, Irène Némirovsky.

From her mother’s journals, letters, unpublished notes, “dreamed memories”, and with the help of her elder sister’s own memories and research, Gille recreates a striking portrayal of the mother they lost to Auschwitz when they were mere children.

Regardless of the applause that her novels garnered and despite her tragic fate, it was for her indifference and lack of political sense that Némirovsky was criticized. Gille, however, does not justify her mother’s shortcomings. She allows a beautiful irony to unfold through the pages and writes a lyrical and clearsighted grasp of her forebears, literature, history, and the political arena that surrounded Némirovsky from her early childhood in Kyiv, growing up in St. Petersburg, fleeing to Finland in the wake of the Russian Revolution, and building a life and a successful writing career in France until the German Occupation.

I must admit that I personally prefer the daughter’s writing over the mother’s, and it was saddening to learn that Gille died from cancer in 1996, only four years after The Mirador was published. But I beam at the thought that Némirovsky would have been so proud.

How cathartic it must have been for a daughter to write this! It makes one wonder at the mysterious power of writing — how it can liberate the writer and the subject at the same time, how it can be a simultaneous act of holding on and letting go.

Françoise Gilot | Carlton Lake: Life with Picasso

“When I met Pablo, I knew that here was something larger than life,
something to match myself against…”

“People always ask very bizarre questions like, ‘Why did Picasso like you?’ or ‘Why did Jonas Salk like you?’ So I said, ‘Well, usually, lions do not mate with mice!’”

I took an instant liking to this fascinating woman upon hearing her utter this line with a laugh in a documentary that my best friend shared years ago. Right then and there, I was determined to read Life with Picasso one day.

And here it is. The engaging conversationalist comes out in Gilot’s writing. With a clear and strong voice and nary a narcissistic hint, she does not make the book about her, but brings about an unsurpassed portrait of the man that was Pablo Picasso with all the contrasts of light and darkness. She does not play the victim of an eccentric genius, although the book tells us of how she draws the line not only on canvas but also in life.

I doubt if there can be a more intimate and honest account of how Picasso created, his thought process, his private life, and his artistic and political beliefs. As a rippling consequence, Gilot also paints a profound portrait of an extraordinary era that had a surfeit of literary and artistic personages that shaped history.

Stimulating discussions on Modern Art and its dilemmas, on artistic movements, on technique, color, composition; this account is nothing short of enlightening! There is no shortage of lessons on art, on living, on relationships, and on woman. 

Introductions to Françoise Gilot usually begin in 1943 when she met Pablo Picasso with whom she lived for ten years and with whom she had two children; and continues on the same thread that in 1970, she married Jonas Salk who was famous for developing the polio vaccine.

What I find remarkable about this woman is how, despite the monumental names to which her name was attached, she remained her own person as an artist, and as a woman — who, apparently, just refused to mate with mice!

I am sure she was, above all, referring to an intellectual symbiosis.

Simone Schwarz-Bart: The Bridge of Beyond

The woman who has laughed is the same one as she who will cry, and that is why one knows already, from the way a woman is happy, how she will behave in the face of adversity. I’d liked that saying of Queen Without a Name, once, but now… it frightened me, and above all it saddened me, for I saw clearly that I didn’t know how to suffer.

At a time when the “music of the whip” was supposed to be no longer in their ears, the great-granddaughter of a freed slave tells her story; and through her story, the history of their people, the history of their women.

Beyond the beautiful cover designs and the excellent translations of NYRB publications, I am most grateful for how they usually bring together two forces of literature in a single book — Jamaica Kincaid, projected to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021 writes the introduction to this edition of Simone Schwartz-Bart’s potent novel.

The only downside is that if someone like Kincaid has already extracted the essence and bottled it for us in the introduction, my words would immediately pale in comparison and attempting a review would be futile; and all I can do is agree with her when she writes of this book as, “An unforgettable hymn to the resilience and power of women.” Truly a masterpiece, not only of Caribbean literature but also of feminist literature.

Although Kincaid did leave something out for me to realize on my own — that there are many forms of slavery; sometimes it is imposed on people, sometimes it is inherited, and sometimes we impose it upon ourselves. 

There is so much sorrow in this book and I thought of putting it down many times because there was already so much sorrow in the world as I read it. 

But a novel touching on slavery can only ask questions about freedom, the same way a novel about sorrow can only be a contemplation on happiness. And so I read…