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From her mother’s journals, letters, unpublished notes, “dreamed memories”, and with the help of her elder sister’s own memories and research, Gille recreates a striking portrayal of the mother they lost to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

Vasily Grossman Trio

“History’s only true heroes, the only true leaders of mankind are those who help to establish freedom, who see freedom as the greatest strength of an individual, a nation or state, who fight for the equality, in all respects, of every individual, people and nation.” – Vasily Grossman, Stalingrad

Everything Flows. Stalingrad. Life and Fate.

These three, read in this particular order reminds me of realist painting lessons: One starts by sketching the foundation and the outline, followed by painting the background and setting the mood for the main subject, and then finally filling in the details and emphasizing the contrast of light and shadow by articulating the source of light.

Because of its fullness, it is hard to believe that Everything Flows is an unfinished work, but after having read the three in succession, I now see it as a concise foundation on the scope of Grossman’s knowledge and profundity. Stalingrad exists to set a monumental stage, Life and Fate consummates the masterpiece.

Everything Flows is a forceful literary piece in which the main character occasionally disappears to give way to in-depth analyses of Russia, Lenin, Stalin, other political figures of that era, and sometimes, its literature.

For someone considered the Tolstoy of the 20th century, it is important to note that the difference between Grossman and Tolstoy is that Tolstoy wrote about a war that took place before he was born, while Grossman wrote about wars in which he was a war correspondent. The things immortalized through his fiction, he experienced and witnessed firsthand. 

He wrote at a time when there was hardly any published information regarding the Gulag, Collectivisation, the siege of Stalingrad, the Holocaust, Treblinka, 20th century’s lesser-known acts of genocide — the Armenian, the Circassian, and Ukraine’s Holodomor or Terror Famine — and he wrote of these things. Most of all, he did not merely write, he did so with unbelievable insight and clarity.

And because of current world events, I think there is no better time to read him.

He was born in Ukraine.

Stalingrad, an expression of how the siege impacted the lives of Russians and one particular extended family is, to me, epic in every sense of the word. But what will stay with me is the hopeful tone that Grossman maintained amidst all the human suffering!

“No wartime blackout has darkened the stars.”

Despite the horrors of which he wrote, he never fails to stop to admire beauty: “At times like this we cease to have distinct perceptions of light, space, silence, rustlings, warmth, sweet smells, the swaying of long grass or leaves — all the millions of ingredients that make up the world’s beauty. What we perceive then is true beauty, and it tells us only one thing: that life is a blessing.”

I believe this is also where he leaves clues about the kind of art he sought to achieve. In a brief chapter hides this beautiful passage that book reviews of Stalingrad (at least, the ones I’ve read) fail to mention:

Art of this kind does not separate people from the world. Art like this connects people to life, to other people and to the world as a whole. It does not scrutinize life through strangely tinted spectacles.

As they read this kind of book, people feel that they are being infused with life, that the vastness and complexity of human existence is entering into their blood, into the way they think and breathe.

But this simplicity, this supreme simplicity of clear daylight, is born from the complexity of light of different wavelengths.

In this clear, calm and deep simplicity lies the truth of genuine art. Such art is like the water of a spring; if you look down, you can see the bottom of a deep pool. You can see green weeds and pebbles. Yet the pool is also a mirror; in it you can see the entire world where you live, labor and struggle. Art combines the transparency of glass and the power of a perfect astronomical mirror.

All this applies not only to art; it is equally true of science and politics.”

And if you ask me, Grossman has achieved this in these three works.

Life and Fate is where the excruciating details are.

How can one convey the feelings of a man pressing his wife’s hand for the last time? How can one describe that last, quick look at a beloved face?

And yet he does!

I overestimated my courage when I set out to read this. Some of the most heartrending passages in literature are found between these pages: A Jewish mother who is about to be seized writes a long farewell letter to her son, the last words being, “Live, live, live for ever… Mama”; a woman, mad with hunger, who had just eaten her two children; a suffocating chapter of a scene where Jews are being herded like cattle to their deaths; a childless woman who had a chance at freedom but chose to hold the hand of a boy on the way to a gas chamber, and as she draws her last breath, she reflects, “I’ve become a mother.”

It took me longer to finish reading this than expected because I had to put it away so many times just to catch my breath or to calm myself down before continuing, not to mention a fever that made it difficult for me to read the last two hundred pages. But then again, Life and Fate concludes the painting. And what work of realism would be complete without its darkness?

The thing about masterpieces is that you cannot merely read them. You experience them.

As I review my notes of the three books, I notice recurring themes: Warnings about the tendencies of totalitarianism and its evils, what it means to be human, what causes one to cease being human, freedom, and kindness as the greatest achievement of the soul.

Never mind the fascinating passages on quantum mechanics that reflect Grossman’s knowledge in this field, never mind that Life and Fate contains some of the most illuminating discussions on Russian literature, never mind the other things about Grossman and his works that easily come up in internet searches, Raymond Chandler sums it up beautifully in his introduction to Life and Fate, “It is an exhortation to live.”

Rebecca Solnit: Orwell’s Roses

When you turn to a book for solace and get chills instead.

Yes, this has got to be the most beautiful literary criticism of Nineteen Eighty-Four: It rethinks the man that was George Orwell, it guides us to reassess beauty, and it reviews Nineteen Eighty-Four in a light that is distinctly hers. But with Rebecca Solnit, you never know where she will take you next; it is only guaranteed to be a place of startling insight and perspective.

Written and published amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it surprisingly mentions and describes Putin as an admirer and rehabilitator of Stalin’s reputation; even calling to mind the Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine, recognized by 16 nations as a genocide carried out by the Soviet government that killed 3-5 million Ukrainians from 1932-1933… and it seems like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will not be the only prescient book in question here.

What is chilling is the reminder that, “To be corrupted by totalitarianism, one does not have to be in a totalitarian country.” Orwell set Nineteen Eighty-Four in England, “To emphasize that totalitarianism could triumph anywhere.”

And what buttresses totalitarianism? Lies. “Lies gradually erode the capacity to know and to connect… Lies are integral to totalitarianism… demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The attack on truth and language makes the atrocities possible. If you can erase the witnesses, convince people of the merit of supporting a lie, if you can terrorize people into silence, obedience, lies, if you can make the task of determining what is true so impossible or dangerous they stop trying, you can perpetuate your crimes. The first victim of war is truth.”

And yet, despite these ominous warnings for which Orwell is known, Solnit asks us to reconsider the word “Orwellian” and look at the man who, in the spring of 1936, planted roses. Beautiful is far from the first word that comes to mind when confronted with his writings, but there is a definition of beauty, Solnit emphasizes, that does not have to do with prettiness. “Another kind of beauty, of a toughness that is life…” The beauty to which Orwell was most committed and for which he strove was “this beauty in which ethics and aesthetics are inseparable, this linguistic beauty of truth and of integrity as a kind of wholeness and connectedness, between language and what it describes, between one person and another, or between members of a community or society.”

What was beautiful to him was truth, clarity, honesty — and roses. “Orwell was passionate about the beauty and gestures and intentions, ideals and idealism when he encountered them, and it was to defend them that he spent much of his life facing their opposites.” 

“Orwell’s work was about ugliness of various kinds, but what he found hideous serves as a negative image of what he found beautiful.”

There is, after all, solace through the roses telling us that stopping to smell them does not necessarily distract us from the seemingly more important things in life, but strengthens us instead. Through Rebecca Solnit, and through the man who made my birth year significant in literary history, we are spurred to recalibrate what we deem beautiful, to acknowledge our need for beauty, and to always strive to pursue it.

Mikhail Bulgakov (May 15, 1891 – March 10, 1940)

“The snow would just melt, the green Ukrainian grass would grow again and weave its carpet over the earth… The gorgeous sunrises would come again… The air would shimmer with heat above the fields and no more traces of blood would remain.”

— Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard

Bulgakov, whose death anniversary is today, was born in Kyiv. The White Guard, his first full-length novel, is set in the Ukrainian capital.