Saturday, February 23, 2013

Cultivating the Heart

            "Fire in the Blood" by the French (though Russian born) author Irene Nemirovsky, author of the masterpiece Suite Francaise, is a short novel that we can't be sure she was finished with. The ending is abrupt, and devastating. But that of course may be just the effect she intended. It's a book that has more impact, on me at least, than many much longer ones.
            It certainly challenges any complacencies we may have about growing old, an experience denied to the author, since (as her readers probably know) she was murdered by the Nazis during World War II at the age of 39. I would love to know whether her opinions would have changed had she been permitted more time.
            The novel grows from a modest beginning to a deeper and bleaker story leading to its profound ending that arrives like a slap in the face. An unreliable narrator of the "keeping secrets, information withheld" sort, Cousin Silvio has returned to the rural region in France where he grew up after burning through his inherited lands to support an adventurer's life abroad, seeing the world, cohabiting with different women on different continents. Now he lives in an old house on a last tiny bit of property and does nothing and apparently needs nothing.
            I am old he tells a favorite cousin; the fire in the blood has cooled. I want only peace. "It's as if I no longer exist," he says late in the book. For company he has his wine; it's almost, he says, "like having a woman."
            Though few readers would approve of his choices, Silvio appears content. At least he's not complaining.
            He attends the wedding of a young cousin, Colette, who has "fire in the blood." And there sees another young woman (Brigitte), whom he interested in seeing for unstated "information withheld" reasons. She too has that fire, but she has married an old man for his money. Waiting for him to die, she has an affair with a young man who reminds Silvio of his younger self.
            Coincidence, or some tongue-in-fate brings Silvio to Colette's house one evening when she is alone, supposedly waiting for her husband to come home, but worldly Silvio can tell she is waiting for a lover. Later that night the husband disappears and his body is discovered in the morning in the canal below the house's mill. Eventually rumors of foul play emerge.
            The lover Colette was waiting for turns out to be the same young man who is the lover of Brigitte, whose husband is taking too long to die. This fellow -- more fire in the blood -- reminds Silvio of his younger self. He would have thrown a husband in the drink too if he got in the way of his passions. 
            All this takes place in one of those hermetically sealed landed peasant districts in France, where the farmers are well off, sometimes even in wealthy, hard-working, generally prudent -- but also miserly, suspicious, and given to the dreariness that infects a mind that cares about money ("mean" is narrator's word) but has no education, culture or interest beyond getting and keeping. One misstep in this world and evil tongues may drive you out.
            The hints are there, but nothing prepares me for the sudden "turn" in the story near the end.
        As Colette's life unravels over the growing scandal, her mother's apparently kind, but disappointed and "respectable" response to her daughter's infidelity re-ignites the flame, or rather uncovers the memory of the flame, in Silvio's heart-deadened existence.
            Recalling his own own fiery youth, and his women, he recalls also "his Helene" -- Colette's mother. Helene and her husband, Francois, are the ideal couple. They do everything together. They take walks in the country. They are nothing but kindness and generosity to each other and to everyone. When Francois is late coming home one stormy evening from a visit to one of his farms, Helene grows frantic with worry. She knows in her heart that something has happened. She marches off in the rain to find him and Silvio (who always seems nearby when things go wrong) is forced to go with her; and sure enough they find Francois has been in a car accident.
            They are "old love." That's their role in the novel. Colette, Brigitte, and their fiery young lover represent "young love."
            But in response to Helene's disappointment over Colette, suddenly Silvio remembers his own "young love." Recalling his own fiery youth makes him, one, despise what he's become -- "So you need warmth, old man with a withered heart, you need a little fire." And, two, accuse Helene of living a sham life, a pale imitation of real love, with her old, faithful, kindly, entirely predictable husband.
            He contrasts this Helene with the young woman he loved, "the real woman inside her, the passionate, happy , daring wowan who delighted in pleasure --I'm the only one who really knew her, no one else. Francois owns only a pale, cold imitation of that woman, ... I possessed what is now dead and gone, I possessed her youth."
            I'll spare you the final turn in the screw of this line of thinking; this view of life; this challenge to all those of us who see growing old in a faithful, loving, companionable connection with another human being as a source not only of contentment, but of deeper humanity.
            The novel seems to be presenting a crueler view of life; unsentimental, vitalistic, strictly amoral. That's why I say I would love to see where Nemirovsky ended up on this question. She was a wife and a parent herself and had what we might be tempted to call a lifetime of experience. But the monsters of history and hate, of other and worse passions than the ones she wrote about, took her life before she was forty.