The Fires of Autumn

Written by Irène Némirovsky Sandra Smith (trans.)
Review by Sarah Cuthbertson

In 1912, a comfortable middle-class Parisian family, widowed Adolphe, his 15-year-old daughter Thérèse and his mother-in-law, sit down to Sunday lunch with their guests, Adolphe’s grown-up nephew Martial and the Jaquelains, with their spoilt son Bernard, also 15. Later, other friends arrive who will all play a part in the events to come. By Bastille Day 1914, Martial has qualified as a doctor, is engaged to Thérèse and looking forward to a long, prosperous career and happy family life.

Bernard, an uncomfortable mixture of naivety and ambition, decides to escape his mother’s smothering shadow by enlisting in the army – for a war that will (unbeknownst to all) devastate the lives of those whose minds and hearts we grow to understand through the author’s perceptive, lyrical writing. Bernard goes to war a gauche, shallow boy but returns a man so damaged by the horrors of the trenches that he abandons his earlier ambitions and devotes himself to a life of hedonism financed by shady dealings – until his lover deserts him and he turns to a childhood friend for comfort, promising to lead a wholesome life. But Bernard belongs to that unlucky generation forced to endure not one but two world wars and when France is threatened by the rise of Nazi Germany, his life and the lives of his family and friends take a tragic turn.

The Fires of Autumn may be seen as a prequel to Irène Némirovsky’s acclaimed novel Suite Française. It shows us the minds of the ordinary French bourgeoisie whose certainties are wrecked by the damage war does to essentially good, though flawed, people. It was begun after the author fled Paris in 1940 and finished before her death in Auschwitz in 1942.