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Creative Writing Critique (Satis Shroff): Fire in the Blood

Creative Writing Critique (Satis Shroff): FIRE IN THE BLOOD

Review: Irene Nemirovsky Fire in the Blood, Vintage Books, London 2008,

153 pages, 7,99 Sterling Pounds (ISBN: 978-0-099-51609-5)

Denise Epstein was 13 when her mother Irene Nemirovsky was deported to Auschwitz, where she eventually died in 1942. The daughter is now an octogenarian and was instrumental in helping her mother attain her place in the world literature. Irene Nemirovsky was a writer who could look into the souls of humans and make music with words. Her masterpiece Suite francaise was published in France in 2004 and was immediately awarded the Prix Renaudot.

The characters of Fire in Blood are  drawn from a rural French town in Burgundy, a wine-growing area where people are simple and stick together, want to retain their ‘peace’ and don’t like the police and the authorities. A place where all people show conformity and keep their mouths shut. Peace is a synonym for not wanting to be involved in the affairs of other people. The author’s attitude towards the characters has a universal appeal, for it could happen anywhere in the world in a closed-circuit society where outsiders are shunned and not generally accepted. Nemirovsky shows not only what people do to others but also what the passage of time does to us all. The characters aren’t flat and every character bounds into life and you an imagine the world that she creates in her 153 page novel still goes on with its own pace without much changes. The community itself shows a predatory behaviour of extreme cunning.

The major theme of Fire in Blood is love, poverty, arranged marriages and extra-marital affairs that lead to complications and new story developments. The protagonist Sylvestre also called Silvio tells the story in the first person singular and recalls stories in front of the fireplace about his beautiful, graceful cousin Helene and her daughter Colette, Brigitte Delos and Francoise, their marriages, happiness and boredom and the seasonal changes of the Burgundy countryside. Silvio speaks about impatient young people and the perfectly balanced older people at peace with themselves and the world, despite the creeping fear of death. The book is replete with the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses, mills, dowry, haves and have-nots, stinginess, love-affairs, hatred, deception and betrayal.  Nemirovsky is an excellent story-teller and reveals her tale of flaws and cruelties of the human heart in an intricately woven story. She builds up suspense and you feel the catharsis when an innocent-looking protagonist tells her version of how a man was murdered.

The theme is traditional and familiar and is psychologically and socially interesting in intent.

Silvio tells about his childhood and about children asking their parents how they met, fell in love and married. He also mentions past loves, former grudges, inheritances, law suits and who-married-whom and why in the French provincial setting. The story plot is slow at the beginning but gathers momentum, and the climax is not the murder but how the author unfurls the story of the confession. In the end Silvio confides to the reader how much he still loves his dear cousin Helene, who’s married to Francoise.

The intellectual qualities of writing of Nemirovsky are her cheerfulness, sudden twists and power of observation which flow into the story making it a delightful read. She gives you the impression that her tale is linear, only to show you that there’s a twist that takes narration in another direction. Silvio, the Ich-Erzähler, says to Colette, who wants to involve him in her family drama: ‘Tell them you have a lover and that he killed your husband.. What exactly did happen?’

wit and humour and there’s rhythm in the tale.

Nemirovsky employs the stylistic device of symbolism to characterise the farmers and their hypocritical nature, how they mob people they don’t prefer to have around them and how they indulge in backbiting. A stingy 60 year old farmer marries  a lovely 20 year old woman and the gossips begin. Silvio remembers how Colette had once told him he resembled a faun: ‘an old faun, now, who has stopped chasing nymphs and who huddles near the fireplace.’

This is the confession of a man who had once fire in blood, and a meditation on the various stages of life, the passing of time, in which youth and age are at odds. A recurring theme is the seed from which problems grow: ‘Imagine a field being saved and all the promise that’s contained in a grain of wheat, all the future harvests…well, it’s exactly the same in life.’

Nemirovsky’s use of dialogue is very effective and takes the story forward.

Her literary oeuvre ranges from an extraordinary collection of papers,  Fire in the Blood, Suite francaise, David Golder, Le Bal, the Courilof Affair, All Our Worldly Goods.

The Germany titles are: Die Hunde und die Wölfe, Feuer im Herbst, Herbstfliege, Leidenschaft, Die Familie Hardelot, Der Fall Kurilow and Irene Nemirovsky: Die Biographie.

* * *

Irene Nemirovsky: COLD BLOOD (Satis Shroff)

Subtitle: Moaning in All Eternity

Six decades ago,

My life came to an end,

In Auschwitz.

I, Irene Nemirovsky, a writer

Of Jewish-Russian descent,

Died in Auschwitz.

I live now in my books,

In my daughter’s memories,

Who’s already an octogenarian,

Still full of love and fighting spirit:

For she fights against

The injustice of those gruesome days.

I was thirty-nine,

Had asthma,

Died shortly after I landed in Auschwitz.

I died of inflammation of my lungs,

In the month of October.

That very year the Nazis deported

Michael Epstein, dear my husband,

Who’d pleaded to have me,

His wife, freed from the clutches

Of the Gestapo.

They also killed him.

My daughters Denise 13,

And Elizabeth 5,

Were saved by friends

Of the French Resistance,

Tucked away in a cloister for nuns,

Hidden in damp cellars.

They had  my suitcase with them,

Where ever they hid,

Guarding it like the Crown Jewels.

To them it was not only a book,

But my last words,

That I’d penned in Issy-l’Eveque.

I wanted to put together five manuscripts

In one: Suite Francaise,

That was my writer’s dream.

I could put only

‘Storm in July’ and ‚Dolche’


I passed away early in August 1942.

Too early.

In my two books I’ve written

About the flight of the Parisians

From the victorious Germans,

The awful situation in an occupied hamlet.

Small people and collaborators,

Who’d go to extremes

To save their skins,

Like ants in a destroyed ant-hill.

It’s sixty years hence,

But my work hasn’t lost its glow,

Like the lava from an erupting volcano.

You can feel its intensity,

When an entire nation

Was humiliated and had to capitulate,

Losing its grace, dignity and life.

I was born in Kiew,

Fled to Paris via Finnland and Sweden,

After the Russian Revolution.

I was a maniac,

When it came to reading,

Had a French governess,

Went often to the Cote d’ Azure and Biarritz.

I studied literature in Sorbonne in 1919.

Shortly thereafter,

I began to write:

About my Russian past,

My wandering years.

The colour of the literature I wrote

Is blood from an old wound.

From this wound I’ve drawn

The maladies of the society,

Human folley.

I was influenced by writers,

From Leo Tolstoi to Henrik Ibsen.

An unhappy childhood,

Is like when your soul has died,

Without a funeral:

Moaning in all eternity.

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Goethe: A Writer of the First Rank (Satis Shroff, Freiburg)


Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who was lifted to nobility as J. W.von Goethe in 1782, was born on August 28, 1749 in the town of Frankfurt. The Goethes lived in a large, comfortable house in the Hirschgasse, now called Goethe Haus. Besides practical, scientific and autobiographical writings, he left behind more than 15,000 letters, diaries relating to the 52 years of his life and also countless conversational writings of people he’d met.


Even though Goethe’s work is fragmentary in general, it reveals the essence of his literary genius. Goethe himself said: ‘Alle meine Werke sind Bruchstücke einer großen Konfession.’

He remains to date one of the most original and powerful German lyric poets and his Faust is no doubt a work of inexhaustible ambiguity and wonderful poetry.


The atmosphere that was evident in his parent’s home was that of the educated and their lifestyle in those days, and through his writings we get an exact idea of the Zeitgeist of Goethe’s days. He held the town of his birth in high esteem for it was the environment and intellectual background of his youthful development. Young Goethe loved to lose himself in the crowd around the Dome or in the Roman hill (Römerberg), which he always remembered as a fine place to go for a walk.


The closest relationship of his youth was his sister Cornelia, who sadly enough died at the age of 27. Asked about the influence of his parents on him, Goethe summed it this way:


From father I have the stature,

To lead an earnest life.

From mother the good nature,

And the joy of story-telling.


Goethe was taught by house-teachers. After learning the old languages, he started learning French, English and Hebrew. At the age of 10 he read Aesop, Homer, Vergil, Ovid and also the German folks-books. Besides education in humanities and science, he was also taught religion, which was determined by the dominating explanatory issue of Lutherdom in Frankfurt.


The big earthquake in Lissabon in 1755 was important for the development of Goethe’s mind, as it went into history as one of the greatest natural catastrophies of the century. Besides these natural calamities there were also religious and historical movements which left a deep impression in Goethe’s mind, for example the Seven-Years War between Prussia and Austria wherein he saw the consequences of the general political situation in his own life. Another important event during the occupation of Frankfurt by Napoleon’s troops was his fascination for a troupe of French actors, who’s shows he was allowed to visit regularly. That was the awakening in Goethe of his interest for theatre, and which had been sparked earlier in his life through a puppet-stage (Puppenbühne) and which can be seen in some scenes from ‘Wilhelm Meister’s Theaterical Shows.’


At the age of 16 Goethe was prepared for his academic studies. His father wanted him to study law in Leipzig. This was a city known for its trade, commerce, rich people in a wealthy epoche, and was filled with the spirit of Rokoko. Although Leipzig made a lasting impression on Goethe, he found the lectures on law rather boring. Nevertheless, the town of Leipzig brought to Goethe his passion for Anna Katherina, the daughter of a man who owned an inn, where he used to eat lunch since 1766.

In his first completed play ‘The Whims of a Lover’ (Laune des Verliebten) which is based on the times of the Rokoko (Schäferstücke), he drew his own glowing passion. It was his inner desire to put into poetry the themes that were burning within him. In March 1770 Goethe arrived in Strassburg to complete his university studies in law.


Like in Leipzig, Goethe found friends in Strassburg. One of the most important events was his meeting with Herder, who due to his eye-disease was obliged to stay in Strassburg for a couple of months. Here’s what Goethe said about Herder: “Since his conversations were important at all times, he used to ask, reply or express himself in another way, and in this manner I had to express myself in new ways and new views, almost every hour.” It was Herder who brought Goethe to the immeasureability of Shakespeare, told him about Ossian and Pindar, and opened his vision for Volkspoetry. Influenced by Herder’s appreciation of Shakespeare’s genius, he wrote at speed a pseudo-Shakespearean tragedy called: “Geschichte Gottfrieds von Berlichingen.” This was so ill-received by Herder that he put it aside.


Shortly after his return from Strassburg, he turned 22 and started working as a lawyer at the Frankfurter Schöffengericht. Goethe couldn’t care less about the traditions of the citizens in Leipzig and his relatives, his parents’ home. As a lawyer in the courtrooms he had to suffer a bit due to his strange way of putting proceedings to paper, and gradually he began to write farces and parodies about well-known authors of his times and railed upon his own friends, took interest in Alchemy experiments and sought out open-minded literary circles of Frankfurt and in his neighbourhood.


At 24 Goethe was already a well-known author of Germany. No other time in Goethe’s life was filled with prolific poetic works than in this period in Frankfurt. The time before and after his work ‘Werther’ was not only a time of multiple literary production, but also a period in which he spent a lot of time on seeking answers for questions on religion.


The last Frankfurter year (1775) brought Goethe another year of passionate love in the form of Lili Schönemann, a 16 year old daughter of a Frankfurter trader. He experienced one of the most exciting and happiest times in his life. Alas, Goethe drifted between his love for Lili and the feeling that he’d settled for a happiness at home wouldn’t be enough for him. An episode from outside helped him to bear and make the separation from Lili possible.


On November 7, 1775 Goethe came to Weimar, which was in those days a town with a population of 6000. In July 1776 Goethe joined the state service formally as its Secret Legislations Council. Goethe’s new position in the Geheim Konsil brought him soon enough in contact with almost all the pre-commissions of the state-administration.


In 1779 he was appointed the War Commissioner and was responsible for the 500 soldiers of the state. Three years later he had the Chamber under him and became the highest financial administrator. Through his participation in the reading-evenings, redouts and other functions at the court and its high and snobbish society, the events became rather extravagant. And through Goethe’s presence and mediation Weimar gained importance.


However, it was the serene, tempered lady-in-waiting (Hofdame) Charlotte von Stein, a cold beauty, who was unhappily married, who gained more influence on Goethe. From the first moment they met, she reminded Goethe of his sister Cornelia, and he felt drawn to her. In the years to come Goethe couldn’t do without her clear, mature way of doing things. He called her ‘the serene,’ an angel, even a Madonna. A friendship of kindred souls began, which was a puzzle to Goethe himself. It was in these Weimar years that Goethe wrote poems such as: Harzreise im Winter, An den Mond, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, Wanderer, Nachtlied and so forth. Moreover, many of his songs and poems were set to music by composers ranging from Mozart and Frederik Schubert to Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957). Under the influence of Charlotte von Stein began a decisive change within Goethe. It was during this period in the months of February and March 1779, when he had to go to different places of the Dukedom to recruit soldiers, to keep an eye on them, to inspect the conditions of the roads, that he wrote the first edition of ‘Iphigenie and Taurus.’ This drama became the mirror of his search for purity. The period after ‘Iphigenie’ was penned in 1779 was a phase in the inner development of Goethe’s life, till he travelled to Italy. Goethe became not only confident as an administrator but also improved the purity and quality of his verses.


The more prosaic he became in his daily duties, the more he endeavoured to bring a sense of order and system in all what he did. In addition to the completion of Iphigenie, he also started ‘Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,’ wrote the concept for ‘Tasso’ and some parts of his ‘Faust.’ These were the fruits of lyrical productions. And just before his Italian journey, he did extensive studies in the natural sciences. His activities at the University of Jena brought him in intensive contact with comparative anatomy. In those days there was a conception regarding the original form and relationship between all living beings, and he proved the existence of the ‘Zwischenkieferknochen’ in humans, which was thought to be known only in the animal world. Goethe showed the biological development of living beings almost 100 years ahead of Charles Darwin.


Goethe’s interest in natural science showed him how his career in the state service brought him away from things he most cherished to do. So he decided on the tenth year of his period in Weimar that he had to break up his service. After arranging his farewell from the state service and personal matters, he asked the Duke for a prolonged leave. He left abruptly, like in 1772 in Wetzlar and 1775 in Frankfurt, as though he was fleeing from something. Even in the presence of Duke and Charlotte von Stein he didn’t utter a word about his concrete plans. He embarked upon the biggest journey to Italy after a short spa sojourn in Böhmen (Bohemia).


After a week-long ride in a coach he reached bella Italia. The first stop was in Rome, where Goethe stayed for four months. It had always been the middle point of his life to study the works of art history in Rome He went to the theatre and attended court cases, watched processions, took part in church festivals, and towards February 1788 even visited the Carnival in Rome. He expanded his knowledge of art history systematically. Goethe found it difficult to say adieu to Rome. The return to Germany was disappointing for Goethe and he felt isolated. Goethe’s record of his journey to Italy (Italienische Reise) appeared in 1816-17. Instead of the Weimar politicians and administrators, Goethe sought to fraternise with professors of the Weimar University. He met Schiller often.


Goethe found a new love: Christiane Vulpius, a handsome woman of lower rank who became his mistress, and with whom he had five children, but only one survived, his first son August, born in 1789. Goethe put his energy in the Weimar Court Theatre, founded in 1791, and developed it within a few years to one of the most famous German stages. Goethe’s loss of Rome was compensated to some extent by his meetings with Schiller, which did him good. Out of the first meeting with Schiller developed an intensive exchange of thoughts in spoken word and writing that was of mutual benefit for both. It was based on their common classicism and on their conviction of the central function of art in human affairs. Goethe’s epic poem ‘Hermann und Dorothea’ (1779) was well received.


Goethe was instrumental in changing Schiller’s tendency to go to extremes, and his habit of indulging in philosophical speculations.


On the other hand, Schiller brought back Goethe from his scientific studies to literature and poetic production. In 1797 Schiller stimulated Goethe to carry on with Faust and it preoccupied him for the next nine years. Part One appeared in 1808, Part Two in 1832. Goethe didn’t stand near Schiller since 1794 and two long journeys to Weimar took him away from his intellectual friend, and in the year 1805 Schiller passed away. Schiller’s death in 1805 coincided with the end of Goethe’s classical phase. After Schiller’s demise, Goethe saw an epoche of his life disappearing. He tried to struggle against the uncertainty of time by concentrating and delving into his own work. Without the regular intellectual argumentation that the company of Schiller brought to Goethe, he felt politically isolated through his distance towards the anti-Napoleon attitude of the public and started living like a recluse.


In 1806 war broke out between France and Prussia and the decisive battle was fought at Jena and French soldiers who occupied Weimar broke into Goethe’s house. Goethe believed tristiane had saved his life from the French marauders. He married her a few days later. Goethe met Napoeon at Erfurt and Weimar in 1808. The Bastille was stormed when Goethe was 39. In 1809 he wrote the subtle and problematic novel: Die Wahlverwandschaften in which the interrelations of two couples are described.


Besides working for the hat Chance. Soldiers who occupied b Science Institutes of the University, he also carried forth botanical studies. The last two decades in Goethe’s life were devoted not to outer happenings but daily routine work.


A key towards understanding Goethe’s various interests was his conception of human existence as a ceaseless struggle to make use of time at one’s disposal. Despite such intensive devotion to his writings, the ageing Goethe didn’t remain so isolated from his environment as he’d done in his younger years. Since he was seldom out of Weimar, he opened his house for the world. It is interesting to note that among his many visitors were not many poets and writers but more Nature researchers and art historians, discoverers who travelled, educators and politicians. The innermost circle around Goethe was his own family.


In order to avoid the pompous celebration of his 82nd birthday, Goethe left Weimar in August 1831 for the last time.


The most meaningful work of poetry in the German language, Goethe’s tragedy Faust, took a long time to develop. Goethe wrote his Faust almost a life long, and before him were writers who worked on the material. According to his own memories Goethe played with the thought of writing a Faust-drama even during his Strassburger student days. Perhaps the most important aspect of tragedy of Goethe is that these twists and turns took place not only in the outside world but also in the soul of Doctor Faustus.


Despite the colourful scenes and the manifold happenings, Goethe’s Faust remains a drama of the soul, with a chain of inner experiences, struggles and doubts. Among his best works was Novelle, started thirty years ago. Goethe worked away at the last volume of Dichtung und Wahrheit and at Faust II which he finished before his death.


On March 22,1832 at 11:30 in the morning Goethe died at the age of 82, the last universal man and the most documented creative writer.


Johann Peter Eckmann saw the deceased on the following day and said: “Stretched on his back, lay he like someone sleeping. Profound peace and fastness were to be seen in the eyes of his noble face. The mightiest forehead seemed still to be thinking…”




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