Archive for the ‘Faust’s University of Wittenberg’ Category

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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On Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles (Satis Shroff)


Dr. Johann Faust, the man who sold his soul to the Devil. A mythical figure? Certainly not. I went to the pretty town of Staufen via Bad Krözingen from Freiburg. From the distance you can see the ruins of a castle looming above the vineyards on a hill. In the town below is a Gasthaus called Zum Löwen (To the Lion). The tavern has a fresco on the wall by Prof. Fritz Geiges on the front wall depicting the Devil– Mephistopheles—in the process of breaking the neck of a broken down Dr. Faustus. Below the fresco is a wonderful calligraphic scripture with the words:


In anno 1539 in Leuen-to-Staufen Dr Faustus, an astounding nigromantic, died miserably as a legend says, at the hands of the highest Devil named Mephistopheles, whom he called his brother-in-law as long as he lived, after the Pact which ended after 24 years, who broke his neck and sent his poor, eternally damned soul to Hell.


The only evidence regarding the death of Faust in Staufen can be found in two texts of the Zimmerschen Chronicle published in 1565. One source cites the end of the magician ‘in the herrschaft Staufen im Preisgew.’ The other source mentions ‘ in or far from Staufen, the town in Breigew.’ ‘Preisgew’ and ‘Breigew’ relate to the district Breisgau. There is a lack of other substantial evidence.


Nevertheless, the local tradition and belief has it that it knows exactly where Faust’s journey which began in the realm of knowledge and ended with his sojourn in Hell. The last moments of Doctor Faust’s journey to Hell began in the tavern called To-the-Lion, on the third floor, in room number 5.You can spend a night in this room and be inspired to write a play or a sonnet on the Life of Doctor Faustus or perhaps a modern-day Faust who lives in a metropolis like NY, London or Berlin


Three houses away in the Late Gothic town hall of Staufen you can find the foot-prints of the Devil on one of the uppermost stairs. The Devil had come in the guise of a human to pick up Faust, and left the town of Staufen with an enormous leap.


You stars that reigned at my nativity

whose influence hath allotted death and hell

Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist,

Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)


There’s another story (German: Sage) which was published by Constantin Geres in the magazine ‘Schauinsland’ in 1882. It connects the Faust-story with the Johannites:


It was late in the afternoon in the year 1541 when a farmer and his son were walking along the country road from Krözingen to Staufen. Suddenly, the weather changed for the worse and a gigantic bird with black wings flew over them. The appearance of the errie big bird scared them so much that they ran to a cross along the roadside and prayed till the scary bird flew away.


Thereafter, they set upon their journey to Staufen, where the farmer had to do some business at the tavern called The Lion. As they entered the tavern, they saw a doctor and another stranger. The stranger made a fool out of the farmer farmer and said that he’d been scared of a big black bird and had run in angst to a roadside cross and mumbled prayers to God.


The farmer found the words of the stranger extraordinary, for he and his son were the only ones who’d seen the big bird in the country road. And he knew that this stranger had flown over them in the form of the big black bird.


Shortly, the Doctor who was none other than the famous Faust, was taken by the Devil from room no. 5 of the tavern Zum Löwen.


In Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ Faust says:


Ugly hell, gape not! Come not Lucifer!

I’ll burn my books!


Goethe’s Faust was published in two parts in 1808 and 1832. Faust Part I is a dedicatory ode and laments the passage of time, the passing away of friends and shows Goethe’s dedication to his work. There are countless interpretations of Faust and the play symbolically embraces the irony of human life, commenting on human, social and political phenomena. He also praises the fundamental human virtue of endeavour, striving and endless creative activity found among poets, writers, artists.


It was at Schiller’s instigation that Goethe began in 1797 to work again at Faust II. Whereas Faust I contains Knittelverse, blank verse, hymnic passages and strophic songs, Faust II has various rhyming measures, ottava rima, terza rima and trimeters.


However, the best known early literary version of the Faust legend came from the Frankfurter printer Johann Spieß. In this popular German volksbuch (people’s book) Doctor Faust dabbles from theology to sorcery, makes a pact with the Devil for a period of twenty-four years. He lives extravagantly and riotously. Ans when his time is up he’s carried off to Hell. Dr. Faustus is active at the University of Wittenberg in the Volksbuch story. It is a book of stern moral intention, with a raised index-finger, and a dreadful warning to others who might undergo alliances with Satan. The Spieß’sches Faustbuch is the source of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1589). Goethe on the other hand was obsessed by the subject of Faustus, almost his entire life. He enjoyed the puppet play called ‘Puppenspiel von Dr. Faust’ when he was a kid and also read the Faust Volksbuch.


Faust’s Damnation (Fausts Verdammnis) an opera by Hector Berlioz is being stanged on October 20, 2007 at the Freiburger Theatre (Grosses Haus) and it is an attempt to use music to illustrate the complexities of Faust’s soul. Ach, even if Faust’s love and life were a fiasco, and he was damned to Hell, what survives is the work, the art and music.


There are English versions of the Faust legend by A.G.Latham (1902-5), Bayard Taylor (1908), L.MacNeice (1951) and Barker Fairley (1970) which deserve deserve mention, but I must admit I was chuckling with laughter, and I had tears in my eyes, when I read Rober Nye’s Faust, told by a certain Kit Wagner, Faust’s disciple. It was like reading P.G. Wodehouse in the days of alchemy and sorcery.


Here, yours truly would like to quote Faust as a motto for us all who’re caught in life’s vicissitudes like the famous Georgio Strehler did, when he acted in Goethe’s Faust I and II at the Piccolo Teatro with a thousand voices and 12,000 verses in the year 1989:


Ich fühle Mut, mich in die Welt zu wagen, mich in die Welt zu wagen,

Der Erde Weh, der Erde Glück zu tragen,

Mit Stürmen mich herumzuschlagen

Und in des Schiffbruchs Knirschen

nicht zu zagen.“

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