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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’

Together.

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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Shakespeare Country and London’s East End (Satis Shroff, Freiburg)

 

Stratford-upon-Avon is a fascinating little town. We went to the spacious farmhouse which was the early home of William Shakespeare’s wife: Anne Hathaway. It was a house made of wattle, stone and brick, the earliest part dating back to the 15th century. I had done a lot of Shakespeare at school and even performed ‘As you like it’ on stage, but Shakespeare’s spouse was not a theme then. However, there are scholars who have depicted her as a woman who reproached the Bard, and that she nagged, railed and even drove him away from her life, like Old Abe’s nagging, dissatisfied wife, or for that matter Tolstoy’s spouse.

 

Anyway, in Anne Hathaway’s cottage garden, there were some local workmen busy repairing the stones, bricks between clipped box hedges and shrubs. You could only imagine that Shakespeare had once written about this very garden as: ‘a world of pleasure in’t. Here’s flowers for you. Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram.’

Who wouldn’t be moved and impressed by the Bard’s sonnets), especially the ultimate statement of the doctrine of marriage as a spiritual discipline as depicted in Sonnet 116:

 

Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy

lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass

come.

Love alters not with his brief hours

and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of

doom.

If this be error and upon me

proved,

I never lived, nor no man (one) ever

loved.

 

But alas, it being still winter we could only hope and ask what Shelley would have asked:..’can Spring be far behind ?’

 

Nevertheless, I found delight at the thought that this was where William had wooed, and won, his beloved Anne Hathaway. The thatch-roofed cottage had a bed with a canopy, because ‘if you slept with your mouth open, all sorts of insects, reptiles, mice and squirrels would drop in’, we were told.

 

Off we went, curious as we were, to the Bard’s house in the Henley Street, where he was born in 1564. How wonderful it was to be in Shakespeare’s house, I thought. The birth­place was inherited by him and remained in the family, until the death of his sister Joan Hart, 1646. It was purchased for the British Nation for 3,000 pounds in 1847.

 

Life in Stratford was dull and boring, and Shakespeare left for London in 1586. He wrote 37 plays and 50 sonnets, which are still presented throughout the globe. His first play to be published was “Love’s Labor’s Lost” written in 1594. I found Stratford-upon-Avon extremely touristic but doubtlessly picturesque in its own right. Avon is the Celtic word for ‘river’, so if you said the Avon River, it would be obviously redundant. We undertook a quick march to the vicinity of the Holy Trinity church, where Shakespeare was buried, and took some photographs of the serene Avon and the church, before making it to Stratford town, to view the home of the Bard’s favourite daughter Susanna and her husband Dr. John Hall. Hall’s Croft was a fine Tudor half-timbered house, with fine Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture.

 

Shakespeare retired to Stratford in 1610 and lived at New Place, the second largest house in Stratford, which he purchased in 1597. We were told that the ambassadors of all nations pay their floral tributes on the grave of immortal Shakespeare on his Birthday celebrations even today.

 

“Even in winter it’s full and there are long queues all over the place,” said the guide.

 

We had to head for the town of Warwick to the north to get the car-route, so we told our London guide that we wanted to get off at East End. Her eyes popped out, and her eyebrows left off like two Harrier jets, her mouth opened and she asked, “East End? What on earth do you want to do at East End?”

 

We gulped because she’d said it so loud. She gave the impression that decent people didn’t go to London’s East End. But we’d already made their our minds to go for dinner to ‘little Calcutta’, and she had to oblige.

 

We sped past a part of the 650 square miles of London area which had houses with chimneys, without smoke. Most of them managed to snooze along the way to London. You could see semi-detached houses and terraced houses, joined in rows.

 

We had a Bengali dinner in Jack the Ripper territory with pilau rice, peas, aloo, mutton, yoghurt, raw onions and masala everywhere, rounded up with sweet-meat: rasagollas, rasmalai just like in the Indian Subcontinent. The annual turnover of ‘Indian’, pardon me Bangladeshi, restaurants is more than 1.5 billion Sterling pounds, and they employ between 60,000 and 70,000 people.

 

After that I suddenly wanted to catch up on my Bollywood (Bombay as India’s Hollywood) film reading, which I’d had neglected since a long time, and bought: Asian Times, Indiamail, Cineblitz and some classical music. Claudia has developed a deep love for Indian and Nepali classical music because they possess an exhalted psychic and religious nature, and she can feel the music touching her deeply like a prayer, and she undergoes a lot of emotions whenever she hears classical music. I feel the same way.

 

After all, the music from the Hindustani subcontinent was over 4000 years old. It all began with the Sama Veda, which was recited with certain notes. Originally such recitations were performed with three notes, and later developed into a whole octave.

 

Music became a prayer. Humans tend to be in communion with God when we hear or play real music, and the musician identifies himself or herself with Godliness. And there are musicians who are able to awake and imbibe this godliness in their listeners. I loved to listen to the ragas and the talas. In a raga there are 72 scales, and every scale has 8, 10, 20, 30 ragas. Thousands of ragas are possible, and each of these ragas has its characteristics with ascending and descending scales. These ragas depend upon the time of day and season. And a classical musician improvised the instrumental raga compositions, with the result that the music is never the same. It’s always changing, metamorphosing into something new.

 

Claudia and I prefer listening to such music rather than the noisy, vulgar music-cocktails that are actually lifted from the western hit charts, for want of inspiration, and dubbed in Hindi, giving them a cacophonous Indian slant. But the masses love them. ‘Hare Krishna, you are the greatest musician of this vurld’ was blaring from a cassette-recorder in a corner of the stuffy Asian shop. You could even buy, chew and spit your pan without causing eye-brows to be raised at the East End, not that we did it. It was a pucca bazaar with all the wallahs.

 

Claudia expressed her disgust in German with ‘Igit-igit!’ as a Bengali spat on the wall of an East Londoner Brick Lane house. A scarlet blotch on a creamy reddish house-wall.

 

I quipped, ‘Well, as long as the bloke doesn’t spit at us, it’s all right.’

 

It was dark by the time we went for a walk over the bridge across the Thames at Westmin­ster, which was floodlit, and there was a laser show in progress on the other side of the bridge. Big Ben struck 10pm and we took in the scenery around us, for it was our last night in London, before heading for the underground to Paddington.

 

We bade goodbye to Westminster and the scenic coloured lights of the Thames water­front.

 

After getting up at 8am we had the usual continental breakfast, and started from Paddington to Charing-cross, and eventually to Trafalgar Square, where we strolled and took snapshots of the out-sized British lions. We proceeded further towards Picadilly Circus and photographed the statues of Florence Nightingale and lots of other British motifs with pigeons shitting on their heads nonchalantly as usual.

 

What a romantic setting, with all those monumental buildings and cosmopolitan atmo­sphere, I thought. A coloured Bobby chatting and walking with a white colleague was keeping an eye on Picadilly’s streets. I had to admit, I liked the idea and had to think of Freiburg in south west Germany, actually a provincial area, and rather conservative.

 

It would be impossible to have an Asian driving a Strassenbahn or an Asian working as a teacher with a civil-servant status, or even in the police department. But then, Germany didn’t have colonies in Asia, and only in south-west Africa (Namibia), and as such no German Commonwealth. What with the kids of the GIs, and guest workers growing up in Germany, the influx of refugees from the whole world, including the boat-people of Vietnam, Bosnia and Croatia, ethnic Russians from Russia, Poland, former Czechoslovakia, Slovaks from Slovenia, Romanians, Albanians from Albania and Kosovo coming in, Germany is under Angelika Merkel trying to terms with its foreigners and grant them their rights like the rest of the Germans. In the past the migrants were only tolerated, but now Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU) has brought out an integration program and she means business. The multicultural society is in their midst, even though most Germans fail to see it.

 

At Paddington I had to exchange another fifty euros at a bank counter. There was an Asian female behind the counter, and so I asked her where she originally came from. She felt uncomfortable, like when she was asked by an Indian scientist at the Goethe Institute in Freiburg, ‘Which-kuntry-are-you-from?’ The swarthy woman with fine features replied in a melodious voice, “Sri Lanka.”

 

“How’s the job?” I asked her.

 

“Oh, it’s all right”, she said without any enthusiasm.

 

We bought some sandwiches for the long wait at Gattwick airport and also because we thought about the not-so-good food in the air. The flight was at 16:35 and we’d already checked-out from our hotel. There were lots of young people waiting for the bus to Gattwick.

 

I left London with pleasant memories. I’d seen London by night and by day, by rain, mist and sunshine. The Londoners, be they commuters, conductors, policemen, beef-eaters, yeomen, bobbies and pedestrians had all been extremely polite and helpful.

 

As you went collecting the passengers for the flight to Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, you could see restaurants with names like: ‘The Magic Wok’, ‘Marco Polo’s Mongolian Barbecue,’ followed by ‘Flats to Let’.

 

The present generation of Britain travels a lot abroad and there are enough immigrants from all over the world, and predominantly from the old colonies who cater to the gastrono­mic delights of the British. The British export tikka masala chicken to India now.

 

“Run For Your Wife” was running at the Duchess Theatre, described as ‘dottily hilarious’ to ‘superbly demented.’

 

Claudia and I arrived in Kensington Gardens. Collecting the baggage was indeed a tedious affair.

 

There was an interesting newscast by the BBC on the role of the British forces in Iraque. According to the Christian concept, wars are not just, but some wars are justified. Jewish opinion is divided, it was stated. A war waged in self-defence is only justified according to it. Is it justified to increase one’s military field of influence, as in the case of the USA because of oil interests?

 

We were in Gattwick by then and ready for the check-in. I showed my passport to a young lady in uniform probably of Indian descent, who asked where my next stop would be.

 

“Frankfurt,”, I replied. And she wished me ‘a good journey’ and all that jazz (hope you’ll visit our country again).

 

It was 17:15pm when we went through customs and it was the same show as before. The detector gave a beep and I was obliged to open my handbag and dismantle my camera again.

 

The customs officer wanted to know what I had in the sealed round tin-box.

 

“It’s purified butter: ghee”, I told him.

 

“Gee, that must be good,” he replied with a grin and went to the next passenger. A customs officer with a jolly sense of humour indeed.

 

We boarded the scarlet jet and were off. At 11,000metres We were flying over wonderful fluffy clouds. Their short flight dinner was over and We were at a height of 29,000 feet. As high as Mount Everest.

 

You could see the sundown: a blazing orange above the clouds, which became the horizon and suddenly the sun was obscured and We passed through heavy grey clouds, and it gradually became dark outside. The ‘fasten-your-seat-belts’ sign appeared and I could feel a mounting pressure in her ears. The flight back to Frankfurt was nevertheless pleasant in comparison to the flight to Gattwick.

 

“10,000 feet and landing in 10 minutes”, said the captain. You could see only a few lights below. Was it a football field or was it a well-lit winter garden?

 

And suddenly the lights of Frankfurt appeared below.

 

“Cabin crew, take your seats for the landing, please”, said the captain again.

 

We went past the sky-blue uniformed stewardesses and entered the Frankfurt-am-Main terminal and went through the German customs. There was a long queue in the ‘non-EG’ section. A cultural troupe from Ethopia or Somalia dressed in white tunics stood up front, mostly children, led by a few elderly people and a blonde manager, who was similarly dressed. The kids had crude ethnological musical instruments in their hands.

One of the Bundesgrenzschutz guards responsible for security at the airport asked his German colleague jokingly in German,”Are those all your kids?”

 

The young teutonic guard didn’t like the joke, gave a laconic smile and changed the position of his Sturmgewehr, made in Oberndorf, a Swabian town near Rottweil, by Heckler & Koch (now a British firm).

 

I gave the khaki-clad customs officer her passport, who scrutinized it briefly and handed it back. She walked outside with her handbag to collect the main luggage which was somewhere in exit 415. Claudia and I were separated (different check-ins and exist) because I had an Asian passport and Claudia had a European one. It was a case of the Third World and the First World.

 

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