Saturday, October 8, 2011

Are we the sum of our experiences, or the shadow?

Fire in the Blood
By Irène Némirovsky

This book sent me into a bit of a crisis. I read it with fascination and despair. It called up the memory of times I had loved, lost love, sought love, and doubted whether I would find love.

Fire in the Blood looks at the all-consuming passion of young lovers, the love of a middle-aged couple, parents' love of a child, and the love between old friends. It questions the lengths that we are willing to go to live our love and what we would be willing to sacrifice. Would we sacrifice passion for security? Would we give up a child to be with a lover? Would we sacrifice a loving partner if we felt more passionate about someone else?

In the book, the choices made at different times in a character's life reflect the values and drives of those moments. The inability of one generation to comprehend the experiences of the other is another of the book's themes. "The greatest favour we can do for our children is to keep our own experiences secret." After all, love can't be lived vicariously, and no one else's cautionary tale can substitute for feeling and experience. Youth denies that it could ever be reduced to a middle-aged or elderly half-life existence. Youth denies that parents could have once lived the same sort of intense, passionate experiences. Youth cannot believe because passion has to be lived; it cannot be taught.

Are we the sum of our experiences, or the shadow? Which is our real identity? Are we the careless, burning, passionate 20-year-old, who acts on impulse, blinded to consequences in this extreme, even leading to the death of others? Or are we the responsible mother, whose existence consists of the quiet embers of love that warm the heart and sustain the family? Or the older man, living in bitter, impoverished, loneliness, eschewing company and barely remembering the shadow of his younger passionate self?

Fire in the Blood is part of Némirovsky's lost oeuvre: some of the pages were among the papers entrusted to her husband and the rest were in the suitcase left with her daughter Denise, when Irène was sent to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died a month later at age 39. A relatively young author, Némirovsky is nonetheless skilled and mature at depicting the human condition.

A few years ago in book club we read Irène Némirovsky Suite Française, which I also enjoyed very much. Suite Française looks at different French social classes under German occupation, coolly appreciating the pragmatism, resistance, and foibles of the French psyche. It is a social study of a cultural under duress. Fire in the Blood is a different sort of book because the experience of love, its triumphs and failures, is a much more universal story. It is impossible to read this book without looking inward and examining about one's own life, and wondering about the choices made in life and love.

Great Quotes

"The flesh is easy to satisfy. It's the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire . . . That was what we wanted. To burn, to be consumed, to devour our days just as fire devours the forest."

"If they could see their own youth resurrected before them, it would horrify them, or else they wouldn't recognise it; they would stare at it and say, "That love, those dreams, that fire are strangers to us." Their own youth . . . So how can they possibly expect to understand anyone else's?"

"The life you live ends up transforming you: a calm, happy existence gives the face a gentleness and dignity, a warm, soft look that is almost a kind of sheen, like the varnish on a painting. But now the smoothness and decorum of their features had vanished and you could see their sad, anxious souls peering through the surface. Those poor people! In nature, there is a moment of perfection when every hope is realised, when the luscious fruits finally fall, a crowning moment towards the end of summer. But it quickly passes and the autumn rains begin. It's the same for people."

"I once possessed what is now dead and gone, I possessed her youth."


Can we compromise on passion? Is it possible to once again feel that same intense desire and longing without the attendant selfishness? Is there a different sort of passion for the no-longer-young? The ability to feel keeps us alive. Passion may be dangerous, but it is the lack of passion that leads to death.

This book made me want to live that sweet, heady, intoxicating, blinding all-consuming passion… but what would I be willing to sacrifice?

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