Hidden treasure

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by Irene Nemirovsky
Chatto & Windus £16.99, 416 pages

More than 60 years after Irene Nemirovsky’s death in Auschwitz, her final work was published in France in 2004 and hailed as a masterpiece. The compelling story behind its composition and miraculous survival was a vital part of its publishing success.

Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903. In 1918 her wealthy Jewish family fled the Russian revolution for Paris. She became a successful novelist but after the German occupation of France in 1940 Nemirovsky was prevented from publishing anything under her own name.

With her husband and two young daughters she moved to a small village in German occupied territory, and began writing Suite Francaise, finishing the second part days before her arrest in July 1942. She died four weeks later in Auschwitz. Her husband was also killed at the concentration camp; her daughters went into hiding, taking the manuscript with them. In the 1990s her eldest daughter began deciphering the minuscule writing Nemirovsky had used to save ink. She discovered two volumes of a projected five-volume novel cycle.

“Storm in June” follows Parisians from diverse social backgrounds caught up in 1940s mass exodus. Tightly drawn circles of coincidence create a panorama of individual destinies; Nemirovsky uses an image of helpless fish caught in a net, watching fishermen’s shadows move above them. “Dolce”, the second part, depicts rural life during the occupation, women’s romantic involvement with German soldiers and intricate tensions between coping and collaboration. A blend of comedy and tragedy accompanies precise observation of the characters’ daily emotional life. One woman who encounters the German billeted in her house resembles “a nun who has been sitting at someone’s deathbed and gets up to greet a member of the family suspected of anticlericalism”.

Nemirovsky converted to Roman Catholicism in 1939 and the book displays no identification with Jews, nor even any mention of their persecution. But Nemirovsky was under no illusions. Her notes contain a remarkable statement of intent: “My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life.” Virtuous ordinary people are thrown against selfish bankers and politicians, collaborators exposed for “egotism, cowardice, closing ranks, crime”.

Nemirovsky’s ability to interpret such recent events with detachment, and maintain documentary immediacy, is astonishing. Her notes accentuate the difficulty of planning a novel whose plot is dictated by fate. A consciousness of being on the verge of death suffuses everything (”all of a sudden, there they were in hell”), including lyrically rendered natural beauty: “The tender June day persisted, refusing to die. Each pulse of light was fainter and more exquisite than the last, as if bidding farewell to the earth, full of love and regret.”

Here is a writer who knows the book she is writing may be a posthumous one. One character, also a writer, shares her urgency: “She often had to put down her pen and run her hands under cold water to force back into them the blood that had rushed to her head.”

Posterity gives Nemirovsky the strength to define her moral position with ruthless clarity. During the exodus a wealthy woman deserts her invalid father-in-law because he slips her mind among all the other objects she is taking with her. A mother playing lady bountiful with her children’s sweets discovers how scarce food has become; compassion and charity “fell from her like useless ornaments, revealing her bare, arid soul”.

The reproduction of desperate letters Nemirovsky’s husband wrote after her disappearance makes it even harder to disentangle the book’s artistic merit from its author’s tragic story. Suite Francaise is exceptional because it was written before the events it describes had solidified into history, while Nemirovsky was living among German occupiers, wearing the yellow Star of David. Yet there is honest sympathy for enemy soldiers; one is described as “sincerely humble... terrified by the magnitude of his task”.

Suite Francaise is a surprising, transfixing book for many reasons, including biographical ones - not least its truly great ability to separate people from ideologies, a quality surely tested to its limit by Nemirovsky’s personal history.

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