Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky, trs Sandra Smith

Love and death on the road to Orléans
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Some readers will know the remarkable story behind this novel. Irène Némirovsky was born in 1903 in Kiev. It would not prove a good choice of time or place for a Jewish girl to make her entrance, but the wealthy banker's daughter had a protected childhood, with French governesses and Black Sea holidays. She does not seem to have been much disturbed even by her family's departure, after the Revolution, for Finland, Sweden and, finally, France. History had not yet caught up with her.

In fact, France must have been a homecoming as much as an exile. Irène enjoyed Paris, parties and flirtations, got married and published her first novel, David Golder, to good reviews. She had two daughters and even, in 1939, converted to Catholicism. She carried on writing finely observed, meticulously prepared, faintly disenchanted novels, informed by her admiration for Turgenev, Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and E M Forster. Her work had little to say about politics: Bolsheviks, Fascists and "the detestable masses".

When the war started, she was finishing a biography of Chekhov, but the fall of France gave her a new theme and a new master, Tolstoy. She set about writing a novel in five parts that would be her War and Peace. Only two sections of the book were completed because, in July 1942, she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died within a month. Her husband followed before the end of the year, but their daughters, incredibly, survived, carefully preserving the manuscript of what they thought was their mother's diary. It was not until Denise came to type it out as a contribution to a war memoir that she realised it was a novel. Suite Française was finally published in 2004 and won the Prix Renaudot, the first time the award had been given posthumously.

The first section, "Storm in June", goes a long way to justifying its high ambitions. A motley collection of characters is fleeing Paris after the German breakthrough, bewildered by the sudden turn of events and the lack of leadership from the authorities. Among them are: Gabriel Corte, a writer who wrongly believes that his fame has preceded him into the provinces; the aesthete Charles Langelet whose chief concern is to protect his collection of porcelain; the Catholic Péricands; and the decent, lower middle-class Michauds. As they flounder about on the road to Orléans, Némirovsky describes their struggle for survival, with its little acts of meanness and despair, and examines their various fates with icily comic detachment.

She combines brilliantly the big picture with the small and, served by an excellent translator, picks out vivid details: the sound of metal shutters coming down in the streets of Paris, the litter furiously abandoned on the roadside, the nun quietly cutting flowers in a church, oblivious to what is going on. The death scenes - there are three in this section - are unforgettable. At times, we catch echoes of other novels: the evacuation of Moscow in War and Peace, Fabrice at Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma; but they read less like literary references than life imitating art.

The second half, "Dolce", is not so effective. It centers on the experience of Lucile Angellier, whose dull husband is a PoW. When a cultured, French-speaking German officer is billeted on them, old Madame Angellier treats him with the contempt that Vercors described in Le Silence de la mer (the great novel of passive resistance, clandestinely published in February 1942); but, unlike the young woman in Vercors' novel, Lucile allows herself to fall in love with her enemy. Némirovsky, so good at describing death, manages only banalities when it comes to love: "there was between them an entire world of confused, unexpressed thoughts, like a precious crystal so fragile that a single word could shatter it."

Ultimately, Lucile is in rebellion against history itself, against "the spirit of the hive", against the war that forces her to be "part of a state, a country, a political party". She has the same humane instinct that allows Némirovsky, the novelist, to sympathise with the young German soldiers as they wait to be despatched from France to the newly opened Russian front. The appendix to this translation includes letters on the attempts of her husband and publisher to obtain her release. They scoured her earlier works for evidence of hostility to Bolshevism, as though the triumphant Wehrmacht and the genocidal SS would be moved to spare this one anti-Bolshevik Jew. Waving their RSPCA cards in the face of the tiger, they were clearly unaware of the nature of the horror that had overtaken Europe - as was Némirovsky herself. And here is one of the most interesting aspects of this remarkable novel: that it is also a document, written from the heart of that "Storm in June", uncertain of the outcome and steadfastly maintaining civilised values in barbarous times.