Rowan Pelling: Don't be afraid of the dark, readers

Happy endings are for the emotionally timid. Give me heart-breaking true grit any day

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The fairy tales I loved most when young seldom ended with the words, "And they all lived happily ever after." Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde and my grandmother's ancient volume of English Fairy Tales rarely came to such comforting conclusions. Good may defeat evil but the reader was given to understand that such victories would most likely be brief. And the triumph of good was by no means inevitable. My English Fairy Tales version of "Little Red Riding Hood" bears little resemblance to the sanitised version told at kindergarten. After the traditional "big teeth" exchange between child and wolf the story concludes: "And with that he gobbled up Little Red Riding Hood." Oscar Wilde's fairy tales, meanwhile, made tristesse and the squalid, soulless shortcomings of human nature his central subject.

These stories were fundamental to my developing grasp of life's complexities and are part of the reason why I balked when I heard about the "happy endings" survey to mark World Book Day on Thursday. Apparently 41 per cent of the readers questioned were "overwhelmingly in favour" of books with happy endings, while only 2.2 per cent preferred sad ones. The survey even listed books that the respondents would most like to see given a happy ending. Tess of the d'Urbervilles topped the list with Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina and The Mill on the Floss not far behind. I was momentarily diverted by the idea of Prozac endings. "Angel swept Tess on to his horse and they rode off into the sunset - 'Drat!' said the police." "So Cathy married Heathcliffe and they bought a semi in Ilkley." "There was a short delay on the Nizhny service while a woman was treated for concussion." "In life they were not divided."

My amusement was dampened when I saw 1984 in the list. What is Orwell's masterpiece about if not the evil that is done when people override the truth with corrupt diction and false narratives? To change 1984's ending would be to effect your own mini Cultural Revolution. Do we really want to live in a world in which the only acceptable narrative is resolutely affirmative and fiction cushions us from unpalatable reality?

Hollywood executives routinely change movies' endings if preview audiences react badly to downbeat conclusions and similar pressure is exerted on the popular side of publishing. The habitual excuse is that there's enough horror on the news for your average, thin-skinned Joe. But Iraq and Darfur are but a flicker in the over-taxed eye before the zapper zones us out and onwards.

We have grown emotionally lazy and our imaginations are timid and flabby. If a book is to be harrowing we want it to be in the mould of Dave Pelzer or Frank McCourt, where the reader has the tacit reassurance that our narrator escaped the horrors to become a bestselling author and multi- millionaire. In our time we see happiness as our prerogative, when it's really a luxury - some might say an aberration - and rarely the motivating force of great literature.

There's surely never been a greater need for literary fiction that offers prolonged and rigorous engagement with a discomforting world. And no book answers this need with more conviction, brilliance and emotional impact than the newly published Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. This is a book in which every page is informed by the knowledge that, in periods of great historic turmoil, there is never anything so trite as a happy ending.

Némirovsky, a renowned novelist in pre-war France and a white Russian Jew by birth, was arrested by the French police on 13 July 1942. On 17 July she was deported to Auschwitz, where she died on 17 August. Her husband, Michel Epstein, was arrested later and died in Auschwitz that November. Némirovsky's manuscript was grabbed by her 13-year-old daughter Denise and placed in a suitcase as she and her five-year-old sister, Elizabeth, fled.

For more than 50 years the sisters couldn't bear to read what they presumed to be their mother's journal. It was only when Elizabeth died in 1996 that Denise started to decipher the tiny, spidery scrawl and discovered the first two volumes of a major work. Némirovsky intended the finished novel to have a panoramic scope comparable to War and Peace. Although incomplete, the two volumes are the most extraordinary evocation of occupied France that you are likely to encounter.

It's a bruising read and few characters survive with dignity or honour intact. The naked self-interest and hypocrisy of the privileged classes fleeing Paris as the Germans close in are described with the forensic eye of the detached observer whose quest for veracity never spares your finer feelings. The author's delicate dissection of how defeat, fear, loathing, and class hostilities led to collaboration are unforgettable. On 1 July 1942, Irène Némirovsky wrote it was her "deepest conviction" that what lives on are: "1. Our humble day-to-day lives. 2. Art. 3. God." Happiness, she knew, is more elusive, mutable, in the great scheme of things.

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