Great Story, Awful Backstory

For sixty-four years, the manuscript of

this amazing novel

of Germany’s invasion and occupation of France in 1940 sat undiscovered. That’s partly because the writer, Irène Némirovsky, had been killed in a concentration camp in 1942.

She had been planning to write a sprawling, Tolstoyesque novel of the French surrender, but only got to finish the first half. While it’s painful to imagine what was lost, what’s here is sharply observed, enthralling and entertaining.

Némirovsky follows a varied cast of characters as Parisians flee the Germans – a middle-class couple, a vain artist, a banker born to be a collaborator; the rich and poor families in the countryside. Each person, and the minor characters they run into, has a distinct voice and worldview; the class divisions and resentments of pre-war France are ever-present.

At times the manuscript is understandably raw and unsubtle. Things are spelled out too clearly, and no doubt would have been polished save for the author’s tragic end. But that in no way mars the results. It just makes you aware occasionally that you’re not reading a final version, and why there was no final version.

The book, newly out in paperback, has two intriguing appendices: the author’s notes for both what she had written and what was to come, and the frantic correspondence between her husband and authorities (and friends) as he desperately tries to find out where she’s been taken and how he can get her out. Much of his scrambling comes after Némirovsky has already died. There’s also a translation of the preface to the French edition of the book, which includes the sad and stunning tale of how the manuscript survived. – Richard Connelly

Suite Française, Vintage, $14.95

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