Fiction - Lost and found

Suite Francaise

Irene Nemirovsky; translated by Sandra Smith <em>Chatto & Windus, 404pp, £16.99</e

Irene Nemirovsky was born in 1903, to wealthy Russian Jewish parents who fled the Bolshevik revolution in 1918 and settled in France. After a troubled and isolated childhood, the adolescent Nemirovsky began writing fiction in French - but it was Turgenev who first inspired her technique. Her novel David Golder won her overnight fame at the age of 26, and she published prolifically in the following decade, sometimes attracting disturbing admiration in French anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semitic circles. Success did not exempt her from the strictures imposed on Jewish writers in occupied France, and after the Germans entered Paris in June 1940, she moved her young family to the village of Issy-l'Eveque, in Saone-et-Loire. Here she began her War and Peace of the occupation: Suite Francaise, the unfinished novel that lay hidden in a suitcase long after its author was deported to Auschwitz, where she died on 17 August 1942.

Eventually, the manuscript was pains-takingly transcribed by Nemirovsky's elder daughter, Denise Epstein, and published in 2004 to immense international acclaim. Sandra Smith's English translation is a further opportunity to resurrect a writer unjustly overlooked in the anglophone world.

If it was Tolstoy Nemirovsky had in mind when planning the ambitious structure of Suite Francaise, Chekhov was in her heart. "Storm in June", the first of what would have been four or five parts, evokes the panicked exodus from Paris after the German victory. Tragicomic, austere and ever conscious of the contrast between brittle human relationships and the enduring beauty of the natural world, Nemirovsky captures the pathos and absurdity of sudden social disintegration.

Some characters cling to their snobbery in adversity. The writer Gabriel Corte, stuck in a traffic jam on the road to Tours, refuses to converse with "riff-raff" in a neighbouring car: "If events as painful as defeat and mass exodus cannot be dignified with some sort of nobility, some grandeur, then they shouldn't happen at all!" Only rarely do people retain their decency. Maurice and Jeanne Michaud, an old married couple caught in the bombing of the railway lines, struggle to help others who are more wounded than themselves, but no one thanks them. "Later [Jeanne] would remember that while they were stretched out on the ground, a small white butterfly was lazily flitting from one flower to another"; something beautiful in the ugliness.

Part two, "Dolce", centres on a small village under occupation. The Germans arrive during High Mass on Easter Sunday. By the church door is a small peach tree, pink with blossom. A German offi-cer absent-mindedly breaks off a branch. "He's destroying our fruit trees, for heaven's sake!" a villager groans. Like Chekhov, Nemirovsky uses symbolism to build an atmosphere of tension and restraint. These stylistic features are overwhelmingly powerful in the context of the occupation, where French civilians and German soldiers must continue their lives, side by side, with only the most thwarted forms of trust or co-operation between them. An impossible love affair develops between Lucile Angellier, a young woman whose unfaithful husband is now a prisoner of war, and the German officer billeted on her mother-in-law. "Reason and emotion, they both believed, could make them enemies, but between them was a harmony of the senses that nothing could destroy." Half a page is enough to prove them wrong.

Two days before she was arrested, Nemirovsky went into the countryside, as usual, to write:

Maie woods: 11 July 1942. The pine trees all around me. I am sitting on my blue cardigan in the middle of an ocean of leaves, wet and rotting from last night's storm, as if I were on a raft, my legs tucked under me! In my bag, I have put Volume II of Anna Karenina, the diary of KM and an orange.

In her biography of Chekhov (also posthumously published) Nemirovsky described Katherine Mansfield as the Russian master's "spiritual heir", but went on to characterise his legacy for herself: "He who so sadly asserted that life had no meaning succeeded in giving a very beautiful and very deep meaning to his own." Writing amid the detritus of defeated France, Nemirovsky had the bleakest view of human beings. Suite Francaise triumphantly establishes her own claim as Chekhov's heir - if more in technical than in spiritual terms.

Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French revolution will be published by Chatto & Windus in May