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Captive prose

Two recently discovered novellas deliver a sharp, ironic view of the Nazi occupation - written as it was taking place.

By Yvonne Zipp / April 25, 2006

Everyone knows you can't write history as it happens. Years, maybe even a couple of decades, are needed to gain the necessary distance and insight for fiction. (You're nodding sagely right now, aren't you?) Well, as so often happens, everyone is wrong.

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Exhibit A: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, a Russian Jewish émigré living in France whose final work was first published 62 years after her death. The two novellas - which total about 400 pages - vividly and ironically describe the character of the French people under Nazi occupation with an almost casual brilliance.

Némirovsky, a celebrated novelist ("David Golder") envisioned "Suite Française" as a 1,000-page, five-part epic, modeled on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. She never completed the work. She was arrested in July, 1942 and died at Auschwitz on Aug. 17. Her husband, Michael Epstein - whose frantic letters on behalf of his wife are included in an appendix - was sent to the gas chambers in November.

Némirovsky had no illusions as to her prospects. Two days before her arrest, she wrote to her editor at Albin Michel (who continued to send money even though they were no longer allowed to publish her work): "My dear friend ... think of me sometimes. I have done a lot of writing. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but it helps pass the time."

The story of how "Suite Française" survived the war - even though its creator did not - is as gripping as a World War II thriller. After their parents were taken, Némirovsky's two daughters fled. The older girl, Denise, took a suitcase full of family mementoes that included a thick leather notebook of her mother's writings.

With the help of a friend of Némirovsky's, her publisher, and friendly schoolteachers, the girls survived the war in a series of hiding places, including a Catholic boarding school and various Bordeaux cellars. They never lost the suitcase.

After the war, neither Denise nor her younger sister, Elisabeth (who went on to write a fictionalized life of her mother, "The Watch Tower"), could bring themselves to read Némirovsky's notebook, which they assumed was a journal or perhaps notes of some kind. It wasn't until decades later, when Denise decided to donate the notebook to a public institute and began making a typewritten transcript of the minuscule handwriting, that she realized that she was holding two completed novellas.

French critics hailed "Suite Française" as a masterpiece when it was first published there in 2004. They weren't exaggerating. The writing is accomplished, the plotting sure, and the fact that Némirovsky could write about events like the fall of Paris with such assurance and irony just weeks after they occurred is nothing short of astonishing. In her notes on the novels to come, the titles of Parts 4 and 5 are written with question marks - underscoring the fact that Némirovsky, and the rest of the world, still had no idea how the war would turn out.