This is an extremely moving book; the knowledge that the author perished at Auschwitz makes it all the more affecting. Irene Nemirovsky’s older daughter possessed the manuscript for many years without realizing what it contained; she thought it was a diary, and thought it would be too painful to read. Instead, she found two of a planned series of five novellas about the German Occupation of France.
These two short novels contain vivid descriptions of both the flight from Paris during the invasion, and life under Occupation in the countryside. They seem contemporary; events and reactions that could as easily take place today. I love that the stories do not just illuminate the struggles between nations, but differences in class. Life as a refugee is, not surprisingly, easier when one is rich and well-connected.
The stories are linked but separate, some characters appear in both. Events are seen from several points of view, which gives a great perspective on the whole. War is the central event in the book, but it is also a lens that brings each personality into focus. The characters and their reactions to their situations are, in the end, more interesting than what is happening to them.
Several of the reviews I read, like this one from the New York Times, that marvel at Nemirovsky’s ability to write so reflectively about devastating events as they transpire. Doubly amazing as she was in constant danger of being arrested and separated from her young children. This did, alas, come to pass, and she was at Auschwitz for only a month before ‘dying of typhoid’, likely a Nazi euphemism for being gassed. Her husband soon followed.
I generally skim biographical data that accompanies novels, but this story was so interesting and heartbreaking that I read quite a it. The translator, Sandra Smith, is clearly devoted to the subject of her work. The appendix includes vast amounts of research and many contextual explanations, as well as photocopies of the manuscript itself.
I put off reading this book for a long time, because I thought it would be depressing and dated. I was happily surprised to find that it was neither.