This extraordinary book is both two novels and a history of the fall of France in World War II, unique in that the events it recounts were taking place simultaneously with its writing. And through the appendices and the reprinting of the preface to the original French edition (2004), it is also the tragic biography of the author, a Russian emigre to France of Jewish ancestry who died in Auschwitz in 1942.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Irene Nemirovsky and her family moved to France, where she graduated from university, married a banker who was also a Russian Jew, and became a respected and successful novelist, writing in French, her second language. With the advent of World War II, as the German army fought its way to Paris, her life changed.
She and her husband and two little girls fled Paris ahead of the conquering army, and the first novel of this two-novel suite concerns just that subject. Called Storm in June, the story follows several wealthy upper-middle-class families and individuals as they attempt to take their valuables to safety from the Germans. Without exception, they are revealed to be overly concerned with possessions, filled with class snobbery, and self-centered. The only sympathetic characters are the few of the lower-middle-class, who try to help their fellow countrymen.
The second novel in the suite, Dolce, concerns itself with the German occupation of France. As Nemirovsky and her husband lived in a small occupied rural village, she was writing the story of how the wealthy landowners and aristocracy adapted themselves to their status as a conquered people. Again, she conveys a critical tone toward the upper-middle-class. Surprisingly, she seems to be somewhat sympathetic toward the German occupiers, who are portrayed as barely more than children who are only obeying orders. She even includes a love story between conquered and conqueror, because, after all, they are only men and women.
Nemirovsky had planned the suite as five volumes, with the remaining ones being titled Captivity, Battles, and Peace. One appendix to this volume includes her notes as to the plot of the third novel. About the other two, she knew she would have to wait until events unfolded.
She was not permitted to complete her masterwork. She was arrested as a Jew of foreign nationality (She had never obtained French citizenship.) and taken to Auschwitz, where she died. Only a few months later, her husband was also arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where he was gassed in the ovens immediately. The two children were hidden by their nanny and moved from place to place, constantly on the run from the French police, until after the war.
The oldest daughter kept her mother's large notebook for 64 years, thinking it was a diary and never reading it because of the sorrow it would bring. Finally she read it and realized that it was the text of two novels and the notes for a third. And this volume was published.
It is extremely hard to separate the background story to consider the novels on their own merits. This was a first draft, and in one appendix her notes indicate some episodes she intended to revise. The novels are perhaps overly critical of France's upper-middle-class at the time, but this was Nemirovsky's milieu, and they had rejected her once the Germans branded her as a Jew. I would be bitter, too. But even unrevised and without the author's background story, this would still be a must-read. With her death, we have been deprived of a historical and literary masterpiece, written as it happened.