Love and family in times of war

2009-02-25 00:00

When Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Française was published in English in 2006, it caused a considerable stir. Unfinished at the time of the author’s murder in Auschwitz, it remained in a suitcase in her daughter’s care for 65 years before it was finally published and is a wonderful picture of the lives of ordinary French people in the extraordinary circumstances of war.

All Our Worldly Goods again looks at a country at war, and between wars, taking one provincial French family and following them from the outbreak of World War 1 into the Occupation of World War 2 when the horrors that faced refugees from the battleground were to be repeated. It was published in France in 1947, but has only had its first English translation in the wake of the other and, it must be said, greater, novel. Not that All Our Worldly Goods is a bad book. It is accomplished, interesting and an intriguing look at provincial France with its entrenched snobberies and shibboleths — why it is always the English who get knocked for their class system, I’m not sure. It is far from unique.

At the outset, before World War 1 breaks out, Pierre, heir to an industrial family, is celebrating his engagement, but not to the woman he loves. She is a couple of rungs below him on the social ladder, far less wealthy and her mother has brought her up alone. Just not quite good enough for Pierre’s family. But the young lovers are not to be separated, and the results of their elopement will echo through their small town home for almost half a century.

It would have been a work with more impact in 1947. Now, its main interest is as the precursor to Suite Française. Worth reading for that, and not without interest in its own right, but a slighter book.

Margaret von Klemperer

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