Born in Kiev in 1903, Irene Nemirovsky fled the Russian revolution and settled in France, where she became a bestselling novelist.

When the Germans invaded she was at first unable to publish because of her Jewish heritage, and was then arrested and transferred to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942. British readers (as well as French) rediscovered her work in 2004 with the publication and extraordinary success of Suite Francaise, two linked novellas about the collapse of France in 1940, and the strains and compromises of the occupation that followed.

Remarkable not just for its deft characterisation and unexpectedly icy humour, Suite Francaise is also a work of shocking immediacy and reportage. Writing about the social, political and military collapse of an entire society through the pitiful moral dramas of her characters, a representative sample of middle-class and rural peasant society that only occasionally feels token or stereotypical, Nemirovsky portrayed this disaster almost as it was happening around her. Even so, she gives the reader a sense of hard-won objectivity and distance. When the disaster finally caught up with her she must have known that she had achieved something great, even if she couldn't have suspected how long it would take to get published.

Such success often leads to a rapid and shameless cashing-in by publishers, and much of Nemirovsky's back catalogue duly reappeared in the years that followed. But The Fires Of Autumn, posthumously published in France in 1957 and again in 2011, is no mere desk-clearing exercise.

A thematic prequel to Suite Francaise, it follows a similar group of middle-class Parisians as they and their society enter the furnace of the First World War, and as they struggle to find meaning in the years of confusion and excess that inevitably lead to the Second. If Suite Francaise showed how quickly France collapsed, this book goes some way towards explaining why.

At the core of the novel are two families, the Bruns and the Jacquelains. Martial Brun is a conscientious doctor, who leaves his wife Therese a widow when he is killed in the trenches. Bernard Jacquelain, a fiery, ardent young volunteer, is coarsened and brutalised by his experiences, although he is emboldened to marry Therese once the war is over. In the hedonistic 1920s, he eagerly embraces a society that is only interested in money and sensual pleasure, and falls in with the corrupt businessman Raymond Detang, while having a destructive affair with Raymond's wife Renee.

Bernard's shady deals eventually catch up with him, but before he can be prosecuted he is "saved" by the outbreak of the Second World War. Reconciled to his wife, free to take up a noble cause once more, Bernard is then spiritually shattered by the death of his son, killed as a result of Bernard's illicit deal to acquire useless spare parts for the French airforce from the US.

Now, in a society so morally corrupt, defeat is almost preferable to another victory. As Bernard thinks during the retreat of 1940, "the Battle of France was lost 20 years ago", in the failure to build a decent society out of the sacrifices of war. As a field is cleansed by fire for the spring planting, perhaps only after this defeat will new growth be possible.

Sympathetic to the savagery experienced by the Great War generation, Nemirovsky is still scathing of the decrepitude that followed it.

As Bernard and Therese's son Yves thinks, this was a generation that had "transformed morality into something grotesque, childish, which only deserves to be ridiculed". This willingness to pass judgment is something Nemirovsky earned from her own experience, but she never lets herself be carried away by her anger and disgust; the book as a whole is measured and controlled, and all the more powerful for that.

Painted in broader brush strokes, and certainly less complete or satisfying than Suite Francaise, this is still an important addition to a body of work by a writer who must now be seen as one of the great chroniclers of the 20th-century European experience.