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by ROBERT MERLE 575 pages. Simon & Schuster. $10.

A group of Frenchmen, most of them old friends, are gathered one morning in the wine cellar of Emmanuel Comte's 13th century castle, a feudal relic named Malevil. Abruptly the noise of jackhammering doom breaks loose, followed by suffocating heat. Civilization is gone in a nuclear flash. In Comte's castle, after some flirting with suicide, the microcosmic band of friends sets about reinventing society.

The surprise is that French Novelist (The Day of the Dolphin) Robert Merle's premise should yield such an entertaining and cheerful novel. Anyone who has read Herman Kahn, with his...

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