Review: The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky

There is an old-fashioned style about this book. Not just because it was written in the 1920s and is set in France just after the First World War, but because Némirovsky writes in a way which is more leisurely and descriptive than is customary now. Her character live at a more leisurely pace. Social status is more important and social conventions are more fixed. In spite of that, and in spite of the seeming sentimentality of the situation she depicts, Némirovsky creates characters who are increasingly swayed by the harsh realities of life, her psychological perception is acute and her social irony is often sharp. She tells a simple story of an adulterous love affair and she tells it beautifully, but there are depths to this book which are still relevant today.

Her hero, Yves Harteloup was, she tells us, born in 1890 – “that divine, decadent era when there were still men in Paris who had absolutely nothing to do” . But all that has changed. Now, like many other men of his class, he has returned from the horrors of war, his parents have died, his inheritance has all but gone, and he leads the routine, dreary life of an employee. Having carefully saved enough money to take a holiday in a favourite Basque resort of his childhood, he meets and becomes infatuated with a young woman whose husband is still wealthy and who still leads a life of luxury and boredom. Denise, wants love, romance and excitement. She falls in love with Yves but their two lives, which once would have been very similar, are now very different and the expectations of each are different.

Yves, is a three-times decorated battle survivor and his war-time experiences have scarred him mentally as well as physically. He had once lived the life of a rich young man and had mistresses. Now he is disillusioned, afraid of intimacy, afraid of loss, and is living just within his means although he is still known and accepted in wealthy circles. He is infatuated with Denise, yet cannot give her the excitement and the constant reassurance of his love that she needs. Her demands begin to irritate him but he is upset when she is unhappy.

Denise, who is outgoing and talkative, cannot understand his need for peace and reassurance. She cannot understand why he will not commit himself and voice his love, and his silence baffles and upsets her. She is thoughtless about his office commitments and about his strained financial situation. But she is desperately unhappy when she cannot be with him.

Neither fully understands the needs of the other, and their different situations gradually pull them apart.

Irène Némirovsky was only twenty-one when she wrote this book but she had already known fear, insecurity and the vast changes brought about by war. She was born in 1903 in Kiev, daughter of a successful Jewish banker. When she was fourteen her family fled from the Russian Revolution, first to Finland then, the following year, to Paris. They arrived there just at the end of the First World War. Irène studied at the Sorbonne and, at eighteen, she began to write novels. She went on to be widely recognized as a major writer but in 1940, with Paris under German Occupation, she was prevented from any further publishing.  In 1942, she was arrested as a stateless person of Jewish descent and she subsequently died of typhus in Auschwitz.

Némirovsky’s books have only recently been translated from the French and The Misunderstanding, which was her first novel, displays the sharpness and perception which made her such a success. Above all, it captures the fragile and fleeting nature of happiness.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
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