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Irène Némirovsky – The Misunderstanding

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Because communication isn’t always the problem.

Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
Pages: 160
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-56384-6
First Published: 1926
Date Reviewed: 26th August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Original language: French
Original title: Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding)
Translated by: Sandra Smith

Yves spots Denise when her child throws sand over him; he is entranced from that moment. The two begin an affair as Denise’s husband leaves for work and continue seeing each other for the remainder of their holidays. Back in Paris, it’s not the same. Yves, once rich, has to work for a living, whilst Denise lives in luxury; and that is just the start.

The Misunderstanding is one of those novellas in which the reader is privy to the issues at hand and will see that the couple have a lot to work on if they’re going to be in with a chance. It was Némirovsky’s first book, so it’s not as polished as others – the language is overly detailed, romantic, and the author favours angst for angst’s sake – but nevertheless it’s exquisite – even as a twenty-one year old this writer knew her stuff.

In the foreword, Sandra Smith states that the French version of ‘misunderstanding’ Némirovsky uses means three different things: a specific event; ‘the person who is misunderstood’; ‘incompatibility’. It’s a good thing to note because it is indeed that way in the story. There are a couple of events, one in particular, that cause the couple problems. Neither Yves nor Denise understand each other, understand the other’s life and where they’re coming from. And this, perhaps more so than their respective rank in life, causes their incompatibility.

This incompatibility has to be explored. In a past life, or, rather, if Yves had remained rich (he lost his parents’ fortune during the war) the two would be very compatible. The main thing that gets in the way is the financial distance, the difference between luxury and necessity. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a problem if Yves didn’t feel so hard done by (he is constantly in debt because he lives above his means, trying to emulate his childhood) but Denise’s relative obliviousness to her lover’s situation creates distance all by itself. Yves can’t go out in the evenings, he needs to sleep – something Denise cannot understand on a fundamental level. So Yves resents Denise, resents the way she’s overbearing in her love, and in pushing her away as he starts to do, Denise resents him in turn. She listens to her mother’s advice and applies it to her relationship, and it works up to a point, but she pushes it too far.

In some respects The Misunderstanding can be compared to The Great Gatsby – the love of a once penniless soldier compared to the once rich man. A topic often discussed is whether Jay Gatsby would ultimately be happy if he had Daisy, and this is something we could ask of Yves. Does Yves love Denise because she represents what he was and would like to be? Doubtless he believes they would’ve had an easier time were he still rich, but then things would have been different across the board.

Yves’s feelings on the divide are summed up by this line:

“When I’m with her… I always have to be mentally wearing a dinner jacket.”

Would Denise accept him if he were poor and didn’t proffer to pay for expensive luxuries as he does? The chapters written from Denise’s point of view suggest that she would, but then if she is unable, as Némirovsky notes, to understand his relative poverty, she is surely living a sort of fantasy.

Yves cannot see what is in front of him any more than Denise can. It would take the reader breaking the forth wall from their side and stepping into the novella themselves to patch things up to a good level. Denise’s mother has it right; she knows what’s going on and has good advice, but there is a level of pain, hurt, that has been somewhat manufactured by Yves and Denise that stops them breaking the barriers between them. Self-loathing runs smoothly in this book, informing everything.

So The Misunderstanding is not on the same page as Suite Française, nor, even, Fire In The Blood (a book with content that’s not as complex or as likely to bowl you over as this one), but it’s incredible nonetheless. It’s quite obviously the work of a new, young, fearless writer who has yet to learn that flowery language doesn’t make a good book, but at the same time it’s also the work of someone with an immense understanding of her subject and the knowledge and empathy to write it well.

Should you read it? Oh, but you must!

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