Book review: The Misunderstanding, By Irène Némirovsky

Wisdom of obsessive love, found in precocious youth

As fans of Irène Némirovsky's fiction will know, the manuscript of her unfinished masterpiece, Suite Française, didn't come to light until 60 years after the author's death in Auschwitz in 1942. Since then English readers have come to know her work in reverse – her earlier novels being reissued and translated at regular intervals. The latest publication, The Misunderstanding, is the author's first, written when she was just 21, and all the more poignant for that.

The novel intially unfolds in the Basque seaside resort of Hendaye – a place bathed "in the scent of cinnamon and orange blossom" and "brutal midday light". It's here on the hot beach that Yves Harteloup, a 30-something veteran of the trenches, first spots Denise Jessaint, a young married mother. Drawn to her lithe sunburnt figure, he hunts her down. The subsequent novel traces the history of their doomed affair.

Like much of Némirovsky's work, The Misunderstanding is underpinned by the fall out of war. Yves may look the part of a rich dilettante but has in fact lost his fortune and been forced to take an office job in Paris. Although deeply attracted to Denise's tender-hearted nature, the horrors of the trenches have scotched his taste for emotional intensity. In contrast Denise, a restless housewife in the Emma Bovary mode, yearns for declarations of passion and intent. When the enamoured couple return to the city, their relationship starts to decay.

At one point Némirovsky states that she has no wish for the "superficial poetry expectations of some romantic novel" and her understanding of the lovers' obsessional state shows insight beyond her years. The reader never ends up taking sides.

However, yet more memorable than the narrative's apercus are Némirovsky's descriptions of pre-war Paris. Standing on the top of Montmartre, Denise thinks: "...the dome of Les Invalides shone through the golden haze, along with the delicate outline of the Eiffel Tower." Translator Sandra Smith succeeds beautifully in breathing life into Némirovsky's long-lost prose.