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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in