The Misunderstanding, By Irène Némirovsky, trans. Sandra Smith

This novel of a doomed affair reveals a ruthlessly observant writer far older than her years

Paul Bailey
Thursday 06 September 2012 21:22

The Misunderstanding was written by Irène Némirovsky when she was barely out of her teens. It was first published in 1926 and reprinted some years later as a result of the success of her second novel, David Golder. The novel now has a familiar ring to it, thanks to the reissues of works by Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig, those beady-eyed experts on the thwarted affair.

Her orginal influence was Paul Bourget, who produced fictional variations on the theme of adulterous relationships. Yet there is a quality about this book that seems to be Némirovsky's own, which can be detected in the character of Yves Harteloup, the 34-year-old survivor of the battle of Verdun, who falls insanely in love with Denise Jessaint, the wife of Jacques, whose acquaintance Yves made in the trenches. Jacques is a wealthy businessman with a sumptuous mansion in the smartest district in Paris, while Yves has seen his family's fortune vanish. Yves is now living just within his means as a clerk in a news agency. All he can afford is an expensive summer holiday by dint of saving from his salary. It is on one such vacation - at Hendaye, in the Basque region - that he enconters Denise, her small daughter Francette, and the dull M Jessaint.

The bittersweet summer romance is a staple of middlebrow fiction. Yves, the son of a philandering father, has already had a series of short-lived affairs. He is terrified of an intimacy becoming too intimate, and of being his lover's sole reason for existing. He cannot take part in what he sees as a romantic façade. The rich, bored Louise soon becomes besotted with him and he finds himself backing away. His desire for her dies, replaced by a helpless, guilt-inducing pity.

Némirovsky makes Louise enough of a pampered irritant for the reader to understand that Yves is not just another heartless chancer. The author's own mother was unfaithful to her doting husband, and she bore lasting witness to his daily humiliation. Yves, scarred by the Great War, has to escape from this madness of body and spirit. There is one shameless coincidence in the story, but otherwise this is anastonishingly mature work of art. This study in the fleeting nature of happiness is immaculately translated by Sandra Smith.

Paul Bailey's latest novel is 'Chapman's Odyssey' (Bloomsbury)

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