The misunderstanding, p.1
The Misunderstanding, p.1Irene Nemirovsky
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Irène Némirovsky
Preface to the French Edition
About the Book
The Misunderstanding is Irène Némirovsky’s first novel, written when she was just twenty-one and published in a literary journal two years later. An intense story of self-destructive and blighted love, it is also a tragic satire of French society after the Great War.
Yves Harteloup, scarred by the war, is a disappointed young man, old money fallen on hard times, who returns for the summer to the rich, comfortable Atlantic resort of Hendaye, where he spent blissful childhood holidays. He becomes infatuated by a beautiful, bored young woman, Denise, whose rich husband is often away on business. Intoxicated by summer nights and Yves’ intensity, Denise falls passionately in love, before the idyll has to end and Yves must return to his mundane office job.
In the mournful Paris autumn their love founders on mutual misunderstanding, in the apparently unbridgeable gap between a life of idle wealth and the demands of making a living, between a woman’s needs and a man’s way of loving. As Denise is driven mad with desire and jealous suspicion, Yves, too sure of her, tortures himself and her with his emotional ambivalence. Taking her sophisticated mother’s advice, Denise takes action…which she may regret forever.
With a sharp satirical eye and a characteristic perception for the fault lines in human relationships, Irène Némirovsky’s first novel shows sure signs of the brilliant novelist she was to become.
About the Author
Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker. In 1918 her family fled the Russian Revolution for France where she became a bestselling novelist, author of David Golder, Le Bal, The Courilof Affair, All Our Worldly Goods and other works published in her lifetime or soon after, such as the posthumously published Suite Française and Fire in the Blood. The Dogs and the Wolves, now appearing for the first time in English, was published in France in spring 1940, just months before France fell to the Nazis. She was prevented from publishing when the Germans occupied France and moved with her husband and two small daughters from Paris to the safety of the small village of Issy-l'Evêque (in German occupied territory). It was here that Irène began writing Suite Française. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.
Also by Irène Némirovsky
Le Bal (including Snow in Autumn)
Fire in the Blood
The Courilof Affair
All Our Worldly Goods
The Dogs and the Wolves
The Wine of Solitude
The French title of this novel – Le Malentendu – like many of Némirovsky’s titles, presents a challenge to a translator as it embodies many meanings: ‘the misunderstanding’ as a specific event, or ‘the person who is misunderstood’ or ‘incompatibility’ when applied to a couple. Némirovsky’s novel explores every aspect of these meanings.
In her first novel as in many of her works, Némirovsky closely examines an extra-marital affair. This recurring theme in her fiction undoubtedly stemmed from her parents’ situation. Her mother had numerous lovers, and Némirovsky must have witnessed first-hand the effects of such affairs on a marriage and on her adored father. Even in this early novel, however, she is able to see both sides of the question and alternates between writing from the perspective of the man and the woman.
In the 1920s, when The Misunderstanding was published, social attitudes towards marriage were beginning to change and this new thinking is reflected here. But the novel also deals with the effects of the Great War on young men who survived it, as well as with the psychological and economic damage caused by the war to a part of French society: many members of the leisured classes lost their fortunes and were suddenly forced to work for a living. In this novel, most of the problems are caused by the difference in status between Denise Jessaint, ‘a young wife doted upon by a husband who earned a lot of money’, and Yves Harteloup, formerly wealthy but now forced to work in an office. Némirovsky presents this situation with an ironic perspective: morality isn’t the issue, just money. ‘“When I’m with her,” he thought with remarkable irritation, “I always have to be mentally wearing a dinner jacket.”’
When reading The Misunderstanding, I was struck by the echoes of Madame Bovary: both novels explore the thoughts and feelings of bored wives with heightened ideas of romance as they fall passionately in love and enter into affairs. (And Némirovsky did acknowledge Flaubert as an influence.) However, there is a twist in this tale: it is the woman who is wealthy and the man poor. Yves and Denise struggle to overcome their differences as a tribute to their love.
The Misunderstanding was written in 1924 when Irène Némirovsky was barely twenty-one years old, but not published until 1926. It was then reissued in 1930, after the enormous success of the novel David Golder had made her famous. Its language, more consciously romantic than in her later work, has the intensity and enthusiasm of youth, but The Misunderstanding is an astute, lyrical novel that shows remarkable psychological insight.
Cambridge, March 2012
YVES WAS SLEEPING, like a little boy, soundly, deeply. He had buried his head in the crook of his elbow, instinctively rediscovering, in that intense, trusting sleep of the past, the movements and even the smile of a serious, innocent child; he was dreaming of a long beach drenched in sunshine, of the evening sun on the sea, of sunlight through the tamarisk trees.
And yet, it was more than fourteen years since he had been back to Hendaye; arriving after dark the night before, he had caught only glimpses of this enchanting corner of the Basque region: a shadowy abyss full of sounds – the sea – a few lights glimmering through an even darker patch which he guessed was a tamarisk wood and then some other lights at the edge of the waves – the Casino – where only the fishermen’s boats used to sway in the past. But the sunlit paradise of his childhood remained unspoiled in his memory and was resurrected in his dreams, down to the tiniest detail, down to the particular scent and taste of the air.
As a child, Yves had spent his most wonderful holidays in Hendaye. There he had savoured long, golden days, as delicious as ripe fruit beneath a sun that to his amazed eyes seemed utterly new, as if it had just been created. Since that time the universe had gradually seemed to lose its bright colours; even the sun had grown dimmer. But the young man still had his vivid, charmed imagination and, in certain dreams, he managed to recapture those childhood impressions in all their original splendour. The mornings that followed such nights seemed tinged by a kind of delicious, enchanted sadness.
On this morning, Yves woke with a start at the stroke of eight, as he always did in Paris. He opened his eyes and started to leap out of bed; but through the slats in the louvred shutters, he saw a shard of light, like a golden arrow, gliding right to his bedside, and at the same time, he heard the soft buz
So Yves went back to bed, smiled, stretched out, enjoying his every exquisite, lazy movement, as if he had rediscovered a sense of luxury. Finally, he reached for the little bell that hung between the brass bars of his bed and rang it. A little while later the waiter came in, carrying a breakfast tray. He opened the shutters and the sun flooded into the room.
‘It’s a very beautiful day,’ Yves said out loud, just as he had when he was a schoolboy and all his concerns and pleasures depended entirely on the weather. He jumped out of bed and ran barefoot to the window. At first he was disappointed: he had known Hendaye when it was a tiny hamlet of fishermen and smugglers with only two villas, one owned by the writer Pierre Loti, a bit further off to the left, near the Bidassoa river, and the other owned by his parents, to the right, at the very spot where now stood twenty-odd houses in mock Basque style. He saw that a sea wall planted with sparse trees had been laid out behind the beach, where cars could park. He looked away, sulking. Why had they spoiled this sacred corner of the world that he so loved for its very simplicity, its peaceful charm? He stood next to the open window and little by little, just as you begin to recognise a face that has changed over the years by its smile and the expression in its eyes and so gradually recall the features you once loved, in the same way Yves rediscovered with a deep sense of pleasure the lines, the colours, the contour of the mountains, the glistening water of the bay, the light, swaying fronds of the tamarisks. And when he sensed once more the scent of cinnamon and orange blossom carried in by the winds from Andalusia, he made peace with the passing of time; he smiled, and the lightness of spirit he had felt in the past returned to fill his heart.
Reluctantly, he turned away from the window and went over to the bathroom; painted in high-gloss lacquer with white tiles, it gleamed in the dazzling sunlight. Yves drew the curtains; they were made of lace, decorated with intricate designs, so immediately the same patterns swept across the floor, in a light, shimmering, delicate layer that flickered each time the sea breeze rustled the curtains. Yves watched with delight the play between light and shadow; he remembered that this used to be his favourite pastime as a little boy. And every time he recognised one of his childhood traits in the man he had become, he experienced the kind of emotion you feel when looking at old photographs, along with a vague sense of anguish.
He raised his eyes and saw himself in the mirror. That day he felt his spirits so akin to the way he used to feel as a child on those beautiful mornings that his reflection caused him painful surprise. It was a face in its thirties, so weary, so lacklustre, with its muddy complexion and that slight bitter grimace at the corner of his mouth, blue eyes that seemed to have faded, dark eyelids that had lost their silky lashes … The face of a young man, true, but already altered, sculpted by the hand of time that gently, pitilessly, etched a delicate maze of lines in the fresh smooth surface of his youthful skin, the first mocking sign of the wrinkles to come. Yves passed a hand over his forehead where his hair was already thinning at the temples; then in an unconscious gesture, he rubbed the place where his hair had grown back coarser, the scar from his last wound – a shell that had exploded and almost killed him in Belgium, near that grim section of charred wall standing among dead trees …
But the waiter who came to remove the breakfast tray tore him away from thoughts that were insidiously depressing him, like the effect on certain summer days when a sky that looks too blue grows imperceptibly darker until it takes on the grey-black colour of a storm. Yves slipped on his espadrilles and swimming trunks, threw a bathrobe over his shoulder and went down to the beach.
YVES LAY DOWN in the warm sand that crunched between his bare feet, closed his eyes, stretched out and remained perfectly still, relishing the feel of the burning sun on every inch of his body, on his face that he turned up towards the intense light of the August sky, white with heat, a singular sensation of silent, perfect, almost primeval joy.
All around him men and women, young and beautiful for the most part, scantily clad and unbelievably suntanned, moved lithely past. Others lay about in groups, drying their wet bodies in the sun, as he was; there were teenagers, stripped to the waist, playing with beach balls at the water’s edge; they ran along the bright sand, like shadow puppets. Tired from having stayed in the water too long, Yves closed his eyes; the brutal midday light pierced his closed eyelids, plunging him into burning darkness where enormous suns floated past, opaque and fiery. The air was filled with the resounding noise of the waves as they beat against the sand with a sound of powerful wings. A child’s shrill laughter interrupted Yves’s reverie; frantic little feet ran right up to him and he was hit by a handful of sand.
He sat up and heard a woman’s voice: ‘Francette, for goodness sake,’ she cried, outraged, ‘Francette, will you please behave yourself and come over here right this minute!’
Yves, now completely awake, sat up cross-legged and opened his eyes wide; he saw the pretty silhouette of a shapely woman in a black swimsuit who was being pulled away by a very little girl. The child couldn’t have been more than two or three years old; she was a sturdy, funny little thing with a mass of blonde hair that the sun had bleached to the colour of straw and a small round body that was almost as dark as an African’s.
Yves saw them walk off towards the sea. He watched them for a long time, with a vague sense of pleasure due equally to the child as to her pretty mother. He hadn’t seen the woman’s face, but her body had the shape of a ravishing little statue. He couldn’t help but smile as he thought of the many circumstances that would have had to coincide in Paris to allow him such a vision, one that seemed so natural here at the seaside. Seeing her there, all suntanned and rosy, with the curves and lines of her body that he could make out under her swimsuit, made him feel as if this woman belonged to him somehow, unbeknownst to her, because to him she was as naked as if she were standing in front of her lover. That was perhaps why he felt a very slight, very fleeting sense of anguish as soon as he lost sight of her among the crowd of bathers: it was one of those strange moments of regret: when set against intense despair, though, it is no more than a pinprick compared to a knife wound.
He stretched out on his side with a sudden vague sense of uneasiness; he began to play absent-mindedly with a handful of golden sand, which he let flow through his fingers like a strand of fine hair, silky and irritating. Then he looked out at the sea once more in the hope of seeing the woman, as yet only half-glimpsed, coming out of the water. Female shapes, deeply tanned and rosy, passed in front of him; he was getting more and more agitated, and still he couldn’t find the woman he had seen earlier. Finally he spotted her, thanks to the child who caught his attention because she was crying and stamping her feet: the poor little girl had swallowed some bitter, salty water which had surely caused her noisy protest. Her mother laughed a little, called her a ‘silly little thing’ and then consoled her; suddenly she reached down, picked her up, sat her on her shoulders and started to run. Yves could clearly see the outline of her breasts, firm and very shapely; her waist was supple and strong, the kind of figure belonging to young women who had never worn a corset, women who walked a lot and have always danced; she looked both energetic and delicate, and vaguely reminded him of the figure of a Greek woman running, without bending her body, beneath the weight of a large clay jug held high on her shoulder. This was how she carried her beautiful child, and she was both very natural and very beautiful against this natural and beautiful background. Yves pushed himself up on to his elbows with an odd sense of anxiety: he wanted to get a better look at her when she passed him; he wanted to see every detail of her face and finally, he did: it was suntanned and almost as bronzed as her lit
A few seconds later he climbed back up the garden of the hotel; the fresh air and sun made him feel rather dizzy and gave him a slight, but persistent, annoying headache. He walked slowly and half closed his eyes but couldn’t manage to blot out the awful light that seemed to filter through his eyelids, making it difficult to see: he was used to the pale colours of the Paris sky. He went into the foyer and there, the first thing he saw was the little girl who had thrown sand at him; she was bouncing up and down, laughing loudly, on the knee of a man dressed all in white. Yves looked at him and thought he recognised him; he asked the bellboy who operated the lift if he knew the man’s name.
‘Monsieur Jessaint,’ the boy replied.
‘I do know him,’ Yves thought.
He didn’t doubt for a moment that the man was the husband of the beautiful creature he had seen on the beach; but instead of being pleased at this bit of fortuitous luck that would allow him to meet her in a quick, simple and convenient way, he grumbled with all the illogical reasoning that comes so naturally to men: ‘Damn! More people from back there … Can’t I even have a few peaceful weeks to myself?’
YVES HARTELOUP WAS born in 1890, at the height of the ‘fin de siècle’, that divine, decadent era when there were still men in Paris who had absolutely nothing to do, when people were doggedly perverse and proud of their depravity, a time when, for most people, life flowed by like a narrow and calm little stream whose end could be envisaged from its beginnings, a smooth and even course whose length could more or less be predicted.
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