How relationships create pain
The Misunderstanding / By Irène Némirovsky / Chatto & Windus, £12.99
Némirovsky: gracefully mature
The Misunderstanding is a meditation on the nature of unhappiness. Denise is in love with Yves who hates himself. As Denise becomes infected with a sense of self-destruction following Yves’s fall from financial grace, her urbane mother advises her to take a second suitor. She picks her raffish young cousin Jaja, who plays the ardent lover to her coy beloved.
And of course there is Denise’s husband, Jessaint… think Bonjour Tristesse and Françoise Sagan. A cool half-century before that teenager composed her roaring best-seller came this, written when Némirovsky was only 21. Her understanding of adults’ often wilful capacity for mutual misunderstanding and self-inflicted misery is as strong as her ability to construct a meticulously poised narrative.
Dialogue and monologue, alternating with the most perceptive of narrative voices, and descriptions of Paris in the wake of the First World War, where many who somehow saved their lives lost their fortunes and the old world of the demi-monde collided with new foreign influences (and, in the bars from Montmartre to Montparnasse the Can-Can was replaced by the Charleston) are all vividly rendered.
The more surprising, then, that the author was a Russian Jew born in 1903, who survived the Revolution to become Parisian at the age of 15. She had an eye as sharp as a needle, describing a world in looming crisis. How deep a crisis was to become plain when she was seized from her rural retreat with her husband and daughters, and taken to Auschwitz where she perished in 1942.
The one Jew in The Misunderstanding, the accountant Moses, is a minor figure. All we learn of him is that Yves, who shared his office, “envied him” (his wealth and sagacity) and pondered on being told by him: “What you’re lacking is a drop, a very tiny drop of our blood…”
But then Némirovsky was a child of her class and time as well as her heritage and keen to be toute parisienne. Rather touchingly, Denise’s daughter is named “Francette” as if she were her/Némirovsky’s look to the future, a “little France” of growing beauty and stability.
France was to prove no safer than Russia but, from the ashes, Némirovsky was able to achieve, at such a young age, an achingly powerful and gracefully mature work — a triumph of talent over adversity. And today, in Sandra Smith, Némirovsky has a worthy translator; every word is weighed as judiciously as in the beautifully crafted original.
Amanda Hopkinson is a translator, lecturer and reviewer