Less ambitious in scope than her later work, The Misunderstanding, which was Némirovsky’s first novel, is still excellent. On the face of it the story seems rather mundane: an ill-fated affair between a bored, rich Parisian wife and a young war veteran fallen on hard times. But Némirovsky’s perceptive observations and precocious understanding of social developments make it anything but inconsequential.
Yves and Denise meet on holiday in a small, exclusive resort in South-West France. It’s the early 1920’s and the First World War is not long over. Denise’s husband, who served with Yves in the war, is called away on business and the two become close while he is away.
In typical holiday romance style, the couple’s differences don’t seem so large whilst they are away, but once summer is over and they return to real life their incompatibilities become more marked. Denise, a young woman who has never known hardship, is emotionally unfulfilled by her ‘proper, dutiful French marriage of convenience’, and is ready to pour all her passion into the relationship. Yves, whose inheritance was lost during the war, has been forced to take a desk job to make ends meet, a job which consumes his energy and doesn’t allow him to afford luxuries.
‘he simply couldn’t understand how his job, that for his subordinate would have been a dream come true – a desk near the window that came with a salary of two thousand five hundred francs a month – was for him a mixture of boarding school and prison.’
After Yves and Denise return to Paris their relationship gradually breaks down amid a catalogue of misunderstandings caused by pride and failure to communicate.
‘Sometimes, when the clock chimed seven, she would cling to him so tightly, pale and trembling, as if she were drowning…Yet even those moments of sharp, intense pain were rare. Most of the time their affair – like the affairs of three-quarters of the illicit couples in Paris – was limited to brief encounters between six and seven o’clock in the evening, when Yves got off work, filled with meaningless conversation, a few frustrated embraces…’
Némirovsky’s portrayal of the lovers shows amazing insight into the psychology of an affair, and her portrayal of French post-war society shows similar perceptiveness, all the more astonishing given her young age (she was 21 when she wrote The Misunderstanding). Both sides of the story are confidently explored: rich and poor, man and woman, cheater and cheated. It’s also more polished than Suite Française, which remained unfinished when Némirovsky was deported by the Nazis. The Misunderstanding is at times maybe a little enthusiastic in its use of metaphor, but as the cover notes, ‘Némirovsky’s first novel shows sure signs of the brilliant novelist she was to become’.
Any Cop?: Considering this is a debut, it is exceptional. It might be less momentous than Nemirovsky’s later work, but it is also more approachable, less demanding, and yet still full of her usual wit and insight.