I don't often post about a book on a Sunday having decided long ago that weekend posts are for playtime, and book thoughts are for weekdays. But now that I am no longer working, and since my weeks are no longer defined by that divide, and given that I hardly seem to know which day of the week it is anyway, and as many people visit here on a Sunday as do on a Monday...well, who needs rules and routine.
Besides which today is an On This Day... event which I have really been looking forward to, so Happy Birthday to Irene Nemirovksy.
Despite all this lovely time I have I still rarely read a book in a single day, but at 160 pages there is always the possibility, and when that book is The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky I defy anyone to put it down unfinished and sleep.
I find I still need to psyche myself up to read anything by Irene but I am pleased to have written about several of her books all tagged here including Jezebel, Le Bal, Suite Francaise,and The Courilof Affair,
I keep all books by and about her on a shelf of their own, The Irène Shelf sits near the Edith Shelf (Wharton) not far from the Margaret Shelf (Atwood) and in close proximity to the Joseph (Roth) and Max (Sebald) shelves. I frequently pick up a book I haven't read, think I will read it and then find myself overcome by an inexpressible wave of sadness and put it back for another day. So much sorrowful baggage to contemplate when I consider the circumstances of her life and death in a concentration camp, and her children carrying that 'baggage' to safety in the shape of that beautiful portmanteau with their mother's writing inside...and surely no case can have been a more awkward shape for a child to hold.
Needless to say I haven't been able to read the biograpy either, but dipping into it I discover that one of the last books that Irène was reading before she was 'taken' was Katherine Mansfield's Journal, and the biographer's quote this extract...who knows, perhaps Irène did read this...
'Just when one thinks: "Now I've touched the bottom of the sea - now I can't go down any lower", one sinks deeper still. And so on for ever.'
Anyway I decided to woman up and picked up The Misunderstanding, the most recent of Sandra Smith's English translations of Irène Némirovsky's novels to come into print. La Malentendu the first of Irene's novels, written in 1924 and published in 1926.
That alone was enough to make me think.
Born in 1903 Irène would have been twenty-one. George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Bing Crosby (bet they don't often make it into the same sentence) would have been twenty-one too. I looked it up in order to try and get some context, to know of Irène's contemporaries, people who may have been alive in my lifetime.
Then I wondered quite how a reasonably privileged twenty-one year old, living in France having fled the Russian revolution of 1918, might convey a perspective of the Great War. Would she even have a view on a world that has been torn apart and is discovering a new social and emotional order, a new license to love with gaping chasms between rich and poor, those fatally damaged by the war and those who seem to have remained untouched by it.
Then another obstacle loomed.
There is something about reading, in hindsight, the words of a naive, joyful twenty-one year old, revelling in her burgeoning talent as a wordsmith, full of anticipation for the the future as she explores what words and fiction can accomplish, and on the brink of what was surely to be a brillaint writing career.
We know what happens and it makes me feel indescribably sad.
Gosh I really do put myself through the wringer with Irène, but, having talked myself round, the moment I started to read The Misunderstanding I was spellbound and somehow all those factors that I had thought would be obstacles suddenly became catalysts.
Yves Harteloup, a veteran of the trenches, is making a living for himself in Paris after the war. He is from good stock but like many his family fortune has been lost during the conflict and he must accept a lower station in life. Office work and impecunious living do not come naturally for Yves who consistently lives beyond his means; somehow the nice things in life are still a fundamental requirement for his survival. If Yves thinks day to day life on his own is expensive then things are about to take a turn for the wallet-emptying when he meets Denise.
The fortunes of war are vastly different for Family Jaissant. Jacques' engineering invention has made him a wealthy man and with his wife Denise and their child Francette, life really couldn't be better....until they meet Yves on the beach that is.
Instantly smitten with each other Denise and Yves embark on a holiday affair which they propose to keep going on their return to Paris, and they do, though Yves' day job and lack of wealth are a major hindrance, but for the war they would have shared that common ground of leisured wealth.
Slowly and insidiously an imbalance creeps in, and with too much time on her hands Denise becomes increasingly obsessive and gradually Yves realises he has taken on one very emotionally high-maintenance lover. Lust and forbidden desire may now be acceptable and de rigueur in this post war climate but it turns to a muddled mix of 'pity, tenderness and scorn' for Yves, a burden of entrapment for both, and it is Denise's very helpful mother who suggests a course of action for her that...well you just know it's going to end in tears.
But the brilliance of Irène Némirovsky's writing glistens on every single page (and gratitude must be owed to translator Sandra Smith for this too) and to read this book alone is to be assured of Irène's future as a successful author. A powerful sense of place acts like background scenery for the ebbs and flows of the love affair... hot, sensuous and languid on the beach (which always but always reminds of Grand Isle and Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's The Awakening). Then steamy and claustrophobically airless back in Paris as Denise's neediness starts to suffocate Yves, becoming scorched, stormy and oppressive, with the leaves 'curling up and cracking' as Denise's plan goes hopelessly awry.
Oddly my sympathies rested firmly and entirely with Yves rather than Denise and I am not sure they should have done given the circumstances and the pitiful suffering she endured...
'Her entire life now consisted of waiting. Waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for his visit, waiting for their rendezvous ... Ah! Love meant such horrible suffering.'
... but a little voice in me, which got steadily stronger, was urging Yves to jump ship at the earliest opportunity. I may need to read it again, and with more of a sympathetic understanding towards the plight of women, but it is not something Irène insists upon.
Nothing disappointed about The Misunderstanding, even down to the title which, as Sandra Smith points out, is open to multiple interpretations. What a blessing it is indeed to have Irène Némirovsky's legacy alive and well on the bookshelves.
Keep an eye out for this one, I have yet to read a book by Irène Némirovsky that hasn't repaid every single second I have spent reading it.
There must be legions of Irène Némirovsky fans out there...please do declare yourselves now and your favourite of her books.
And if you haven't read any don't be daunted, declare yourselves too, and perhaps we can offer you some ideas about which of Irène's books to read first. Given my early failure with Suite Francaise that might not be my first suggestion.
(and please note, no time or expense spared in getting this è and this é in place, it doesn't come naturally to Typepad.)