Blood and poison

misunderstandingIrene Nemirovsky is not someone whose works I see being reviewed much in the blogosphere–at least not in the very small corner of it that I inhabit–and I can’t understand why. For a perfect combination of stylistic elegance and psychological acuity distilled down to their essences (no door-stoppers here) I can’t think of her equal. (But then I haven’t yet read Chekhov; I know, I know, this is an appalling gap in my reading. You’re probably finding it difficult to take me seriously right now.) She belongs with the Russian masters like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pushkin; she is their proper heir, though she wrote in France in the twentieth century, and her concerns didn’t approach the spiritual even tangentially. She was a genius of observing humanity in its own muck and writing beautifully about it.

I keep thinking I’m about to run out of Nemirovsky novels but then I keep finding new ones (maximum respect to translator Sandra Smith). She perished in Auschwitz when she was only 39 years old, yet she left behind at least 15 novels–some published in her lifetime and some not. I think she must have sprung fully formed from the literary godhead, for she wrote her first novel, The Misunderstanding, when she was only 21–and it’s amazing.

I finished The Misunderstanding last week, and have been savouring my memories of it ever since. Nemirovsky possessed the very rare gift of being able to acutely and minutely observe humanity’s failings in progress rather than needing to gain the perspective of time; indeed, the greatest feat of Suite Francaise is its attention to the details of the Nazi invasion of France as it was happening.

The Misunderstanding looks at the inner workings of a doomed love affair begun one charmed summer between world wars. Yves is a young-ish man, born into a very rich family with a promise of a life of ease and social butterflying ahead of him. The first World War erases everything, however, and he returns somewhat shell-shocked and entirely obliged to get a job (something completely outside his mental, emotional, or physical training) in order simply not to starve to death; his family’s fortune is completely decimated by the upheavals in Europe. He experiences very little pleasure in his new life; he simply cannot adjust. To maintain his sanity and find the energy to keep at the shabby day-t0-day life of a salaried worker, he carefully saves his money so that he can spend summer vacations in the same seaside town where he spent his charmed youth. Nemirovsky so perfectly describes the sweet nostalgia of summer simultaneously experienced in the present and remembered from an idealized past it takes my breath away:

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. (p. 2)

The experience of laying on the beach is particularly vivid for Yves (and me–I’m no sun-worshipper now, but I spent every June and July, from the ages of 5 to 9, at the little beach by my house), and he is able to recapture it as an adult:

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. (p. 6)

God, it’s just so gorgeous. Yves is relishing his solitary return to the paradise of his youth at Hendaye when he meets Denise, a young woman vacationing there with her husband and young daughter. Yves has never been in love, but neither has he been able to develop into the truly passionate and committed womanizer his father was. If it’s too much to say that his encounters with women have been short, brutish, and nasty, it’s also not far off either; they’ve been devoid of any real or lasting pleasure, they have left no mark on him. Everything changes with Denise, and his passion for her is one that, like his joy in summer, has roots in something almost primeval:

She tried to look at his face but it was far too dark. Yet she could tell he had been crying from his voice, from the sobs he was barely holding back…Instinctively, her soft, maternal hands reached out towards him, hands that could console, could bring such peace. He stood before her, trembling, and lowered his head. He was crying softly, without shame; he felt as if all the blood and poison from a very old wound were flowing away with those tears. He savoured the taste of salt and water on his lips with a unique feeling of sensuality, a taste he’d forgotten long ago. (p. 36)

Yves and Denise have been just friends up to this point, but immediately afterwards Denise, “like Eve,” suddenly becomes aware of him as a man. Shortly afterwards, they begin an affair, and unlike Evelyn Waugh’s take on infidelity in A Handful of Dust, their affair is neither incomprehensible nor grossly sordid. Denise and Yves gives each other a way back into their better, younger selves, if only for a time. But once the summer vacation is over and they are compelled to return to their normal lives in Paris, everything begins to unravel.

The ugliness of childlike interaction is that children often selfishly believe that loving someone means not trying to understand the beloved, but assuming they will automatically be understood by the beloved. Misunderstandings and mishaps pile on top of their fragile connection to one another as the result of Denise’s inability to understand what it means to have to watch one’s money, Yves’s need for quiet maternalism and nothing else, Denise’s need for constant assurance, his terrible fatigue, her awful boredom. The world–both the adult world and the selfish underbelly of extreme youthfulness–is too much for them and their affair, inevitably, disintegrates.

Their increasing distance and misery is no less affecting for its inevitability. Yes, The Misunderstanding is a novel about a summer romance; but it’s so much more than this–it’s also a novel about “the petty tyranny of existence.” It’s about the harsh realities of life in a Europe still on its knees from the last war and moving inexorably towards the next, and how this undermines individuals’ ability to be good to one another. Then, there is the dirt and exhaustion of scrabbling to live set against the pain of maintaining one’s image of oneself at all costs, as well as the pain of being unable to see another’s value through the miasma of one’s own overwhelming desires.

And yet, somehow, Nemirovsky’s unflinching portrait of her characters isn’t harsh or ungenerous. She makes human imperfection shine in its own malformed beauty. The world, I think, has been much less than it could have been for losing her so early in her career.

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3 thoughts on “Blood and poison

  1. Thankful that she was a prolific writer in her short life, I love her work and find it interesting in comparison to Edith Wharton, I read Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Summer and Nemirovsky’s Fire in the Blood around the same time and enjoyed how the two writer’s had their characters respond to a similar circumstances. Interesting cultural implications.

    • It’s been far too long since I read anything by Wharton…I’m going to try to pick up The Custom of the Country this summer–thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  2. Pingback: We wish to see your face: Irene Nemirovsky’s Jezebel | Jam and Idleness

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