A Slight Misunderstanding

slight misunderstandingProsper Mérimée’s novella, A Slight Misunderstanding, paints a subtle, detailed picture of 19th-century French salon life. For such a slim volume (it clocks in at just over a hundred pages) it is surprisingly engaging, incisive, and dramatic. By the end of it, I felt I’d read something like a condensed version of Madame Bovary, but without losing any of the insight or the emotion Flaubert brings to his work.

Julie de Chaverny is a young wife who despises her vulgar, philandering husband. Their marriage, so loving and delightful to the outside world, is a sham. There is a painful scene — impossibly deftly written — in which Chaverny tries to make love to his wife, who is looking particularly attractive: he dreads trying and has forgotten how; she dreads his advances but feels she has no legitimate reason to refuse her husband. An interruption by a servant is a relief to them both.

A rival for Julie’s attention, though not for her affections or her bed, is the dashing young Major de Chateaufort. He is flattering and attentive, and has convinced himself that despite Julie’s excellent reputation, he can seduce her in time. They move in the same circles, after all, and he is a far more attractive prospect than Chaverny.

Into this slow dance comes an old friend of Julie’s, someone she hasn’t seen for seven years: M. Darcy, who has just returned from Turkey. Julie and Darcy were once close friends, making mischief together, promising to be cruel to all the world but never to each other. But Darcy was penniless, and went to make his fortune as an ambassador in the East, and Julie married someone else. Darcy’s return, with breathtaking tales of chivalry and derring-do (his story of rescuing a Turkish woman from being thrown over a cliff is a story-within-a-story worth the price of admission), stirs Julie’s heart, reawakens her passions, and leads her onto a dangerous and ultimately tragic path. 

I received this book as a review copy from Oneworld Classics. I’d been wanting to read something by Mérimée ever since Michael Dirda recommended him, and despite the fact that I usually like to read French books in French, I took this opportunity. You know that feeling when you’re shocked you’ve never read an author before, but happy you’ve read him or her now? That’s how I’m feeling. In other hands, this work could easily have been five hundred pages long. This wee slip of a thing is still teeming with life, humor, incisive wit, minutely observed social satire, tenderness, and drama. Put it on your list. It’s only a hundred pages; you know you want to.

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10 Responses to A Slight Misunderstanding

  1. Eva says:

    So sad my library doesn’t have this one! But it’s definitely going on my ‘when I have money and can buy books’ TBR list. :)

    I often get that feeling about an author! I felt that way about Trollope when I first read him (The Eustance Diamonds) a couple years ago. Last year, it was Peter Beagle. This year, I can think of Sarah Waters and Elizabeth Gaskell off the top of my head! And then I’m torn between wanting to immediately read everything they’ve ever read and space out their books as much as possible so I know I have wonderful things waiting for me. :)

    Reading is such a beautiful thing.

  2. Teresa says:

    I’ve also been wanting to read Merimee since seeing Dirda’s recommendation. I was going to start with Carmen and Other Stories because that’s what my library has, but this sounds good too.

  3. I wrote a post a while back wondering why Mérimée is not read more. Colomba and Carmen are particularly good.

    But I have not read A Slight MIsunderstanding. Now I will look for it.

  4. rebeccareid says:

    i also can’t find it at my library, and book mooch only has it in French! so sad. Sounds very good!

  5. rebeccareid says:

    is there an isbn on your review copy? It looks like maybe it’s a completely new thing because its’ not even findable on amazon!!

  6. Steph says:

    This sounds really lovely, and I do tend to prefer short books over long. If I had my ken, I’d prefer to read French books in the original language too, but my French is pretty rusty – not enough to earnestly hinder comprehension, but enough so that I’d read REALLY slowly! I’m glad you felt this translation was strong.

  7. litlove says:

    I am in exactly the same position as you were – I have never read Merimee! And now I feel I really must. I think I even possess something by him, although not this one. I will look him out on the shelves tomorrow!

  8. Kristen M. says:

    I will definitely put this on my list. I agree with Eva that it’s always a toss up whether to just dive in to a new author and consume everything they wrote or space it out and enjoy it for longer. :)

  9. Jenny says:

    Eva — I agree with every word you said. I had this experience over the past couple of years with Laurie Colwin, who died young and is sadly therefore no longer producing novels. I spaced out her books as long as I decently could!

    Teresa — I was going to try to find the one Dirda recommends, but this one fell in my lap and was excellent.

    Amateur Reader — thanks for the recommendations. I’ll probably start with Carmen next!

    Rebecca — I think this edition from Oneworld Classics is quite new. ISBN 9781847490766 if that helps!

    Steph — I did actually think the translation was good, by Douglas Parmee, who has done dozens of good translations. I only caught one blazing problem (of course, without the original in front of me.) But it read beautifully.

    Litlove — let me know what you find!

    Kristen — sometimes I do one and sometimes the other. I think I’ve now read four out of six by Kate Atkinson in four months!

  10. rebeccareid says:

    Yes it does help: isn’t available until November 2009. So that’s why I couldn’t find it! I’ll add it to a “later” wishlist. Thanks.

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