Prosper 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.