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A *** Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

October 24, 2011 32 comments

La double méprise by Prosper Mérimée. 1833.  English title: A Slight Misunderstanding.

 I hate cleaning and tidying and one week-end, I had a lot of tidying to do. So I decided to find solace in an audio version of a French classic while working. My mind was set on Maupassant when I remembered about Mérimée. After reading Guy’s excellent review on A Slight Misunderstanding, I was very much intrigued by the change in the title between the original French (La double méprise, i.e. The double misunderstanding) and the English one. Lucky me, a free audio version was available.

Julie Chaverny has been married for six years now. Charverny and she are an ill-matched couple as Chaverny, a former soldier, doesn’t behave according to Julie’s expectations. They have nothing in common and the few social capacities he has have been employed during his courtship. Naïve as Julie was, she didn’t see her tedious future with him coming. They now try to live in harmony but mostly Julie tries to keep in a tight closet of her mind that she hates and despises him. The opening paragraph of the book says everything:

Julie de Chaverny était mariée depuis six ans environ, et depuis à peu près cinq ans et six mois elle avait reconnu non seulement l’impossibilité d’aimer son mari, mais encore la difficulté d’avoir pour lui quelque estime. Ce mari n’était point un malhonnête homme ; ce n’était pas une bête ni un sot. Peut-être cependant y avait-il bien en lui quelque chose de tout cela. En consultant ses souvenirs, elle aurait pu se rappeler qu’elle l’avait trouvé aimable autrefois ; mais maintenant il l’ennuyait. Elle trouvait tout en lui repoussant. Sa manière de manger, de prendre du café, de parler, lui donnait des crispations nerveuses. Ils ne se voyaient et ne se parlaient guère qu’à table ; mais ils dînaient ensemble plusieurs fois par semaine, et c’en était assez pour entretenir l’aversion de Julie. Julie de Chaverny had now known for approximately the last five years and months that it was not only impossible to love her husband but difficult even to feel any respect for him. Not that her husband was offensive, nor was he either foolish or stupid. And yet perhaps he was something of all three. Looking back, she might have recalled having once liked him; now, he bored her. She found everything about him repellent: the way he ate, the way he drank his coffee, the way he spoke, set her nerves on edge. They hardly ever saw or spoke to each other except at the table; but as they dined together a number of times a week, this was quite enough to keep her aversion alive.

I can imagine her gritting her teeth when he opens the mouth, be it to speak, eat, drink or smoke. The tension is such between them that they both dread to spend a twenty minutes ride in the same carriage, and indeed, everything is awkward between them. Julie is pretty and has admirers but prudence and pride have kept her away from affairs. So far. At the beginning of the book, Châteaufort, a soldier and friend of Chaverny’s is attracted by Julie and tries his best to catch her attention without any success.

Then Chaverny makes two wrong moves in society, embarrassing his wife with his lack of propriety, even insulting her inadvertently. And that feeling that was thoroughly closeted comes in the open with a musty smell. It cannot be disregarded now and Julie feels she could use a bit of romance. So, just as Châteaufort can now attack the castle of Julie’s virtue with a chance of succeeding, Darcy comes in the picture. He was Julie’s close friend before her marriage and he’s back from Constantinople where he was working as a diplomat. Were they in love back then, can they be in love by now? You’ll need to read the novella to discover how the relationships will evolve.

It’s a Romantic tale with a touch of French spirit. Romantic because I couldn’t help seeing a Byronic figure in Darcy (An Austenian name, not French at all for me, but I may be wrong) who was stationed in Constantinople and had been to Greece  and was bored by military life – the exact opposite of Chaverny – and was sitting on his own with his sketch book instead of drinking and partying with the others.  In that, he’s a man of the present for Julie. It was written in 1833, Romanticism was fashionable and in opposition, Chaverny is a man of the past, of Napoleon’s glory. The French touch is clearly in the language. No yearning, “o!”, “ah!” and pleading like in pure Romantic texts but witty observations with an economy of words. It’s also in part of the tale – the ravishing of the young Turkish woman is a recurring pattern in French literature – and particularly in the chess game of hearts and feelings. I think of Marivaux and Musset here.

I wonder if Flaubert had read that novella. I think that Julie and Emma Bovary have things in common. They have both married the wrong man but not a bad man. This is not The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Wuthering Heights. They have married a man who doesn’t like fancy parties and sounds boring, unpolished but genuinely good. They don’t sing their song of life in the same key, that’s all and as a consequence their marriage is an awful cacophony. Poor Chaverny and poor Charles Bovary look ridiculous but aren’t the bad husbands you think they are during the novel. The opposition between the two scenes in a carriage – the one with Chaverny, the one with Darcy— are masterly crafted. (By the way, the scene with Darcy reminded me of the pivoting one with Emma and Mr Elton in Emma by Jane Austen.)

Surprisingly, the second reference that came to my mind is a contemporary film by Agnès Jaoui, Le Goût des Autres. It shows very well how we are sometimes tempted to despise people who don’t have the right manners or the “right” culture, the one defined by the highbrow elites as the valuable one. Ridicule doesn’t always lie where expected. That’s for Chaverny and Julie’s relationship. Or maybe it actually sounds contemporary, if you look at the excellent English cover of the book.

Sometimes my curiosity leads me to terrible books but this time, what a blessing! I loved that novella. It’s a gem from the first page to the last, Mérimée manages an exquisite balance of irony, drama and social observation. His style is better than Balzac’s in his early books, there is no superfluous word; he finds the right images of everyday life to depict the undercurrent feelings. A must read, really.

Beware, spoilers in the following paragraphs.

I will indulge myself with a few paragraphs including spoilers as Max and Guy have read it too (reviews here and here) and I hope they’ll read this as I’d like want to discuss this novella with them – and any other reader who would have read it too.

So now, is it a slight or a double misunderstanding? It depends on how much drama you put in it. It’s a chain of misunderstandings. Between Chaverny and Julie. Between Châteaufort and Julie. Between Darcy and Julie. He pictures very well the way we have to make up our mind on someone’s character and then see everything he/she does through that filter. It’s particularly true in the scene in Julie’s room. Chaverny has a new interest in his wife; he has just accidentally realized he was married to a pretty woman. Her mind is so set against him that she doesn’t recognize his attempts at tenderness as such. They don’t understand each other. He finds her fussy, she thinks he’s vulgar.

There’s an irony à la Thomas Hardy in the way Julie and Darcy keep missing each other. After all, they probably has well-matched characters but they assumed the other’s character and never tried him/her. He thought she wouldn’t marry him without fortune, but who knows what she was capable of? She thought he was incapable of strong feelings and refused to consider his feelings might have been genuine.

Like I said, it’s a perfect balance between irony and Romanticism and with “slight”, you choose irony and with “double”, you choose Romanticism.

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