Home > 19th Century, Classics, French Literature, Mérimée Prosper > A *** Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

A *** Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

October 24, 2011 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. October 24, 2011 at 10:36 am | #1

    I hate cleaning too and I envy you that you can listen to a book while doing it. I can’t which means my apartment is probably messier than yours.
    I already thought it sounds like a very good novella after having read Guy’s review and think even more so now. But not typical Mérimée somehow or am I wrong.
    I have the Tenant of Wildfell Hall high up on my TBR pilet. Admittedly I’m more fascinated by that type of mismatch than by the one in Mérimée but it souns well written.

    • October 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm | #2

      Yes, cleaning and tidying are tedious.
      It’s worth reading, really. I thought it was engrossing and really well-written.
      I loved and reviewed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall but it was one of my first reviews and I hope my English has improved since…

  2. October 24, 2011 at 4:08 pm | #3

    SPOILER:

    I took the Double Misunderstanding to be between Julie (she misunderstand’s Darcy’s intentions) and Darcy (he’s looking for a conquest). Of course the author originally intended the one misunderstanding so that occurs, I’d say, between Darcy and Julie.
    I thought Chaverny was a bore, everything you said, but I didn’t consider him a ‘good’ man. He’s probably no better or no worse than most husbands of the time. His marriage is a contract more than anything and he doesn’t seem to find Julie’s lack of interest or coldness a subject to comment on. There’s the time he slips about his mistress, and that raises the issue of infidelity. Unfortunately for Julie, she only has sex with Darcy because she imagines this is love, and she then finds out the hard way that it’s not.

    I saw The Taste of Others. Loved it.

    • October 24, 2011 at 4:21 pm | #4

      SPOILERS TOO.
      That’s good way to see the double misunderstanding. But Darcy also misunderstands Julie as he thinks they’re on the same page and that she’s used to having affairs. That’s his conclusion when he sees Châteaufort around her at the party and when they accidentally meet at her house the day after. (what a name, Châteaufort, btw) She also misunderstands herself as she imagines herself in love more than she is actually in love.

      I imagined Chaverny married to a woman less refined, who would find nothing bad in his manners. They’d probably be happy. After all, he doesn’t beat his wife, backs off when she doesn’t want to have sex, isn’t particularly bossy and lets her spend money as she pleases. Someone with less social expectations would have liked him. That’s what I meant by “good” as opposed to a Brontë character.

      I loved The Taste of Others too. It stayed with me.

  3. October 24, 2011 at 8:21 pm | #5

    I probably didn’t phrase it properly as I think we mean the same thing. Julie thinks that Darcy has nursed this mad passion for her all these years and he is looking for a conquest before he leaves. Both of them approach the rather tasteless encounter with different ideas about what is all means.

    Have you seen Let it Rain and Look at Me?

    Chaverny needs one of those women he can shuttle off to the country estate.

    • October 25, 2011 at 9:11 am | #6

      Julie starts thinking of happier days when she eventually admits to herself she can’t stand her husband and imagines Darcy nursed this “mad passion” as you accurately say. I don’t think he was looking for a conquest. I see him more as Mr Opportunity and given their common past at making fun of other people, he sees her more cynical than she really is.

      I haven’t seen Let it Rain and Look at Me: they were released during my “no-life” period and I’m not good at catching up films on DVDs. But I should watch them, thanks for reminding me.

      • October 25, 2011 at 6:37 pm | #7

        Can’t help but wonder if he’ll brag about Julie when he returns back to his post. He’s a little too smug about the mystery Turkish woman

        • October 25, 2011 at 9:56 pm | #8

          I didn’t imagine him like that.
          The ravishing by Turkish sounds familiar in French literature though I can’t come with an other example than Molière.

  4. October 24, 2011 at 10:24 pm | #9

    That quote about repulsion sets my teeth on edge just reading it. Excellently observed!

    This sounds very interesting. I like the comparison you make between Chaverny and M. Bovary. The first time I read Madame Bovary I had no sympathy for poor Charles, (or for Emma, for that matter) but reading again at a much later date Charles becomes more interesting and more sympathetic.

    • October 25, 2011 at 8:58 am | #10

      We can picture them really well, can’t we? We all know people (hopefully not spouses!) that get on our nerves and then everything they do is irritating.
      I think you’d enjoy this one.

  5. October 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm | #11

    That opening paragraph is marvellous isn’t it? You have though I think a very real point about Chaverny. He’s not a bad man, he’s just not a good choice of husband. They’re a couple who no longer make sense, perhaps never did. That’s tragic but it doesn’t make him a villian (or her of course).

    I think the English title is very good. A Double Misunderstanding is a very literal title. Flat. A Slight Misunderstanding is full of ironic understatement, which somehow fits the book better. It’s less faithful to the original title, but truer perhaps to the book itself (particularly in translation).

    It is extraordinary how well French literature captures the bad marriage. Hollywood often has a dashing leading man woo a woman away from a dull but dependable rival, but tends to make the dull man ultimately unpleasant too so the audience don’t have to think about the morality of the situation. French literature seems more comfortable with the problematic morality. Sometimes a situation is just plain ugly, there needn’t be a neat way out that only hurts bad people.

    Anyway, a lovely review and I’m glad you enjoyed it. And I still love that cover.

    • October 26, 2011 at 3:45 pm | #12

      Yes, the opening paragraph is marvellous.

      I agree with you on the title for the irony. Given that the text is full of irony I wonder why Mérimée chose that title, unless the “double” misunderstanding is the one from the past and the one from the present and not just the crossed misunderstanding between Julie and Darcy when they meet again.

      Sorry, but where’s the problematic morality in that? In the US more than anywhere it shouldn’t be a problem. Don’t they have the “right to happiness” written in their Constitution? After all, she’s only seeking for happiness.
      OK, they’re married and are supposed to be faithful. When you marry someone you love, you’re faithful to the person, not to the paper you signed. They live in a world where divorce doesn’t exist and they didn’t marry out of love or trust, they picked each other among the persons eligible for their financial means or social connections. When they’re unfaithful, they break a contract, not a relationship. Is there another solution than keep up the apparences and find love outside the house? This is very French you know. Michel Winock pointed it out in La Belle Epoque. In upper classes, people didn’t marry out of love but for the interest of the match. They found love outside their household, especially the men, of course.
      We’re lucky to live in our times although Michel Houellebecq explains this freedom also brought a lot of loneliness.

  6. October 26, 2011 at 3:55 pm | #13

    I think one of the myths Hollywood prefers to indulge is that bad things don’t happen to good people, or if they do they are bad only for a while with good things to follow.

    If a husband or boyfriend is dull but basically a good person then his wife or girlfriend having an affair and leaving him will cause him great upset that on his merits he doesn’t deserve. Of course it’s not about him. It’s just something that happens to him for reasons that aren’t really his fault. Because of the situation.

    In a film we sympathise with the woman (she’s probably the main character or at least supporting main). We sympathise with the dashing interloper (he’s the romantic hero after all). It’s hard to sympathise with them and to sympathise too with the dull boyfriend who’s about to get his heart broken. It’s hard to do that and see the story as ultimately happy.

    Hollywood likes happy. So, the dull rival at one point in the film will raise his hand to the woman, or say something sexist, or in some other way act so as to lose any audience sympathy. That frees the audience to root for the dashing interloper and the woman. Good things happen to good people, and the dull boyfriend having been established as not a good person can now be written out.

    French literature is adult in that it doesn’t need to make the dull boyfriend a bad guy. It recognises that situations may just be unfortunate, and people may get hurt who don’t really deserve it. Hollywood tends to the infantile because it practises the lie that everything happens for a reason. Bad things don’t happen to good people.

    • October 26, 2011 at 4:07 pm | #14

      I see your point and I agree with you on the “bad things happen if you deserve it” myth. That’s rooted in religion I think and that idea that God has his hand in every destiny. If bad things happen to you, God has abandoned you, good things happen, you’re the chosen one. That idea of being chosen isn’t present in Cathlolicism.

      This makes me think of Murakami, in South of the Border, West of the Sun and Yukiko’s beautiful and heartbreaking reaction to Hajime’s infidelity. She knows unfortunate situation happen and she’s not even angry, just heartbroken.

  7. October 26, 2011 at 4:15 pm | #15

    Which makes it all the more heartbreaking for the reader. Murakami really can be very good.

    • October 26, 2011 at 4:19 pm | #16

      Yes, he can be very good and in the end you identify with the three characters because you know that these things happen.
      I’m not tempted by his last one, are you? (plus it’s huge, I’m not inclined to read huge books)

  8. October 26, 2011 at 4:25 pm | #17

    I haven’t looked at it yet to be honest. I think though his short novels tend to be where he’s strongest. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle got a bit dull for me.

    And similarly I’m not inclined to read huge books. Time is ever an issue.

  9. October 26, 2011 at 6:16 pm | #18

    I recently watched La Chamade (an older film based on a Sagan novel). I didn’t expect to like it that much, so I was pleasantly surprised. Deneuve is the young trophy wife married to a much older, wealthy husband when she has an affair with a man her own age (actually looks a bit younger to me). The film was very comfortable with no villians. The husband was kind, generous, but the wife simply fell in love with someone else. The characters were all seen as flawed human beings (especially when it came to their expectattions of each other).

    Hypothetical of course, but I think Hollywoodised this film would shift characters into layers of villiany (as per Max’s post). The husband would be abusive or something that ‘explained’ the wife’s straying.

    Have you seen this film or read the book Emma?

    • October 26, 2011 at 6:32 pm | #19

      I haven’t read the book or seen the film. I’ve read a fair bit of Sagan though. She’s excellent in describing feelings and relationships. She’s a Scott Fitzgerald writer. Seen light and shallow but actually it’s pretty deep.

      Same thing with Belle de Jour. The husband was kind, rich and handsome.

  10. October 26, 2011 at 6:27 pm | #20

    The need to explain is why so much Hollywood film is weak. The irony is I’m not persuaded their audiences always share that need. Unless of course by marketing certain kinds of films you select only certain kinds of audiences (teenagers and twentysomething men mostly I understand).

    The Horseman on the Roof has a similar setup to La Chamade. The Horseman, the woman he escorts and her husband are all basically pretty good people. The husband perhaps the best of them. Situations though are not always kind.

    • October 26, 2011 at 6:34 pm | #21

      It’s also a childish wish we have to come back to fairy tales and simple stories where everything ends well and has a meaning.

  11. October 26, 2011 at 8:24 pm | #22

    Is sounds like a good description of how easy it is to introduce a misunderstanding into a relationship. I can well understand why you found this to be a “gem” – it seems to depict considerable complexity in the various relationships described in it. Was it a little frustrating to feel that perhaps a good conversation could sort out some of the problems?

    • October 26, 2011 at 8:30 pm | #23

      It’s really worth reading.
      Was that frustrating? Very good question.
      Let me think. Strangely not as I have in me that such conversations weren’t suitable and usual at the time. I would have been frustrated in a contemporary novel. However, in real life, people in the early 19thC must have had open hearted conversations too. Humans will always be humans. But literature leads us in another direction.

  12. October 28, 2011 at 4:46 pm | #24

    I came across an intro by Julian Fellowes to Nigel Balchin’s book A Way Through the Wood. Fellowes made the book into the film Separate Lies:

    I enjoy American films enormously but I am sometimes unconvinced by their polemic; the heroes are invariably heroic and one is told who the ‘bad guys’ are right from the start. Life, it seems to me anyway, is a little more complicated than this.

    • October 28, 2011 at 5:04 pm | #25

      I can only agree with this.

      • October 28, 2011 at 7:50 pm | #26

        The quote (which I read a few days ago) seemed to fit perfectly with this discussion

  13. October 30, 2011 at 11:47 am | #27

    I have never read Merimee, but this sounds fascinating. I must get hold of a copy. Funnily enough the best French thing I’ve read recently was a collection of Maupassant short stories. I should read more 19th French lit. I always enjoy it when I do.

    • October 30, 2011 at 1:23 pm | #28

      Strange you’ve never read Mérimée with all the French literature you’ve read. This is worth reading.

  14. acommonreaderuk
    January 18, 2013 at 9:07 pm | #29

    Thank you for recommending this very good book to me. I have just published my review of it.

    • January 20, 2013 at 11:42 pm | #30

      I’m delighted you enjoyed this novella, especially since you didn’t like the Fante that much.

  1. January 1, 2012 at 1:09 am | #1
  2. January 18, 2013 at 9:07 pm | #2

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