The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Simone de Beauvoir’s Soviet sojourn
MISUNDERSTANDING IN MOSCOW 128pp, Vintage, T £9.99 (0844 871 1514), RRP £9.99, ebook £4.99
“How irritating all these old refrains on noncommunication were!” It’s a bravely self-referential opening for a work that revolves around that motif.
Misunderstanding in Moscow is Simone de Beauvoir’s latest book to appear in English, written in the 1960s but not published in French until 1992 (six years after her death). A slow-paced but charming novella, it tells of a 60-something French couple, Nicole and André, visiting Russia one summer in the 1960s. They have been to Moscow before, in 1963, when “everything was new; this time, almost nothing was”.
Then as now, they visit Macha, André’s daughter from an earlier marriage. But this time, the couple are struggling with their age, and an inability to talk of their concerns. Nicole has lost her “intimate, almost tender relationship” with her appearance, and has declared herself “too old for sexual pleasures”; André is filled by a sense that he has “dried up” and that his time is running out. Neither can express their difficulties without falling into an argument, then silence.
Their miscommunications are paralleled by those between Macha and André, who argue over the state of the USSR: “What did it feel like to be someone from the Soviet Union? To what extent did the singing young people on these avenues resemble French young people?” To add to the melancholy, Nicole feels “vaguely jealous” of André’s affection for his daughter, but fails to tell André and, instead, ruminates on her loneliness.
Misunderstanding in Moscow, translated smartly by Terry Keefe, has been pitched as the successor to The Inseparables, an intense study of female friendship, and another “lost” work of fiction by de Beauvoir to appear in English recently. The comparisons are tempting: in both books, you can’t help but see autobiographical elements. In The Inseparables, one girl is a portrait of de Beauvoir’s childhood friend “Zaza”, while Jean-Paul Sartre, de Beauvoir’s partner, had an affair with a Soviet woman whose daughter was called Macha. But Misunderstanding in Moscow is the slighter of the two, with the feeling of a story that was never quite worked out. In the place of searing passion, here are extended meditations on age and miscommunication, which introduce, but fail to open up, the air of stultifying malaise.