It’s always a cause for great delight when a new book comes out from a favourite author; and even more so when that writer is no longer with us. Recent years have seen a rash of newly-translated works by some of my best-loved names, like Mishima and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky; and when you’ve read everything already available in English by someone, those new books are pure joy. Last year saw the appearance of a previously untranslated title by one of my long-term favourites, Simone de Beauvoir – “The Inseparables. It was a wonderful read, and so when another ‘new’ work, a novella called “Misunderstanding in Moscow” (translated by Terry Keefe), suddenly slipped into view with little warning I was, needless to see, rather excited! I picked it up on publication, and it didn’t linger long on the TBR…

MIM is a slim work, just 110 pages, but it covers some surprisingly weighty topics. It tells the story of a visit to Moscow in the mid-1960s by André and Nicole, an older marred couple. Travelling from their home in Paris, and leaving their grown up son Philippe behind them, they’re visiting Macha, André’s daughter by another woman, Claire. The complex family situation doesn’t seem to bother anyone, and the couple are looking forward to the trip, having visited previously in 1963.

However, things are not quite as straightforward as either character might expect. Both are experiencing the effects of ageing, becoming aware of their limitations; and inevitably niggles and conflicts develop. Macha has a husband and child who make demands on her; certain excursions can’t go ahead because the authorities won’t allow them; Nicole is concerned that André is drinking and smoking too much; and neither of the pair are communicating well. The constant failure to actually talk about the issues which arise lead the pair to a major crisis in their relationship, and things do appear to be touch and go…

When you are young, with an illusory eternity in front of you, you jump to the end of the road in one leap; later, you do not have the strength to surpass what have been called the incidental casualties of history, and you consider them to be appallingly high. He had counted on history to justify his life: he was not counting on it any longer.

As a study of an older couple who are set in their ways and taking their relationship for granted, MIM is spot on and contains a real wake up call for more empathy and understanding beteween long-term partners. As the narrative reveals, sex has departed from the relationship and with it a certain intimacy; there is a pivotal point, recalled by Nicole, when she realised that she was no longer desirable by younger men, and she ceased to feel like a woman. It’s an interesting reaction, as she’s a strong and independent character yet only sees her femininity in relation to the reactions of men.

Another interesting angle the book has is the opposing views of Macha and André; the former has committed to life in the Soviet Union, taking on its credo; yet André is embedded in the West and critical of what he sees in Moscow and Leningrad. Their constant clashes allow de Beauvoir to explore the different beliefs, and those discussions feed into the gulf which develops between Nicole and André.

It is, of course, hard not to see the couple as Simone and Jean-Paul, although there *are* differences (not least the fact that they have children). But even if that were not the case, this would still be a fascinating read and a quite profound insight into the issues which can develop between long-established couples.

As I mentioned, I was really excited to read this newly-translated work, though I do want to discuss a few issues around its publication. This particular edition comes with absolutely no supporting information or background – not even an introduction – and so I’ve had to noodle about on the internet to find out anything at all. So what I’m reporting here may not be accurate, but apparently the book was written at some point in 1965, and intended for publication in the collection of short works, “The Woman Destroyed”; however, it was replaced with another story instead, and MIM was eventually released posthumously in 1992. This is the first translation into English as far as I’m aware.

The lack of any supporting material is surprising, particularly as I’ve seen mention of an afterword being provided in versions released in other languages. Strange also is the relative lack of attention MIM has received so far, as I haven’t really been able to find much coverage of the book in terms of reviews, but I suppose it *is* early days.

As I mentioned, MIM is translated by Terry Keefe, and I did note a few oddities where he leaves an original French word in brackets within the narrative – presumably this is to indicate a significant usage in the original (e.g. the differentiation of the use of tu versus vous), although I would have felt more comfortable with an asterisk and short clarification at the bottom of the page. The narrative itself moves between the viewpoint of most of the characters, in sometimes abrupt shifts of perspective with not even an extra blank line to make differentiation easier. I assume this is the same in the French original, but it is a little disconcerting at times.

Despite these caveats, I did find MIM a fascinating book which explored relationships in all their complexity; and it was particularly interesting to have older protagonists struggling with feelings and emotions, rather than the focus always being on young lovers! The novella is perhaps a bit of an unpolished gem, which may be why it’s taken so long to be translated, and I imagine the succes of “The Inseparables” has something to do with its appearance. I’m not complaining, though – I’m happy to have more de Beauvoir to read, and assuming this was some kind of autofiction, the glimpse into her life with Sartre was particularly revealing! 😀