Extraordinary Excerpts: ‘A Family’

I have started reading the second volume of Maupassant’s stories that I bought over a year ago, titled 88 More Stories, which was published by Cassell & Co. Ltd in 1950 with translations by Ernest Boyd and Storm Jameson. One story contained in this volume, called A Family, 88-stories02-x-700pxis a short piece where the narrator visits a friend he hasn’t seen since the friend married, fifteen years before. He barely recognises the friend, who is now quite fat, and the description of the friend’s wife is brilliantly dismissive and also a bit nasty; I won’t include it here but she is called, amongst other things, ‘a procreating machine made of flesh’, due no doubt to her five children. The husband is also dismissed in a similar fashion as ‘a reproductive animal who spent his nights generating children between a sleep and a sleep, in his provincial house, like a rabbit in a hutch.’

After being introduced to all the children the narrator is also introduced to the wife’s eighty-seven year old grandfather who is hard of hearing. The narrator is told that the old man keeps the children amused especially at meal times as he is very greedy. And so, that leads me to this excerpt:

    Dinner was begun.
    “Look,” murmured Simon. Grandpapa did not like the soup, and refused to eat it. He was forced to do so, for the sake of his health; the servant forcibly thrust a spoonful into his mouth, while he blew violently to keep from swallowing the broth; it spurted out like a fountain, all over the table and over those sitting nearest him.
    The children shrieked with laughter, while their father, highly pleased, repeated: “Funny old man, isn’t he?”
    Throughout the meal he monopolised the attention of the whole family. His eyes devoured the dishes on the table, and his frantically trembling hands tried to snatch them and pull them to him. Sometimes they were placed almost in his reach, so that the company might see his desperate efforts, his palsied clutches, the heart-broken appeal manifested in his whole body, his eyes, his mouth, his nose, which sniffed them. His mouth watered so that he dribbled all over his napkin, uttering inarticulate whines. And the entire family was de­lighted by this odious and grotesque torture.
    Then a very small piece would be put on his plate, and he would eat it with feverish voracity, so that he might have some­thing else the sooner.
    When the sweet rice came, he almost had a fit. He moaned with longing.
    “You have eaten too much; you shan’t have any,” shouted Gontran, and they made as though he were not to be given any.
    Then he began to cry. And as he wept he trembled still more violently, while all the children roared with laughter.
    At last his portion, a very small one, was given him; and, as he ate the first mouthful of the sweet, he made a comically gluttonous noise in his throat, and a movement of the neck like that of a duck swallowing too large a morsel of food.
    When he had finished, he began to stamp his feet for more.
    Seized with pity at the heart-rending spectacle of the tortures inflicted on this ridiculous Tantalus, I implored my friend on his behalf:
    “Do give him a little more rice.”
    “Oh! no, my dear chap,” replied Simon; “if he ate too much at his age, it might be bad for him.”
    I was silent, musing on this speech. O Morality, O Logic, O Wisdom! At his age! So, they deprived him of the only pleasure he could still enjoy, out of care for his health! His health! What was that inert and palsied wreck to do with his health if he had it? Were they husbanding his days? His days? How many: ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred? And why? For his own sake? Or was it in order to preserve to the family the spectacle of his impotent greed?
    He had nothing to do in this life, nothing. Only one desire, one pleasure, remained to him; why not give him full measure of that last pleasure, give it him until he died of it?
    At last, after a long game of cards, I went up to my room to bed; I was sad, very, very sad.

I think the narrator’s thoughts on the family’s cruel treatment of the old man reflects our own feelings on the subject but the family seem oblivious of their cruelty. Haven’t we all found ourselves in a similar situation, maybe not so extreme, where we witness something like this but are unsure whether to intervene? This is a brilliant story by Maupassant; one of his stories that is just a short episode, a snapshot of contemporary life that he did so well.

This post is cross-posted on my Intermittencies of the Mind blog.

Maupassant Quotations

Maupassant_A-Day-in-CountryI’ve been reading more and more of Maupassant’s stories recently. Many of the collections have a large number of the same stories which becomes a bit frustrating at times as there are so many that I want to read but the same stories keep appearing. One of the collections that I really enjoyed, but haven’t got round to reviewing yet, is A Day in the Country and Other Stories, published by Oxford University Press and translated by David Coward. So, I thought I’d share a number of quotes from the book.

I always enjoy quotations pulled from a book. I like the way they stand on their own and can sometimes take on a different meaning – people may scream that they’ve been taken out of context, but I sometimes like that. One thing I do worry about (only slightly though) is when we quote a fiction writer, who is usually writing from a fictional character’s point of view, and we attribute the quotation to the writer, as if what is said is the writer’s beliefs, views etc. Rather than say this is a quote from Author X, I would much rather say that this is a quote from a character, or narrator, from a book or story by Author X. Does this bother anyone else?

Anyway here goes:

There were office-worn gents with yellow faces, bent backs, and one shoulder set slightly higher than the other from spending hours hunched over desks. And their sad, anxious faces spoke volumes about their domestic troubles, never-ending money worries, and all those old hopes which had been dashed for good; for they all belonged to the army of poor threadbare drudges who just about make ends meet in some dismal plasterboard house with a flowerbed for a garden in the rubbish-and-slag-heap belt on the outskirts of Paris.
― From Family Life

Philippe-Auguste was an ugly child, with uncombed hair and dirt all over him, and the face of a cretin.
― From Family Life

Her name was Marroca, probably her maiden name, and she pronounced it as though it had fifteen r’s in it.
― From Marroca

All at once, as though a thick veil had been whisked aside, he clearly saw the wretchedness―the bottomless, monotonous wretchedness―of his existence. The wretchedness which had been, which was, and which was yet to come. His last days indistinguishable from the first, with nothing ahead of him or behind him or around him, nothing in his heart, nothing anywhere.
― From Strolling

Madame Chantal―a large woman whose ideas always strike me as being square-shaped, like stones dressed by a mason―was in the habit of concluding any political discussion with the remark: ‘As ye sow, so shall ye reap’. Why have I always imagined that Madame Chantal’s ideas are square? I’ve no idea, but everything she says goes into that shape in my mind: a block―a large one―with four symmetrical angles.
― From Mademoiselle Pearl

Daylight does not lend itself to terror: objects and people are plain to see; and we encounter there only those things which dare to show themselves in the glare of day. But night, opaque night denser than walls, night, empty and infinite and so black and fathomless that terrifying things reach out and touch
us, night when we feel horror stirring, mysteriously prowling―night seemed to him to hide some unknown, imminent, threatening danger. What could it be?
― From The Little Roque Girl

Solitude is obviously dangerous for people with active brains. We need men around us who have ideas and like talking. Leave us alone for any length of time, and we start filling the void with supernatural creatures.
― From Le Horla

I am lost! Someone has taken over my mind and is controlling it! Someone is in command of all my actions, movements, and thoughts. I am nothing inside, merely a spectator enslaved and terrified by everything I do.
― From Le Horla

Maupassant_Mme-Tellier-fcX-700pxWhilst I’m on a roll, I’ll add a couple that I really liked from The House of Madame Tellier and Other Stories which was published by Everyman and translated by Marjorie Laurie.

She was, in truth, one of those bigoted fanatics, one of those stubborn Puritans, whom England breeds in such numbers, those pious and insupportable old maids, who haunt all the tables d’hôte in Europe, who ruin Italy, poison Switzerland, and render the charming towns on the Riviera uninhabitable, introducing everywhere their weird manias, their manners of petrified vestals, their indescribable wardrobes, and a peculiar odour of rubber, as if they were put away in a waterproof case every night.
― From Miss Harriet

And finally, this one, which despite what I said above, probably is pretty close to Maupassant’s real views as he loved boats and water:

I have an immoderate passion for water; for the sea, though so vast, so restless, so beyond one’s comprehension; for rivers, beautiful, yet fugitive and elusive; but especially for marshes, teeming with all that mysterious life of the creatures that haunt them. A marsh is a whole world within a world, a different world, with a life of its own, with its own permanent denizens, its passing visitors, its voices, its sounds, its own strange mystery.
― From Love

This was cross-posted on my Intermittencies of the Mind blog.