‘Pierre and Jean’ by Guy de Maupassant

Pierre and Jean was Maupassant’s fourth novel and was originally published in 1888. It’s a short novel, running to only about 130 pages in my edition, but Maupassant, well used to short-stories, doesn’t hang about and gets the story moving from page 1.

It begins on a boat; Gérôme Roland is fishing and he is accompanied by his wife, Louise, their two sons, Pierre and Jean, and the young attractive widow Mme Rosémilly. M. Roland is a retired jeweller from Paris who decided to move to Le Havre once he had made enough money. Pierre the older son had tried various professions but has recently qualified as a doctor, while the younger son, Jean, who is more diligent has recently passed his diploma in law. Both brothers are looking to set themselves up in business in Le Havre. There is an element of competition between the brothers and both have an eye for Mme Rosémilly.

When they return from their boating expedition the servant informs M. Roland that his lawyer, M. Lecanu, wishes to speak to him urgently. It turns out that an old friend of the family from their Parisian days, M. Maréchal, has recently died and left his inheritance to Jean, whom he thinks is worthy of this legacy. Everyone is shocked but overjoyed, and of course a little sad of the death of their friend whom they had nearly forgotten about. But why does he only leave the money to Jean, and not also Pierre? M. Roland argues that it was because Maréchal was present at the birth of Roland’s second son.

Both Jean and Pierre are a little dazed by the events and both go out separately for a walk. Pierre is out of sorts and wonders if he is jealous of Jean. He admits he is a little jealous but won’t let that stop loving his brother. When Pierre goes to visit a friend of his and recounts the day’s news the friend says, without elaborating further, “That won’t look good”, but Pierre has no idea why he says that. Later, when talking to a barmaid about the inheritance she innocently mentions that it’s no wonder that Jean looks nothing like Pierre. It’s a little later that he realises what these comments mean; that Maréchal must have left the money to Jean because Jean was Maréchal’s son, which also means that Pierre’s beloved mother must have had an affair behind his father’s back. Now the seed has been sown in Pierre’s mind he keeps thinking and thinking, digging deeper and deeper. He tries to remember Maréchal from his youth and remembers a photograph of him that used to be in the house. Pierre wonders what he should do, after all at this stage they are only suspicions, but even if they were untrue it could easily lead to gossip and be a threat to his mother’s honour. But Pierre is unable to tell Jean his suspicions as the others are all celebrating their good fortune. Instead, Pierre tries to find out more about Maréchal from his parents.

    He kept on saying to himself: ‘Why has this Maréchal left all his money to Jean?’
     It was no longer jealousy that made him seek an answer, not the rather unworthy but natural envy he knew was hidden inside him and that he had been fighting against for three days, but terror of an appalling thing, terror of believing that his brother Jean was the son of this man!

But poor Pierre doesn’t know what to think; if it’s true then it means that his beloved mother had an affair. But he soon admits that it could be true.

    Certainly she might have loved just like any other woman. For why should she be different from any other even though she was his mother?

So, I wondered at this stage of the novel how a typical nineteenth century writer may have ended it: the mother may die of guilt and shame; the brothers may have fought over Pierre’s suspicions with one or the other dying or living their life in poverty; Pierre may have convinced Jean to give up the inheritance to protect their mother’s reputation, etc. etc. None of these are correct. I shall reveal the ending in what follows so you may wish to stop reading at this point if you don’t want to know the ending. Instead, after seeing the picture of Maréchal, Pierre is convinced that Jean is Maréchal’s son and finally confronts Jean with this information. Pierre has become increasingly irritable over the last few weeks and by now Pierre suspects that his mother knows of his suspicions. Jean thinks Pierre is just jealous of him, especially as he’s just announced his marriage to Mme Rosémilly. But Pierre unburdens himself and when he’s finished he leaves. The story up to now has been from Pierre’s viewpoint but it now cleverly switches to Jean’s viewpoint. Jean quietly tries to process the information and then goes to his mother, who was in the next room when Pierre blurted everything out, and asks her if were true. When she acknowledges that it is true she is prepared to depart from his life forever, however, Jean is having none of it and offers her love and protection.

Alone, Jean thinks about the events of the night and what needs to be done:

If he had learned the secret of his birth in any other way he would certainly have been outraged and felt a deep resentment, but after his quarrel with his brother, after this violent and brutal accusation which had shaken his nerves, the heartbreaking emotion of his mother’s confession took away all his energy to revolt. The shock to his feelings had been violent enough to sweep away all the prejudices and pious susceptibilties of natural morality on an irresistible wave of emotion.

He contemplates giving up the inheritance but reasons that he can no longer claim any inheritance from M. Roland as that is Pierre’s by right so then the inheritance from Maréchal is then his by right. The next day Jean arranges, with Pierre’s acceptance, to organise a doctor’s position on a cruise ship for Pierre. Pierre is quite happy to go as he’s now guilty about blurting out his suspicions to Jean and it will give him an income for a while as well as some time to think. M. Roland meanwhile is totally oblivious to everything that’s going on around him.

Pierre is not sure what his mother told Jean but seems happy enough to allow everything to carry on as normal. It’s funny how Maupassant subverts the nineteenth century novel with Pierre, the legitimate son, having to make way for Jean, the illegitimate son and it’s odd how no-one in the novel thought that splitting the inheritance between Pierre and Jean was a viable solution.

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

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Like Death (Fort comme la Mort) by Guy de Maupassant, translated by John D. Lyons

like-death

Like Death (Fort comme la Mort), the fifth novel of Guy de Maupassant, renowned for his huge oeuvre of short stories, is the reason why I retrieved John D. Lyons’ French Literature, a Very Short Introduction from my TBR.  Having read my way all through Balzac’s La Comedie Humane and Zola’s Rougon-Macquart Cycle, and sampled a few other well-known classic French authors I belatedly thought it was about time I found something to put these works into context.  But alas, Maupassant doesn’t rate a mention in this VSI, which is fair enough in a little book of only 132 pages that doesn’t purport to be comprehensive.  So it is up to me to interpret the chapter on 19th century authors to draw my own conclusions about how the novel fits into the literary preoccupations of its era.

(Let’s hope there are no scholars reading this, eh?)

According to Lyons, the pace of change brought a nostalgia for the Ancien Régime and the Christian cultural heritage as well an idealisation of rural life.  I think that in Like Death you can see Maupassant sharing Balzac’s distaste for the French Revolution and the excesses of French society, and his character Annette shows the innocence and purity of a rural upbringing which is very quickly corrupted by the ambition to make a good marriage in Paris.

Maupassant was from the Naturalist school of writers as Zola was, though it seems from this novel that he was not as prone to depict the seamy side of life and was more interested in depicting bourgeois society.  While Zola’s novels in this decade traverse different aspects of the pace of change in everything from the pressures of the Industrial Revolution on mining in Germinal (1885) to The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) (1883) showing the emergence of ruthless entrepreneurs and the impact of the Industrial Revolution on small artisan storekeepers, Maupassant is more interested in the psychology of his characters, narrating the story from the perspective of his two main characters, two lovers who find themselves conflicted by the onward pressures of ageing. It seems to me that Like Death (1889) has more in common with Zola’s rather un-Zola-like The Dream (Le Rêve) (1888) because it’s also a tale of love thwarted by reality.

Olivier Bertin is an award-winning society portraitist who is having a long-term affair with the Countess Anne de Guilleroy.  Her husband the Count, a deputy of agriculture in the government, is unaware of their liaison, even though Bertin is a regular visitor both to their home in Paris and to their country estate, the Chateau du Roncières in the Eure Valley.

Bertin’s rheumatism, however, has kept him away from the chateau for three years, and in that time Anne’s only daughter Annette has grown up to become a lovely young woman for whom an advantageous match has been arranged with the Marquis de Farandal when she comes to Paris.  Her childhood in the countryside, spent with her ageing grandmother, has made her into a young woman innocent of the shallow values of Parisian society (about which Maupassant is, through Olivier’s musings and occasionally less tactful dialogue, satirically scornful.)

At first Anne is only too delighted at Annette’s resemblance to herself in her youth, and they dress alike on the occasion when Annette is first presented to society.  But before long she realises what Bertin does not at first recognise himself – that he has fallen in love with the youthful duplicate of the woman he has loved for decades.

This love triangle of a different sort brings both Bertin and the Countess to a realisation of their own mortality.  Anne is only 40 while he is much older, but she becomes painfully aware of changes in her face and body, while Bertin’s dawning jealousy of the inane Farandal that Annette is supposed to marry makes him realise that the days when he could have anything he wanted, are waning. What makes this even worse is when his art is compared to the new Impressionists and dismissed as old-fashioned.

Maupassant writes of love, jealousy, ageing and fear of annihilation with empathy so that we see the tragedy of a couple ideally suited who can never marry and who come to regret that they cannot share the companionship they crave.  Bertin had enjoyed his liberty to spend his time in bachelor clubs and sporting pursuits, but when he feels the pain of young Annette’s indifference to him as a suitor, he yearns for the consolation and companionship of marriage.   These perils of vanity are shown at their most poignant when Anne hides herself away in her chateau so that her lover cannot see the ravages of mourning for her mother on her face.  The irony here is that she first met and enchanted Bertin when she was in mourning for her father, but in youth, the black of mourning dress only enhanced her beauty.  She feels dethroned.

This is the first time the New York Review has sent me one of their Classics collection to review, and unfortunately they have ignored my objection to reading uncorrected proof copies so I can’t quote anything to show you Maupassant’s style.  (I’ll spare you a list of the spelling mistakes in the hope that these are resolved in the final edition, but it does make me wonder about standards when I see examples like ‘hording’ and ‘gayety’ which any spell-check would identify as non-words.)

Though I wouldn’t call it elegant as they have at The Kirkus Review, the translation by Richard Howard seems mostly good to me, capturing Maupassant’s style (as I translate it from the copy at Gutenberg) with only occasional clumsiness and an ill-advised use of the slang ‘kids’ in place of Maupassant’s whimsical reference to ‘mice’ meaning small children.  Like Death is one of Maupassant’s lesser-known novels, so it is good to have a more recent translation though I would like to know of others as well.

Author: Guy de Maupassant
Title: Like Death (Fort comme la mort)
Publisher: New York Review Books , 2017, first published 1889
ISBN: : 9781681370323
Review copy courtesy of New York Review Books.

Available from January 2017. Pre-order from Fishpond: Like Death ($AUD 20.37 postage free)

©Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers, 21/12/16. See the lower RH menu at ANZ LitLovers for copyright restrictions.

Cross-posted at ANZ Litlovers

‘Boule de Suif’ by Guy de Maupassant

Boule de Suif is one of Maupassant’s more famous stories and it is the one that first made him famous. The story first appeared in the 1880 collection of stories called Les Soirées de Médan which were all centred around the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. The collection also included stories by Zola and Huysmans. When Flaubert, Maupassant’s mentor, read it he was ecstatic, he wrote:

I am impatient to tell you that I consider Boule de Suif a masterpiece. Yes, young man! Nothing more, nothing less. It is the work of a master. It is original in conception, well constructed from beginning to end, and written in excellent style.

I think that most people who read the story today will agree with Flaubert as did the readers at the time of publication.

The story opens with the defeated French army passing through Rouen. The Prussians soon occupy the town and the soldiers are billeted with the townspeople. Le Havre is still in the hands of the French and several of the wealthy inhabitants of Rouen, with the Prussians’ permission, arrange a carriage destined for Le Havre. They leave at daybreak while snow is still falling. The occupants of the coach consist of a petits bourgeois couple, a bourgeois couple, an aristocratic couple, two nuns, a democrat Cornudet and hidden away in the corner is someone that the others disapprove of:

The woman, one of those usually known as a good-time girl, was famous for the premature portliness which had earned her the nickname Boule de Suif. Small, round as a barrel, fat as butter and with fingers tightly jointed like strings of small sausages, her glowing skin and the enormous bosom which strained under the constraints of her dress — as well as her freshness, which was a delight to the eye — made her hugely desirable and much sought after. She had a rosy apple of a face, a peony bud about to burst into bloom. Out of it looked two magnificent dark eyes shaded by thick black lashes. Further down was a charming little mouth complete with invitingly moist lips and tiny, gleaming pearly-white teeth. She was said to possess a variety of other inestimable qualities.

The respectable women disapprovingly discuss her presence in the carriage whilst the businessmen talk of business matters. The carriage makes slow progress through the snow and because of the war there are no inns open. Everyone becomes hungry, and it turns out that Boule de Suif is the only one who has brought along provisions. Slowly, they accept her offers of food and as a result they become friendly towards her. Although the others are leaving Rouen mostly for monetary reasons, Boule de Suif is leaving because she can’t bear to see the sight of Prussian soldiers occupying a French town.

They arrive at Tôtes in the evening. They are greeted by a Prussian officer and allowed to take rooms in a hotel. Once they are settled the innkeeper tells Boule de Suif that the officer would like to see her. She reluctantly goes but returns, cursing the officer. The following day the travellers are prevented from continuing their journey by order of the officer. It turns out that the officer will only allow them to continue their journey once Boule de Suif has slept with him. The officer sends the innkeeper to find out if she has changed her mind but she indignantly refuses to capitulate:

Boule de Suif remained standing. At first very pale, she suddenly turned crimson, choking so much with rage that she was unable to speak. Finally she burst out: ‘Tell that bastard, that sod of a Prussian, that I never will, d’you hear? Never, never, never!’

If you don’t want to know the ending of the story you may wish to stop reading at this point.

The others are initially shocked and angrily disapprove of the officer’s uncouth behaviour and sympathise with Boule de Suif’s position. But, as the days drag on they become less sympathetic towards her. They begin to resent her, a lowly prostitute, preventing them from continuing their journey. After all, they reason, all she’s being asked to do is what she does for a living anyway. They try to convince her to give in to the officer’s demands but have little luck at first. When the nuns reveal that they are trying to get to Le Havre to nurse French soldiers Boule de Suif eventually goes to see the officer. Meanwhile, the other travellers celebrate, getting drunk and telling risqué stories. Only Cornudet, the democrat, seems to be concerned over the way they’re behaving.

The following day the carriage is allowed to leave. Boule de Suif enters the carriage timidly and everyone is embarrased.

At first no one spoke. Boule de Suif dared not look up. She felt simultaneously angry with her neighbours, humiliated by having given in to them, and defiled by the caresses of the Prussian into whose arms they had so hypocritically thrown her.

But her humiliation is not over yet. Now, with normality restored, they can ignore Boule de Suif completely and to really dig the knife in they all get their parcels of food out and start tucking in. Boule de Suif of course has not got any food with her; the others ignore her as they eat and chat away. Their incredible hypocrisy angers her but she is soon overcome with tears; Mme Loiseau tells the others that she’s crying ‘from shame, that’s all’.

The travellers are a good cross-section of French ‘civilised society’, with the exception of Boule de Suif of course, but it is only she that is patriotic, honest and honourable. The others are revealed to be mean-spirited, callous, greedy and self-centred. Even the nuns are shown in a bad light as it is their story of helping the wounded soldiers that was the final argument that convinced Boule de Suif to go against her own decision. And in the final scene no-one, not even Cornudet, shows her any compassion or shares any food with her. Instead, she just sits in the carriage sobbing ashamed of herself and angry at the others.

The Flaubert quotation was taken from Maupassant (1950) by Francis Steegmuller and the Boule de Suif quotations were taken from Siân Miles’ translation from the Penguin collection, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (2004).

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

“A Parisian Bourgeois’ Sundays and Other Stories” by Guy de Maupassant

Maupassant_Parisian-Bourgeois-fcXC-700pxI found this book on my library’s catalogue and when I found out what it contained I was amazed that I hadn’t heard of it. It was only published in 1997, by Peter Owen, and it contains many stories that are unavailable elsewhere in English. The stories are translated by Marlo Johnston; she also translated a version of Sur l’eau (Afloat) for Peter Owen.

The collection contains fifteen stories – a list can be found on the Short Story Collections page. Two of the stories, A Parisian Bourgeois’ Sundays and The Rondoli Sisters take up nearly a hundred pages, whilst the other thirteen stories vary between five and ten pages each. In the introduction it is stated that twelve of the stories hadn’t been published in English before so this makes it very attractive for the English Maupassant fan. With each story there is some useful information on the original French title, publication date and whether there have been other English translations. From these notes the publishers state that The Avenger, The Rondoli Sisters and The Donkey are the only stories that had been published before but the stories A Parisian Bourgeois’ Sundays, Yveline Samoris and From Paris to Heyst do appear in the Project Gutenberg collection as Sundays of a Bourgeois, Yvette Samoris and The Trip of Le Horla respectively. Also, the story Doctors and Patients (Malades et médecins) seems to be a re-working of an earlier story called An Old Man (Un Vieux) which is in the Penguin collection called Selected Short Stories. Still, it’s great to have these stories in a new translation, especially with a story like The Rondoli Sisters; the publishers state that ‘it is one of those stories which suffered from Anglo-Saxon prudery, and the correct words were never used to describe the Italian girl, nor was her particular animal sensuality shown as Maupassant intended.’

So the book kicks off with A Parisian Bourgeois’ Sundays which is a very funny story involving the fifty-two year old clerk, M. Patissot, who has led a sedentary life. After a panic attack his doctor prescribes ‘plenty of exercise’ and the rest of the story consists of his attempts each Sunday to do this by taking walks in the country, going fishing, making friends, and by the end of the story getting involved in public meetings. The story doesn’t really go anywhere but the reader should just enjoy the situations that M. Patissot finds himself in. I won’t go into further details as Guy’s post can be found here.

The Rondoli Sisters is one of Maupassant’s best stories. It is narrated by Pierre Jouvenet who recounts a trip to Italy in 1874. He is a reluctant traveller who doesn’t enjoy the disturbance to his routine; he finds it all ‘tiring and pointless’. The biggest horror is sleeping in hotel beds, especially when he considers all the people that have slept in that very bed.

I cannot lift the sheet of a bed in a hotel without a shiver of disgust. What was done in it the previous night? What unclean, repulsive people have slept on these mattresses? I think of all the fearful people one jostles every day, the ugly hunchbacks, the pimply skin, the black hands that make you think of the feet, and the rest. I think of encounters with people who assail your nose with the sickening smells of garlic and humanity. I think of the misshapen, the purulent, the sweating invalids, all the ugliness and dirtiness of man.

And, amusingly, it goes on. To alleviate his horror of travel he takes along a friend of his, Paul Pavilly, who is obsessed, but not very successful, with women.

The train journey is uneventful until they reach Marseille, when an attractive, but sullen, girl of about twenty joins their carriage. Paul is immediately obsessed by her and tries to get her to talk but is unsuccesful. It turns out that the girl is Italian and since only Pierre knows the language Paul pesters Pierre to keep trying to get the girl to talk. Virtually all they can get out of her are shrugs and ‘What do I care?’ but she does take up their offer of food. When they’ve reached Genoa, their destination, things suddenly change:

   Then, suddenly, she asked me, ‘Do you want me to come with you?’
   I was struck with such stupefaction that I did not understand.
   ‘What, with us? What do you mean?’
   She repeated, in a more and more furious tone, ‘Do you want me to go with you straight away?’
   ‘That suits me; but where would you like to go? Where do you want me to take you?’
   She shrugged her shoulders with supreme indifference.
   ‘Wherever you like! It’s all the same to me.’
   Twice she repeated: ‘Che mi fa?
   ‘Well…if we’re going to a hotel?’
   She said most contemptuously, ‘Well then. let’s go to a hotel.’

Comically Paul is now panic-stricken whereas Pierre is quite amused. Things only get worse when the girl, whom they now know is called Francesca Rondoli, seems to prefer Pierre to Paul. I won’t reveal any more of the story but it is very funny and quite risqué. I compared some parts of the story with the version on Project Gutenburg and I can see what the translator meant about ‘Anglo-Saxon prudery’, as almost any mention of sex is glossed over or missed out, so it’s best to read this version if possible.

The Donkey ends the collection and is a bit of a shock after the previous stories. It’s about two unscrupulous and casually sadistic characters called Chicot and Mailloche. They’re in their boat fishing and poaching rabbits when they see a woman pulling an old donkey along a footpath. She’s taking the donkey to be slaughtered but Chicot offers her some money for it there and then. But what would they want with an old donkey? Well, if you’re a bit queasy about reading about animal cruelty you probably won’t want to read this one. They then go off to an inn and con the innkeeper. It is actually a brilliant story, brilliantly told, but it’s probably more shocking these days than when it was published.

The remaining stories are mostly those that have never before been translated into English. They’re mostly shorter pieces but interesting nonetheless. There is a story about a young Napoleon who narrowly escaped death at the hands of Corsican monarchists, a story about farting in bed, a story about kept women & kept men and several others.

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

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.

‘The House of Madame Tellier and Other Stories’ by Guy de Maupassant

Maupassant_Mme-Tellier-fcX-700pxI found this collection in my county library’s reserve store. As with most collections of Maupassant’s stories it includes versions of Boule de Suif, The Necklace and The Horla. Although those three stories are all excellent a quick read of any of the other stories will reveal that Maupassant wrote many more stories that are really just as good, if not better.

This collection contains thirty-two stories in total, translated by Marjorie Laurie and originally published in 1934. The Everyman edition that I read was published in 1991. A full list of the stories can be found on the Marvellous Maupassant blog. I was impressed with the collection as a whole as it shows off Maupassant’s skill and versatility excellently. There’s a good mixture of short and punchy stories, longer stories where he’s allowed time to develop characters a bit more and a few horror and decadent stories as well just to keep the jaded reader interested.

Rather than go through all the stories I’ll just concentrate on one of my favourites from the collection. Be aware that I will reveal the ending of this story.

Madame Husson’s Rose-King (Le Rosier de Mme Husson) starts with a framing device where the narrator recounts how the train he was travelling in gets derailed near Gisors. There are no casualties as the train was moving slowly, however as it’s going to take a while to get the train back on the track the narrator decides to visit an old acquaitance in Gisors who he has been meaning to visit. This friend, Albert Marambot, who is a bachelor and a doctor, lives well and says he never gets bored as a small town offers enough amusements to satisfy anyone. Marambot takes his visitor around the town enlightening him about the history of Gisors. The narrator is starting to get a bit bored with Marambot’s enthusiasm for local history when Marambot spots a drunk staggering down the road. The description of the drunk is absolutely brilliant so I will quote it in full:

At that moment we caught sight of a drunken man, reeling along at the far end of the street. With head thrust forward, arms dangling, and nerveless legs, he advanced towards us by short rushes of three, six, or ten rapid steps, followed by a pause. After a brief spasm of energy, he found himself in the middle of the street, where he stopped dead, swaying on his feet, hesitating between a fall and a fresh burst of activity. Suddenly he made off in a new direction. He ran up against a house, and clung to the wall as if to force his way through it. Then, with a start, he turned round, and gazed in front of him, open-mouthed, his eyes blinking in the sun. With a movement of the hips, he jerked his back away from the wall and continued on his way. A small yellow dog, a half-starved mongrel, followed him barking, halting when he halted, and moving when he moved.

‘Look,’ said Marambot, ‘there’s one of Madame Husson’s Rose-kings.’

And so, nearly half-way through the story, Marambot begins the main story of the Rose-king. He tells of Madame Husson who was devoted to doing good works and of her horror of vice. She decided that Gisors should follow Paris’s example and they should have their own Rose-queen. With the priest’s help she makes a list of candidates and she asks her maid to find out whether the girls have any secret vices that would make them unworthy of such a position. The problem is that no girls in the town are above suspicion of vice. The maid reveals that the only person who is above suspicion is Isidore, the twenty-year old son of a greengrocer, who is shy and chaste. ‘He was perfection; a pearl of purity.’ Mme Husson was initially unsure about having a Rose-king instead of a Rose-queen but is convinced by the abbé as ‘virtue knows neither country or sex.’

So, it’s decided that Isidore will be the Rose-king and the celebrational procession and speeches are all planned. On the day Isidore wears a white suit and he heads the procession followed by Mme Husson, other local dignitaries and a band. The mayor makes a brilliant speech applauding virtue and awards a crying Isidore with five hundred francs in gold. Then there’s a banquet with mountains of food and rivers of drink. Isidore eats and drinks with gusto. When the banquet ends in the evening Isidore is escorted home by Mme Husson. The empty house now suddenly seems drab, he takes the gold coins out of his bag and counts them. He then takes the money and leaves the house. When his mother returns she becomes worried that Isidore is missing. The police are unable to find him but it soon becomes apparent that he had headed for Paris. Weeks pass and there is still no news of Isidore until one day a doctor recognises him asleep in a doorway, an empty brandy bottle in his pocket and his once white suit now a shabby grey. He has no money left and he is returned home. He has now become an incorrigible drunk and can be regularly seen stumbling along the streets of Gisors. From this day forward all the drunks were given the nickname ‘Madame Husson’s Rose-king’. Marambot then continues with the dreary local history titbits.

I found this story enchanting. I can imagine Maupassant having fun writing it, poking fun at those prudish do-gooders’ attempts to promote abstinence. Another, equally irreverent, story is Playing With Fire (Le Signe) which humorously tells how Baroness de Grangerie accidently became a prostitute…it really wasn’t her fault, you know! And there’s the story of Madame Oreille who is a frugal soul who won’t let her husband splash out on a new umbrella and the story of St. Anthony who gets his revenge on an occupying Prussian soldier and the story where……

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

‘Alien Hearts’ by Guy de Maupassant

NYRB_Maupassant_Alien-HeartsAlien Hearts was first published in 1890 as Notre Coeur and was Maupassant’s last novel. A more straightforward translation of the title would be Our Heart which the translator, Richard Howard, acknowledges in the preface but he mentions that Maupassant had intended to write a companion to Notre Coeur called Alien Souls which he didn’t finish. I normally don’t like it when translators or publishers decide to change the title of a translated book but in this case I prefer the new title and I think that it’s more suitable as well – in short, it’s a better title.

Although I’ve read quite a few short stories by Maupassant this is the first novel that I’ve read by him. Maupassant gets down to business straight away as the first sentence describes the situation:

A day came when Massival – the musician, the famous composer of Rebecca, the man who for at least fifteen years had been called “our distinguished young maestro” – asked his friend André Mariolle, “Why the devil haven’t I ever seen you at Michèle de Burne’s? If you ask me, she’s one of the most…interesting women in Paris. In today’s Paris, at any rate.”

Mariolle is thirty-seven, unmarried, rich and a dilettante. Madame de Burne is a pretty, young widow who established her salon following the death of her tyrannical husband. She is also a tease and a flirt and many of the visitors fall in love with her. One evening Mariolle is talked into going to de Burne’s salon and is immediately attracted to her. His friends warn him that he will fall in love with her just like everyone else.

And what of de Burne? She is certain that Mariolle has fallen for her, she knows the signs, and is just waiting for Mariolle to act:

Yet her heart did not thirst for emotions like the hearts of sentimental women; she was not searching for a man’s unique love nor for the gratification of a passion. All she required was the admiration of every man she met, acknowledgment of capitulation, the homage of universal tenderness.

She does not love but enjoys being beloved. Certain of Mariolle’s love, she is surprised when she gets a letter from him saying that he’s leaving because of her. Well, de Burne uses this to invite him to see her so they can talk through the problem – and Mariolle is hooked.

I’m not a big fan of nineteenth century novels about lovers, their traumas, infatuations and jealousies etc. And it was this subject matter that bored me a little when I was reading Proust last year. So I was a bit wary of this novel as I progressed as it was following a well-worn path of nineteenth century literature; so Mariolle falls completely for de Burne and thinks of her all the time, they arrange to meet clandestinely and eventually Mariolle sets up a love nest where they can meet in private. Rather than viewing events solely from Mariolle’s perspective Maupassant gives us glimpses into de Burne’s mind, which is generally more interesting than Mariolle. Whereas Mariolle takes on the role of the typical Romantic suffering intensely for his beloved, de Burne is icy cool. The novel, as well as Mariolle’s character, comes alive when their relationship begins to falter, partly because both characters start to analyse their own thoughts and feelings as well as the other’s. De Burne arrives later and later to their trysts and Mariolle realises that things are cooling off between them, which causes more suffering. Mariolle realises that they are completely different types:

What struck him most about Madame de Burne’s letters was the complete absence of sensibility. This woman thought, she never felt.

But Mariolle feels. Is it possible for two people who experience love in different ways to carry on loving each other? In their discussions Mariolle accuses de Burne of not loving him because all the passion of the relationship comes from him:

   Realizing how far apart they were, Mariolle murmured, “What a strange way to think about love – and to talk about it! For you I’m just someone you like to have, more often than not, in the chair beside you. But for me you fill the world. There’s no one else in it, I know no one else, I feel no one else is there, and you are all I want.”
She had a kind smile for him as she replied, “I know, I can tell, I understand what you’re saying. I’m happy to hear what you’re saying, and what I say in return is this: Keep on loving me as much as you can, if you can, for that’s my greatest happiness; but don’t force me to perform a farce which would be painful for me and unworthy of both of us. For some time now, I’ve sensed this crisis was coming; it’s painful for me because I’m so deeply attached to you, but I can’t transform my nature and make it like yours. Take me as I am.”

Up to this point I believed that de Burne was just toying with Mariolle and she would be quite content to let him go when she was bored of him, but now the dynamic has shifted, at least a little bit, and the novel takes a drastic turn as well…but I won’t reveal any more of the plot.

This ended up being an excellent read but it wasn’t plain sailing; I started off by liking it, then I almost felt like throwing it down out of boredom, only to be captivated with the ending, which is a bit ambiguous and throws up many questions. I wonder if Alien Souls was intended to answer some of those questions?

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