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