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

‘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.