‘A Woman’s Life’ (Une Vie) by Guy de Maupassant

A Woman’s Life was first published as Une Vie in 1883. Maupassant began working on it in 1877 when he was only twenty-seven and it was to be his first novel. The translation I read was from 1965 by H. N. P. Sloman for Penguin Books.

The book covers the adult life of Jeanne and begins with her returning home after five years in a convent. She is aged seventeen and is happy to be returning to the Poplars, the home of her loving parents. Her parents are reasonably wealthy, owning several farms, but they are slowly selling these off to raise money. Jeanne’s father, the Baron, is trying to move with the times by introducing new farming methods on his farms. Jeanne’s mother, once beautiful, now suffers from various ailments which leaves her exhausted and short of breath. A frequent visitor to the house is Jeanne’s Aunt Lison; she is in her forties, timid and unobtrusive. Here is Maupassant’s description of her:

She was a short, silent, unobtrusive woman, only appearing at meal-times and then retiring to her room, where she remained closeted all day. She had a friendly manner and was beginning to feel her age, though she was only forty-two. Her eyes were soft and sad and she had never counted for anything in the family. As a child no one had ever kissed her, for she was neither pretty nor noisy; she was like a shadow or some familiar object, a living piece of furniture that one sees every day without noticing it.

Aunt Lison appears at different parts of the story but is hardly noticed by any of the other characters at all.

Although not particularly religious the family attends church regularly out of respect for the abbé. One day at church they are introduced to their new neighbour, the young Vicomte de Lamare, who has inherited the property following his father’s recent death. Jeanne and Julien, the Vicomte, soon begin courting and decide to marry. This is, for Jeanne, a blissful period of her life. The wedding is planned for six weeks time followed by a honeymoon in Corsica. There is a wonderful scene where the two lovers go off for an evening walk in the gardens. The Baron and Baroness go to bed and ask Aunt Lison to wait up for the young couple. Coming back Julien notices that Jeanne’s shoes are wet and asks ‘Aren’t your darling little feet cold?’ Lison, hearing this, begins to tremble, then sob. When asked why she says ‘No one has ever asked me a question like that…never…never.’ She then runs off to her room much to the amusement of the young couple. Jeanne mutters ‘Poor Auntie!’ Jeanne is amused at the thought of any man making love to Aunt Lison but Jeanne is just as unprepared for her wedding night and married life. Maupassant is quite explicit, for a nineteenth century writer, in his depiction of their wedding night. Jeanne gets used to married life but does not enjoy the physical side.

After the misery of the first night Jeanne had got used to Julien’s touch, his kisses and tender embraces, though her revulsion from their more intimate relations remained. She found him attractive and loved him, and her light-heartedness and gaiety returned.

During their honeymoon in Corsica Jeanne continues to feel embarrassed about Julien’s sexual appetite. However, one day finding themselves alone whilst trekking up a mountain path she becomes more playful with Julien and she experiences physical sexual pleasure for the first time. The remainder of the honeymoon is like a dream for her.

Well, what with this being a nineteenth century novel we know that things will slowly get worse from hereon. Once they return to the Poplars the everyday realities of life become clearer. It becomes apparent that Julien is extremely miserly, even resenting spending money on food and heating, and he seems to have quickly lost interest in his wife. Jeanne, meanwhile, realises that she has nothing to occupy her time as Julien takes complete control of the finances and the running of the property. It turns out that Julien’s lack of sexual interest in his wife is because he is chasing other women; first there is the maid, Rosalie and then a local Countess, Gilberte. As the novel progresses Jeanne is let down by everyone, one by one. Her husband has affairs; even her parents, it turns out had lovers in the past; her son becomes a dissolute young man who, through his gambling debts and reckless business deals, drains Jeanne’s whole inherited wealth. When a new, puritanical, abbé arrives Jeanne becomes momentarily drawn towards religion but in the end she can’t accept his vengeful, vindictive God.

As Jeanne is introduced to the miseries of life Maupassant portrays her compassionately, he does not ridicule her for her naivety, instead he shows how she copes with it and adapts to the new situations. She is naturally optimistic even if events are sometimes overwhelming. By the end of the book Rosalie has returned and helps to organise the day-to-day running of Jeanne’s life and they become friends. The novel ends with her son, Paul, wishing to return, having already delivered his newly born daughter into her care, whom she instantly dotes on. Rosalie sums it up: ‘You see, life is never as good or as bad as one thinks.’ Maupassant has convinced us to hope for the best for Jeanne.

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

‘Femme Fatale’ (La Femme de Paul) by Guy de Maupassant

Femme Fatale (a.k.a. ‘Paul’s Mistress’) was first published in 1881 as La Femme de Paul. This story is one of my favourite of Maupassant’s stories; it includes many of his favourite motifs, i.e. boats and the water, cruelty, sexuality. The story takes place mostly on and around La Grenouillère (‘the frog pond’), a popular bathing spot on the Seine near Chatou, which may be familiar to us via the paintings by Renoir and Monet.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

The story opens with some brilliantly descriptive writing; ‘strapping great fellows’ and ‘women in light spring frocks’ are getting into their skiffs making for La Grenouillère, watched, enviously perhaps, by a crowd of suburbanites, boatmen and working men. The only ones left behind are Paul and Madeleine, a young couple apparently very much in love. They are on their way to La Grenouillère as well but they’re not in so much of a rush as they have only eyes for each other.

Paul and Madeleine finally make it to La Grenouillère; it’s three p.m., and it’s crowded.

On the land adjoining La Grenouillère strollers were sauntering under the gigantic trees which help to make this part of the island one of the most delightful parks imaginable. Busty women with peroxided hair and nipped-in waists could be seen, made up to the nines with blood red lips and black-kohled eyes. Tightly laced into their garish dresses they trailed in all their vulgar glory over the fresh green grass. They were accompanied by men whose fashion-plate accessories, light gloves, patent-leather boots, canes as slender as threads and absurd monocles made them look like complete idiots.

The crowd arrive at the floating restaurant, they’re noisy, singing away and occasionally brawling, most are drunk and there’s someone banging away at the piano with his feet as well as his hands.

The place reeked of vice and corruption and the dregs of Parisian society in all its rottenness gathered there: cheats, conmen and cheap hacks rubbed shoulders with under-age dandies, old roués and rogues, sleazy underworld types once notorious for things best forgotten mingled with other small-time crooks and speculators, dabblers in dubious ventures, frauds, pimps, and racketeers. Cheap sex, both male and female, was on offer in this tawdry meat-market of a place where petty rivalries were exploited, and quarrels picked over nothing in an atmosphere of fake gallantry where swords or pistols at dawn settled matters of highly questionable honour in the first place.

The weather is hot and many are bathing in the waters. Everyone is looking out to see who the next arrivals are. When a boat containing four women approaches, two in men’s clothing and smoking cigarettes, a shout rises up ‘Aye-aye! Lesbos!’ and they’re cheered as they come onto the island. The narrative now returns to Paul and Madeleine, and just as Paul is declaring his disapproval of the women and their lifestyle Madeleine recognises them and leaves him to join their party. It becomes apparent that Paul is besotted with Madeleine but Madeleine, it would seem, is just after a good time and enjoys Paul’s attention and money when there is nothing better to do.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

Paul goes off on his own and mopes about a bit but eventually they reconcile and go off for a walk in the country where they can be alone. But Madeleine has arranged to meet the Lesbos crowd later in the evening, much to Paul’s disgust, and she’s not going to let Paul stop her from having some fun. Paul realises that Madeleine is shallow but that doesn’t stop him from loving her. Madeleine doesn’t understand his intensity of feeling and feels suffocated by it. They both attend the evening’s revelries.

People were dancing. Couples faced each other and capered about madly, kicking their legs as high as their partners’ noses. The women, who appeared to have double-jointed legs and hips, leapt about in a frou-frou of lifted skirts, flashing their knickers and kicking their legs up over their heads with amazing agility. They wriggled their bellies and shook their bosoms, spreading about them the powerful smell of female flesh in sweat. The males squatted like toads in front of them making faces and obscene gestures.

Paul, the Romantic, appears to be out of place in this riotous palace of pleasure whereas Madeleine is quite at home here. I won’t reveal how the story ends but Maupassant rarely fails in giving us a satisfying ending to a story. But, as with many of his stories, it’s not just about the ending, the descriptive elements of the story are beautiful and Maupassant sketches out characters with only a few words; he chooses a few elements of their character to show us and it’s enough for us to feel that we know them.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

Although I’ve been reading the collection 88 More Stories (1950), in which this story appears as Paul’s Mistress, the quotes above are from the Penguin collection, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (2004) which was translated by Siân Miles. Although there is nothing wrong with the older translation I think that Miles’s more modern style suits this story.

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

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.

176 Stories by Maupassant

88-Stories02-X-700px I was having a nose around on my local library’s catalogue the other day just to see if they had any more Maupassant collections that I’d missed when I came across this title, 88 Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant. There was little additional information other than it was published in 1950 and that it was part of the library’s reserve stock. So, I took it out just to see what it contained. I was expecting it to consist of the translations that are available on Project Gutenberg (PG) but was surprised to see that they were different translations by Ernest Boyd and Storm Jameson. I’m assuming that they were translated specifically for this edition but it is possible that they were earlier translations as the book states: ‘First published in this edition 1950’. Does that imply that there were earlier editions?

I’ve had a quick look at some of the stories and I’m pleased to see that there are many stories that are not included in the PG collection titled The Entire Original Maupassant Short Stories. This may seem odd but the situation is this; there are 311 stories in the French collected edition, there are only 181 in the ‘Entire’ PG collection and there is also the problem that there are an additional 65 fake Maupassant stories that often get included in older English and American collections. As far as I can tell there don’t appear to be any of the ‘fakes’ in the ’88 Stories’ collection and some of those that are newly available (to me at least) are the 80 page story, Yvette, Our Friends the English, The Odyssey of a Prostitute, Old Boniface’s Crime and more. Now, it’s true that there are other collections available such as the eight-volume set, also on Project Gutenberg, called The Works of Guy de Maupassant and the Delphi Complete Works of Guy de Maupassant but they seem to be collections of the Victorian translations and the ‘dodgy’ St. Dunstan Society collections whence the ‘fakes’ originated. For example, the Delphi version claims to have ‘288 short stories – the largest collection of Maupassant’s short stories available in English’….but I’ve had a quick look at that collection and it contains quite a lot, and possibly all, of the ‘fakes’. If it does have all of the ‘fakes’ then it can only really claim to have 223 Maupassant stories which are probably the combined versions from those available on PG. As I delve further into these translations I will hope to clarify the situation.

I was so pleased with the ’88 Stories’ book that I looked on the internet to see if I could buy a copy, when I discovered that there was a second volume called 88 More Stories by Guy de Maupassant also published in 1950 by Cassell & Co. Ltd. Well, I had to get both volumes didn’t I? After an intial scan through the second volume it doesn’t look as if it will have as many of the ‘new’ translations as the first book but it does have a lot of the stories that are only available in the PG collections. As a collection, it actually contains a lot more of the more popular stories such as The Horla, Boule de Suif, Madame Tellier’s Establishment etc. Both books should help me in my quest to read the most recent translations as possible, ultimately I’d like to be able to avoid the older Victorian ones entirely. The only down side of these ’88’ books is that the translation does, at times, seem just as stuffy as the older ones. Take, for example, the opening sentences of the story Allouma and see which you prefer:

    A friend had told me that if, during my travels in Algeria, I happened to be near Bordj-Ebbaba, I was to be sure to visit his old friend Auballe, who had settled down there.
    These names had passed from my mind, and the settler was far from my thoughts, when by pure chance I came across him.
    For a month I had been roaming afoot over that magnificent country which stretches from Algiers to Cherchell, Orleansville and Tiaret.

One of my friends had said to me: —
    “If you happen to be near Bordj-Ebbaba while you are in Algeria, be sure and go to see my old friend Auballe, who has settled there.”
    I had forgotten the name of Auballe and of Ebbaba, and I was not thinking of this planter, when I arrived at his house by pure accident. For a month, I had been wandering on foot through that magnificent district which extends from Algiers to Cherchell, Orleansville, and Tiaret.

For me, the second from the Delphi Works collection, is far better than the first which is from the ’88 Short Stories’ book. The ‘roaming afoot’ is particularly annoying. So, only time will tell if these books will be as beneficial as they appear to be at the moment.

I am currently trying to match and cross-reference all these different translations to the original French versions on the Story Details page on this blog. I’ve still got to look at the ‘Works’ collection and now have these ’88’ collections as well. The only problem is lack of time, but I’m hoping to complete it over the next few months. At the end it would be nice if we could identify a translation of every story by Maupassant.

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

‘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.

‘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.

‘Mouche’ (short story) by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve been in a real short story mood lately and have enjoyed re-reading some favourite stories as well as discovering new ones. I have particularly been reading a lot of Maupassant’s stories and one of my favourites is called Mouche, which appears at the end of the Penguin edition called Selected Short Stories and has the subtitle Reminiscences of a Rowing Man. Maupassant loved boats and the sea and as a result, a lot of his stories take place within this environment.

Be warned that I reveal the whole plot in what follows. Unlike some of Maupassant’s stories that have surprise endings I don’t think that knowing the ending of this one particularly harms the reader’s enjoyment as it easily stands up to repeated readings.

Mouche starts off with the elderly narrator reminiscing about a carefree period in his early twenties when he was skint and compares it with his current life:

I was a penniless clerk at the time; now I’m a successful man who can throw away huge sums to gratify a passing whim. I had a thousand modest, unattainable desires in my heart which gilded my existence with fantastic hopes. Today, I really can’t think of anything that would induce me to get out of the armchair where I sit dozing.

He fondly remembers that during this period he lived with four friends in a dormitory; they were all quite different but got on with each other perfectly. They spent most of their time on their boat, the only problem being that they didn’t have a woman alongside to ‘provide excitement, amusement and distraction’ – but no ordinary woman would do, they wanted someone ‘unusual, odd, ready for anything’. Well, one day one of the friends, N’a-qu’un-Oeil, brought along a lively, skinny girl who quickly captivated the five young men. I love Maupassant’s initial description of her:

She was a sweet girl but not really pretty, a rough sketch of a woman with a little of everything in her, one of those silhouettes which artists draw in three strokes on the tablecloth in a café after dinner, between a glass of brandy and a cigarette. Nature sometimes turns out creatures like that.

She was soon christened Mouche (fly) though no one could quite remember why. She talked incessantly and the men loved hearing the outlandish things she came up with which often made them laugh. All the men found her attractive and she ended up sleeping with all of them. Only N’a-qu’un-Oeil seemed to be unaware of what was going on, until he let slip a remark that revealed he knew. After that the others backed off and left N’a-qu’un-Oeil and Mouche alone as lovers.

After about three months Mouche started acting strangely, more irritable. N’a-qu’un-Oeil revealed to his friends that she was pregnant but they should not try to determine the father of the baby, but instead they should all agree to adopt the child. When Mouche heard of their decision she was overcome with gratitude for her friends.

However, one day when trying to embark from the boat she slipped, banged her belly against the quayside and fell into the water. Her friends pulled her from the water but she eventually miscarried. The young men stayed with her during this difficult period and were upset with her misfortune. The story culminates with the following wonderful ending:

Then N’a-qu’un-Oeil, who perhaps loved her more than any of us, hit on a wonderful idea to calm her down. Kissing her tear-dimmed eyes, he said: “Cheer up, Mouche dear, cheer up. We’ll make you another one.”

The sense of humour which was in her very bones suddenly came alive, and half convinced, half laughing, with tears still in her eyes and her heart full of pain, she looked around at us all and asked: “Honest?”

And we answered as one man: “Honest.”

This ending is just wonderful, in part, I feel, because the whole story is not really what we would expect from a nineteenth century auhor, even a French one. The topics of free love, alternative lifestyles, guilt-free sex are ones we don’t really associate with the nineteenth century and this may be the reason why it’s not included in the Victorian collection that’s available on Project Gutenberg.

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

Afloat (Sur l’eau)

AfloatCover

I am alone, really alone, really free. The smoke of the train runs along the seaside; while I float in a winged home that is rocked and cradled; pretty as a bird, tiny as a nest, softer than a hammock, wandering over the waters at the caprice of the wind, independent and free! To attend to me and sail my boat, I have two sailors at my call, and books and provisions for a fortnight.

Afloat is a delightful surprise! De Maupassant kept a diary during a voyage in his yacht, the Bel-Ami. Included are descriptions of some of the places he visited and comments on interesting past visits or histories.

Cornell University Library graciously provided images of Laura Ensor’s translation of Sur l’eau (1888) via Internet Archive. Free Literature converted the page images to text and Afloat is now available free in numerous formats at Project Gutenberg.

‘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.