‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

A Duel: Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant uses duel as farce in Bel Ami. His main character, Georges (the Bel Ami of the title) is more or less pushed into a duel against a rival journalist, and in order to go through with it, Bel Ami polishes off a bottle of brandy. Of course, the danger is exaggerated, later, with each subsequent retelling of the almost comical event.

In the short story, A Duel, Maupassant presents an entirely different scenario. It’s post Franco-Prussian war, and France is overrun with the victors.

The war was over. The Germans occupied France. The whole country was pulsating like a conquered wrestler beneath the knee of his victorious opponent.

On a train going to join his wife and children who are safe in Switzerland, is a certain M. Dubois “who during the entire siege had served as one of the National Guard in Paris.” Dubois is an unprepossessing figure:

Famine and hardship had not diminished his big paunch so characteristic of the rich, peace-loving merchant. He had gone through the terrible events of the past year with sorrowful resignation and bitter complaints at the savagery of men. Now that he was journeying to the frontier at the close of the war, he saw the Prussians for the first time, although he had done his duty on the ramparts and mounted guard on many a cold night.

Dubois isn’t happy to find himself surrounded by Prussians, and “he stared with mingled fear and anger at those bearded armed men, installed all over French soil as if they were at home, and he felt in his soul a kind of fever of impotent patriotism.” Also in the same railway carriage are two Englishmen who are there as sightseers.  The train stops at a village and a Prussian officer enters. The Englishmen stare with interest at the Prussian while Dubois pretends to read the newspaper. But in spite of Dubois’ attempts to avoid conflict, he’s provoked repeatedly by the Prussian officer who goads and insults Dubois until he can take no more. Given that the title of the story is A Duel, it’s easy to guess where the action goes.

But while the story touches on patriotism (from the author as well as from the characters), the story is also a piece on temperament. The Prussian is spoiling for his next fight while the “impassive” Englishmen are caught in the middle as spectators:

The Englishmen seemed to have become indifferent to all that was going on, as if they were suddenly shut up in their own island, far from the din of the world.

Maupassant volunteered during the Franco-Prussian war and many of his stories, including the unforgettable Boule de Suif (Butterball) are set during the period. While A Duel isn’t one of Maupassant’s  best short stories, it’s interesting for how Maupassant portrays the duel in this instance. A duel is a means of obtaining satisfaction, settling arguments, and while Bel Ami’s duel was really an empty, meaningless event, the duel here is brisk and brutal.

7 pages

Translated by A.E. Henderson & Mme Louise Quesada

Sundays of a Bourgeois: Guy de Maupassant

Monsieur Patissot is the subject of Guy de Maupassant’s short story Sundays of a Bourgeois, a piece that’s really a study in character, and a piece in which Maupassant manages to get a dig in at Zola. M. Patissot is fifty-two when the story begins, and that’s an interesting place to start; he’s set in his career of government service (more of that later) and isn’t as much a failure with women as much as they are not a part of his life (again more of that later). Maupassant makes an argument for his character’s mediocrity–just look at the title alone, and he also lets us know that Patissot “failed in his examinations,” and so began a life of lowly government service through the help of a relative.

The story is broken into sections: Preparations for the Excursion, Fishing Excursion, Two Celebrities, Before the Celebration, An Experiment in Love, and a Dinner and some Opinions. As you can tell from the titles, the stories focus on Patissot’s leisure time, and Maupassant tells us, tongue in cheek, that “the tale of his excursions may be of value to many Parisians who will take them as a model for their own outings, and will thus, through his example, avoid certain mishaps.”

Preparations for the Excursion delves into Patissot’s career. Not destined for greatness,  Patissot “advanced very slowly, and would perhaps, have died a fourth-class clerk,” but for his powers of imitation. Always hoping for a pay raise, he tells himself he  “had too much self-respect” to grovel to “his superiors,” and claimed “his frankness embarrassed many people, for, like all the rest, he protested against injustice and favoritism shown to persons entirely foreign to the bureaucracy.” In spite of these comforting thoughts “his indignant voice never passed beyond the little cage where he worked.” So you can’t really dislike Patissot. He’s not a bad person and there’s a little comic touch to this poor little man who assuages himself with imagined principles which explain and excuse his lowly position. Of course, all those principles go flying out the window in time.

First as a government clerk, then as a Frenchman and finally as a man who believes in order he would adhere to whatever government was established, having an unbounded reverence for authority, except for that of his chiefs.

Patissot finally gets ahead in government office by imitating the appearance of Napoleon III, but he suffers a temporary setback when “the Republic was proclaimed,” His “ape like faculty of imitation,” was stymied until he began sporting a tri-clouded rosette, which, accompanied by a new demeanor, led to more promotions.

In his mid-fifties, health issues lead to an interest in exercise, and this heralds an orgy of consumerism:

He visited a so-called American shoe store, where heavy travelling shoes were shown him. The clerk brought out a kind of ironclad contrivance, studded with spikes like a harrow, which he claimed to be made from Rocky Mountain bison skin. He was so carried away with them that he would willingly have bought two pair, but one was sufficient. He carried them away under his arm, which soon became numb from the weight. He next invested in a pair of corduroy trousers, such as carpenters wear, and a pair of oiled canvas leggings. Then he needed a knapsack for his provisions, a telescope so as to recognize villages perched on the slope of distant hills, and finally a government survey map to enable him to find his way about without asking the peasants toiling in the fields.

Later in the story, in Two Celebrities, Patissot and a cousin travel to Poissy to the home of the painter Meissonier, and once there, the painter proudly gives a tour of his incredible home. Next onto the home of “the author of the Rougon-Macquart series,” Zola. This time we get a description of Zola’s home with “an immense table littered with books, papers and magazines,” and Zola is “stretched out” on an “oriental divan where twenty persons could have slept.”

Patissot and his cousin don’t get far in the conversation department until Patissot tells Zola that he owns a “superb property,” and “then in the heart of the man of letters, the landowner awoke.”  The visit is a success.

An Experiment in Love finds Patissot at the Folies-Bergere where he makes an assignation with one woman only to have another show in her place. Octavie is a tall, loud red-head who creates a series of embarrassing scenes:

Shame overwhelmed Patissot, who as a government employee, had to observe a certain amount of decorum. But Octavie stopped talking, glancing at her neighbours, seized with the overpowering desire which haunts all women of a certain class to make the acquaintance of respectable women. After about five minutes she thought she had found an opening, and, drawing from her pocket a Gil-Blas, she politely offered it to one of the amazed ladies, who declined, shaking her head. Then the big, red-headed girl began saying things with a double meaning, speaking of women who were stuck up without being any better than the others; sometimes she would let out a vulgar word which acted like a bomb exploding amid the icy dignity of the passengers.

Patissot, a man “full of that common sense which borders on stupidity,” isn’t a bad person, just an ordinary one, and his mis-adventures, viewed with just a hint of the malicious, border on comic. Patissot, who’s spent his youth working in a lowly, ill-paid position, finally has the means to do more than simply exist. He is in his 50s before he begins to branch out beyond his employment into any sort of social life, and if a youth in his 20s mis-steps then we have a coming of age story, but with Patissot stumbling along in his 50s, there’s a whiff of both the pathetic and the poignant to his Sunday adventures.