‘A Confirmed Bachelor’ by Arthur Schnitzler

A Confirmed Bachelor is a novella included in the collection Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death. It was originally translated by E.C. Slade in 1924 and published under the title Dr Graesler. The original German version was published in 1917 as Doktor Gräsler, Badearzt.

The story begins with the forty-eight year old Dr Graesler leaving his winter home in Lanzarote following the recent suicide of his sister. To Graesler’s annoyance the manager of the hotel suggests that Graesler should return the following year with a young wife. Graesler briefly visits his house in Berlin before continuing to a health resort elsewhere in the country where he has practised for six years. Before long Graesler attends to an elderly patient, Frau Schleheim, and is drawn into socialising with the Schleheim family. Dr Graesler is especially attracted to the daughter of the family, Sabine. Sabine is twenty-seven, quite serious and has had past experience working as a nurse in Berlin. One evening conversation turns to a local dillapidated sanotorium that is possibly up for sale. It would need renovating but the idea is put into Graesler’s head about running the sanatorium. Sabine is very enthusiastic about this project and is eager to assist Graesler in turning this into reality. She also offers to help with the adminstration of the spa, obviously looking forward to doing something useful and productive with her time. They spend hours together discussing the renovation and Graesler goes to visit the current owner who is eager to sell. After an evening with the Schleheims Graesler takes leave of Sabine:

He held Sabine’s hand a few moments, then raised it to his lips and kissed it fervently. She made no attempt to withdraw it, and when he looked up he thought her expression seemed more contented, even brighter.

Though Sabine and Graesler are both a bit awkward when it comes to matters of love both seem to be falling for each other. The following day, though, Graesler receives a letter from Sabine stating that she would like to marry Graesler if he were to offer. She admits that she doesn’t yet love him but their friendship is close to love. She reveals her past loves and discusses the future of the sanatorium in a cool manner. Graesler is a bit confused by the cool, dispassionate way that she has worked everything out, their marriage, the sanatorium, she even takes time to dissect his character; he notes to himself that she had correctly observed that he was priggish, vain, cold and irresolute. He wonders what else she may think after several years of married life. Graesler doesn’t know how to respond to this so he basically panics. He was already going to leave for Berlin in a few days time so he decides to leave earlier, i.e. straight away; he sends Sabine a letter informing her that he will return in two weeks time with an answer.

Whilst in Berlin Graesler is at a bit of a loose end and so he rummages through his dead sister’s possessions, he visits his lawyer, Böhlinger, and chats up a girl on the tram. The girl, Katharina, agrees to go to the theatre with him that evening and returns to his flat for supper. It’s not long before Katharina, who works in a glove shop, is living with him. Graesler also gets drawn in to attending a neighbour’s daughter who possibly has scarlet fever but who soon recovers. But now Graesler begins to think of Sabine and wonders if he had made a mistake.

More and more it seemed to him that Katharina’s true mission had been to lead him back to Sabine, whose love was to be for him the real meaning of his life. And the more trustingly Katharina—with no ulterior end in view—offered him the treasures of her gay, young heart, the more impatiently and hopefully his deepest yearnings went out to Sabine.

Note I will reveal the whole of the story in the rest of the post so you may wish to skip it if you don’t want to know the ending.

And so Graesler rushes back to the spa town to see Sabine and ask her forgiveness and to close the deal over the sanatorium. But the sanatorium is no longer up for sale and Sabine is no longer interested and wants nothing to do with him. Graesler now decides that Katharina is his soulmate and imagines returning to parade her in front of Sabine. So he heads back to Berlin only to find that Katharina is in bed with scarlet fever, possibly as a result of his contact with the neighbour’s girl. He stays with her until she dies and is upset by her death. After staying with Böhlinger for a few days he returns to his flat and bumps in to Frau Sommer and her child, Fanny, who had recovered from scarlet fever. Within a month Graesler has married Frau Sommer and the story ends with them visiting his hotel in Lanzarote to spend the winter.

This is an excellent story by Schnitzler, the character Dr Graesler is certainly annoying, he’s morally dubious and all the criticisms that Sabine accused him of are correct. But aren’t we all a little bit like Graesler at times? I suspect I am, and it’s not nice seeing such characteristics laid bare for all to see. It’s curious though that for Graesler everything turns out just peachy in the end.

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‘The Spring Sonata’ by Arthur Schnitzler

I recently enjoyed reading Schnitzler’s posthumously published work Late Fame and felt like reading some more. As I had a copy of the collection of four stories, Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death, I could easily satisfy my hunger for more Schnitzler. He’s an interesting writer as he straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, he’s experimenting a bit with style that would seem quite alien to the 19th century writer and he’s obviously interested in delving deeper into the psychology of his characters.

The longest story, at 160 pages, and the last in the collection is called The Spring Sonata. The notes say that this was a 1914 translation by J.H. Wisdom and Marr Murray and was originally titled Bertha Garlan. The original story was titled Frau Bertha Garlan and was published in 1900. I have been trying to track down what Schnitzler translations are available generally and have collected the information here.

Bertha is a widow and has a young son Fritz. She was twenty-six years old when she married Victor Garlen who had proposed following the deaths of her father and mother. She did not love him. Victor died three years after their marriage. She now lives with her brother-in-law’s family and to earn some money she gives piano lessons to children of the town. Her life is comfortable but a little tedious.

It seemed to her as if it had been an unpleasant day. She went over the actual events in her mind, and was astonished to find that, after all, the day had been like many hundreds before it and many, many more that were yet to come.

One day Bertha sees an advert for a concert by Emil Lindbach. Lindbach had been the only man that she had loved twelve years before when she was still a student.

Bertha is friendly with Herr and Frau Rupius. Herr Rupius is paralysed and enjoys examining engravings. Frau Rupius is still young looking and healthy and enjoys visiting Vienna frequently, possibly to have love affairs. Bertha misses the Vienna of her youth and when Frau Rupius invites her to accompany her the following day to Vienna she accepts.

On arrival in Vienna Bertha is self-conscious of her provincial clothes. After visiting a dressmaker Bertha visits her cousin and arranges to meet up with Frau Rupius for the return train. She spends time walking round some of the places that she and Emil used to frequent.

The following day she looks through some of her old letters including those between her and Emil. There hadn’t been an actual break in their relationship, they had just drifted apart. Upon seeing in a newspaper that Emil had received an award she decides, on an impulse, to send him a congratulatory letter and to Bertha’s delight Emil responds quickly suggesting that they should meet next time she’s in Vienna. She replies to Emil and arranges to stay in Vienna for a couple of days and to meet Emil at a museum. Bertha tries to confide in Frau Rupius but she feels a little intimidated by her.

Before her trip she is propositioned in the street by Klingemann, whom she finds odious, and visits Herr Rupius who suspects that his wife is about to leave him and is in an emotional state.

Bertha is excited about meeting Emil and as she walks about Vienna before their meeting she fantasises about living in Vienna with Emil.

Yes, it would be very nice to live in Vienna and be able to do just as she liked. Well, who could say how everything would turn out, what the next few hours would bring forth, what prospects for her future life that evening would open out before her? What was it then, that really forced her to live in that dreadful little town?

The meeting goes very well, they talk as if there hadn’t been a twelve year break in their relationship, but Emil has to rush off after they arrange to meet later that evening. She then spends the day thinking about the evening and what it means to her.

I won’t reveal any more of the story as it will ruin it for anyone wishing to read it themselves. I was half-dreading some 19th century type of ending where Bertha will be punished for her ‘immoral’ escapades but was relieved to find that Schnitzler was a lot cleverer than that. The beauty of Schnitzler’s writing is his unobtrusive stream-of-consciousness approach where we get to see how Bertha’s thoughts on Emil, her own life, the Rupius’ lives etc. go through subtle changes over the days following her trip to Vienna which are fascinating to read. The story has a dramatic ending, though thankfully not melodramatic, and has a sort of moral or summary of the whole story which I’ll quote below and which surely points towards a 20th century morality.

Bertha divined what an enormous wrong had been wrought against the world in that the longing for pleasure is placed in woman just as in man; and that with women that longing is a sin, demanding expiation, if the yearning for pleasure is not at the same time a yearning for motherhood.

This story is available on Project Gutenberg as Bertha Garlan and looks as if it is the same translation as in my copy.

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‘Homo Americanus’ by Raymond Pettibon

Censored version of cover

Censored version of cover

For those of us who grew up listening to punk rock and other alternative music the name Raymond Pettibon is inextricably linked to the US punk band Black Flag. Pettibon designed the four bar logo and even came up with the name. But it is his contribution to the artwork for the album covers and flyers that was his main contribution to the band. Indeed it’s difficult thinking of the band without also thinking of the images that Pettibon created. His original work was in black & white pen and ink, the themes were generally about violence, hippies, punks, suburbia etc. Typically his work was a single page comic-art drawing with a short description or speech that was either intended to shock or be taken ironically.

For years I had tried to get some books or magazines that contained his artwork but had no luck. I had seen copies of his magazine, Tripping Corpse, advertised along with the Black Flag merchandise but it was impossible to obtain here in the UK. Even since the advent of the internet I had looked to see if there were any collections available (at a reasonable price) of Pettibon’s work but whenever I had looked the results were sparse. However at the end of last year I came across this huge book that had been released containing artwork from Pettibon’s career from his punk days up to the present day. I had to get it.

Pettibon’s work is now considered worthy of gallery space rather than as a throwaway flyer for a punk band. I’m not sure what to make of this but if it allows him to continue to work, and get paid for it, then it’s a good thing in my eyes. The book, Homo Americanus, is an excellent overview of his work and although it’s arranged thematically we can see how his work has changed and progressed over the years. Pettibon’s early work was always black & white and although I’m a big fan of black & white pen and ink/comic art I find that Pettibon handles colour excellently in his work. Specific examples, which can be seen in the gallery below, are the pictures of hearts which are all in glorious blood reds and his surfer pictures, especially the one where the sea is in red, rather than blue, giving the impression that the surfer is surfing on fire rather than water.

Other themes of interest are steam trains, penises, the bible, Gumby, Jesus, Charles Manson, surfing, baseball, mushroom clouds, the Easter Island statues, the Iraq war etc. Of his later work I particularly like some of the Easter Island statue pieces as well as the heart and surfing ones. I’m not too keen on the pieces where he started to add huge amounts of text to the work, much of it is obscure and has little relevance to the work even if it is relevant for the artist.

The book also contains commentaries by Pettibon that explain the background to the pieces together with how and why they were produced. There are also notes and biographical details at the back of the book. Looking online there is still a hell of a lot of material that isn’t included in this book, especially of his earlier work, but this book should keep any fan of Pettibon’s work satisfied for now.

Please note that the cover picture at the top of the post was censored by me as I wasn’t too sure how sensitive people are about images of erect penises popping up on whatever device they’re using to view this post. I have however included the uncensored cover image in the gallery below. I know that sometimes when I view a post on my phone’s app it doesn’t always choose the main picture as the header so if you get one of the uncensored pictures then I must apologise. I tried to limit too many violent or sexual images in the gallery but if you are especially sensitive to such things then it may be best to avoid looking at it as it’s difficult to totally avoid it with Pettibon’s work and I didn’t want to sanitise it too much.

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‘Fat City’ by Leonard Gardner

gardner_fat-cityFat City was first published in 1969 and is the only novel by Leonard Gardner. It has recently been republished by New York Review of Books in the U.S. and by Pushkin Press in the U.K. It was made into a film in 1972 which was directed by John Huston and starred Stacy Keach & Jeff Bridges; the screenplay was written by Leonard Gardner himself. I saw the film years ago and though I liked it I remember being a little underwhelmed by it. I would like to watch the film again to see what I make of it now but seeing that the book was published in January this year by Pushkin Press I thought I’d read it as part of Stu’s Pushkin Press Fortnight. It gets labeled as a ‘boxing novel’ which could be enough to put me off a book but it’s not about boxing but about the boxers themselves.

The novel takes place mostly in Stockton, California; I’m not sure about the time period but the Wikipedia article suggest the late ’50s; in a way it doesn’t really matter too much as it’s all quite timeless which is something that I like about a lot of good American literature. The two main characters are Billy Tully, a man nearing his thirtieth birthday, whose wife left him a few years before and with whom he is still in love and Ernie Munger, a young kid who works at a late night petrol station. Tully hasn’t boxed for years but is looking to get back into it while Munger is a young kid just starting out. Tully is not only past his prime but he has a drink problem as well. His life consists of low-wage jobs, cheap bars and cheap hotels. But he’s trying to get back into boxing as he believes he still has a few good years in him and so he heads to a gym to have a workout and meets the eighteen year old Ernie Munger whom he spars with. Tully is impressed with Ernie and encourages him to see his old manager, Ruben, at the Lido Gym. Tully realises how out of shape he is and heads for his local bar where he meets the regulars Earl and Oma. All the main characters are introduced in this first chapter and it’s interesting how the subsequent chapters follow the individuals in their separate lives only for them to interact further on. It’s not a groundbreaking technique but it’s expertly done and suits the story that Gardner is telling.

Most of the characters are living on the edge in some way but none are completely broken and they still have dreams. Tully for example is trying to revive his boxing career, but he can’t help looking back, back to when he was with his wife and his boxing career was on the way up.

That period had been the peak of his life, though he had not realized it then. It had gone by without time for reflection, ending while he was still thinking things were going to get better. He had not realized the ability and local fame he had then was all he was going to have.

But as he tried to advance his career he found he wasn’t up to it and he began to lose bouts and then his wife. The quote continues…

Nor had his manager realized it when he moved him up to opponents of national importance. That knowledge had been mercilessly pounded into Tully in a half dozen bouts as he swung and missed and staggered, eyes closed to slits. Then he had looked to his wife for some indefinable endorsement, some solicitous comprehension of the pain and sacrifice he felt he endured for her sake, some always withheld recognition of the rites of virilty. Waiting, he drank.

When Ernie goes to the Lido Gym Ruben Luna, Tully’s old manager, is impressed with him and believes he shows promise and manages to get a bout arranged for him. Ernie starts going out with Faye Murdock and when she becomes pregnant they marry. Tully, meanwhile, is moving from hotel to hotel when he either can’t pay or just feels like moving on. He works as a fruit picker, carries on drinking heavily and training at the gym. Getting to the hotel one night at midnight with the intention of getting up at four in the morning to go to work he broods:

And was this where he was going to grow old? Would it all end in a room like this?[…]Then the abeyant melancholy of the evening came over him. He sat with his shoulders slumped under the oppression of the room, under the impasse that was himself, the utter, hopeless thwarting that was his blood and bones and flesh. Afraid of a crisis beyond his capacity, he held himself in, his body absolutely still in the passing and fading whine and rumble of a truck.

Despite the quotes used it isn’t unremittently bleak or depressing. The characters are all expertly drawn by Gardner. When Tully shacks up with Oma we can tell that they’re just going to be with each other for a short while; Oma only needs Tully whilst Earl is in prison and Tully only needs Oma to bolster his spirits for a while and besides it’s cheaper renting together. Gardner handles the fight scenes excellently; I was glad he didn’t spend too much time on the details and that he avoided making it dramatic, instead the boxing matches are quite mundane in a way. I won’t reveal much more about the story but a match is arranged for Tully, one he should win and needs to win. The novel ends rather abruptly, leaving us to wonder what would happen to both Tully and Ernie, but the ending works well as we’ve just caught sight of one character near the end of his career and another at the beginning of his. We have the sense though that Ernie’s life will be similar to Tully’s.

gardner_fat-city-nyrbAlthough I read the Pushkin Press version I don’t particularly like the cover as it seems to imply that it’s a tale of childhood, something similar to the film Cinema Paradiso, which it isn’t, it’s more along the lines of a Charles Bukowski story. I much prefer the NYRB cover with its photograph of a grim urban street with the kind of gym that I envisaged when reading the book.

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‘Late Fame’ by Arthur Schnitzler

schnitzler_latefamefront2Late Fame was first published by Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) in 2014…eh…what? Yes, Late Fame is a ‘discovered’ book by Schnitzler, although even that’s complicated, I mean it was discovered but people sort of knew it existed. I’ll start again. Late Fame was completed in 1895 and submitted for publication in the periodical Die Zeit but wasn’t published due to the difficulties of serialising it. Why it wasn’t then published in another format or as a book is unclear but it was then largely forgotten about. After Schnitzler’s death and the occupation of the Nazis his archives were smuggled out of Vienna to Cambridge University by the co-operation of the British Consulate and a visiting PhD student Eric Blackall who was writing his doctorate on Adalbert Stifter. Although other works from the archives were published, Late Fame was not. If you want to know more then the afterword is very informative as well as this page on the Pushkin Press website.

I read this as part of Stu’s ‘Pushkin Press Fortnight’ at Winston’s Dad Blog.

I would like to thank Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat for sending me a copy as a giveaway prize back in November last year.

The novella begins with the elderly civil servant Herr Eduard Saxberger returning home after an uneventful day from work. Rather surprisingly he has a visitor, a young man called Wolfgang Meier, who reveals that he and his friends are huge fans of Saxberger’s book of poetry, Wanderings, written thirty years previously. Wanderings was Saxberger’s only published work and he had nearly forgotten it had existed until his visit from Meier. Meier is a writer who he belongs to a group of young artists called “Enthusiasm” and he invites Saxberger to attend one of their meetings. When he is sent Meier’s book of poetry the following day Saxberger finds it difficult reading the poetry of this young man, he just doesn’t understand it. He then refers back to his own poems and although he’s initially unfamiliar with them they soon evoke his earlier life.

So these—these were the Wanderings for which the youth of Vienna had yesterday sent him their thanks. Had he deserved them? He would not have been able to say. The whole sorry life that he had led now passed through his mind. Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man, that not only the hopes, but also the disappointments lay far behind him. A dull hurt rose up in him. He put the book aside, he could not read on. He had the feeling that he had long since forgotten about himself.

Saxberger is introduced to Meier’s group and is treated reverently as the esteemed author of the Wanderings. Some of the artists of the “Enthusiasm” group, it is explained in the afterword, are based on real people known by Schnitzler but it is not necessary to know any details as the characters are outlined perfectly by Schnitzler. There’s Blink the cynical critic, Christian who writes historical plays, young Winder who ends up being most besotted by Saxberger and amongst others there is also the ageing actress Fräulein Gasteiner. Saxberger’s life is changed by being introduced to this group of admirers, for the first time he is treated respectfully and as a man of importance.

The group decides that they want to put on a poetry event and they want Saxberger to contribute a new poem. But this is where the problems begin because Saxberger has not written anything for over thirty years. He sits at his desk, goes for walks along the canal but he has no inspiration and instead prefers spending time with his old friends watching billiards. In the end it is agreed that Gasteiner will read a couple of his poems from Wanderings at the event. As the book proceeds we experience subtle shifts of Saxberger’s mental state and in how he fits in with this new group. As the other characters become more familiar Saxberger feels that he is respected less but reflects that this is not necessarily a bad thing as it means that he has been accepted by them.

Schnitzler handles the poetry event brilliantly; there are no major disasters but the level of public interest is pretty low. But Saxberger realises that the applause he receives is rather meaningless as the audience applauds every act. An event occurs that only he notices when he is onstage being applauded as the author of the poems:

The ovation roared around him. He felt nothing in particular, hardly even the embarrassment he had feared. He had to go up again—this time without Fräulein Gasteiner, and it was a little peculiar to him to hear the noise of clapping hands and the loud shouts of “Bravo”. He bowed several times, turned to the door and then, just as the clapping was getting weaker, he heard a voice from slightly behind him, or to the side—he couldn’t quite tell—but the words were perfectly distinct, no matter how quietly they had been said: “Poor devil!” He wanted to look around, but he felt that that would seem absurd.

Who said this and what, exactly, did they mean? Saxberger can’t understand it.

This is a brilliant little novella and it’s surprising that Schnitzler didn’t push for its publication in some form or other. I’ve already revealed too much of the story but the ending is expertly handled; in keeping with the rest of the story it’s subtle, effective and, dare I say, heartwarming.

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‘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 the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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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 the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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