Tag Archives: Guy de Maupassant

‘Pierre and Jean’ by Guy de Maupassant

Pierre and Jean was Maupassant’s fourth novel and was originally published in 1888. It’s a short novel, running to only about 130 pages in my edition, but Maupassant, well used to short-stories, doesn’t hang about and gets the story moving from page 1.

It begins on a boat; Gérôme Roland is fishing and he is accompanied by his wife, Louise, their two sons, Pierre and Jean, and the young attractive widow Mme Rosémilly. M. Roland is a retired jeweller from Paris who decided to move to Le Havre once he had made enough money. Pierre the older son had tried various professions but has recently qualified as a doctor, while the younger son, Jean, who is more diligent has recently passed his diploma in law. Both brothers are looking to set themselves up in business in Le Havre. There is an element of competition between the brothers and both have an eye for Mme Rosémilly.

When they return from their boating expedition the servant informs M. Roland that his lawyer, M. Lecanu, wishes to speak to him urgently. It turns out that an old friend of the family from their Parisian days, M. Maréchal, has recently died and left his inheritance to Jean, whom he thinks is worthy of this legacy. Everyone is shocked but overjoyed, and of course a little sad of the death of their friend whom they had nearly forgotten about. But why does he only leave the money to Jean, and not also Pierre? M. Roland argues that it was because Maréchal was present at the birth of Roland’s second son.

Both Jean and Pierre are a little dazed by the events and both go out separately for a walk. Pierre is out of sorts and wonders if he is jealous of Jean. He admits he is a little jealous but won’t let that stop loving his brother. When Pierre goes to visit a friend of his and recounts the day’s news the friend says, without elaborating further, “That won’t look good”, but Pierre has no idea why he says that. Later, when talking to a barmaid about the inheritance she innocently mentions that it’s no wonder that Jean looks nothing like Pierre. It’s a little later that he realises what these comments mean; that Maréchal must have left the money to Jean because Jean was Maréchal’s son, which also means that Pierre’s beloved mother must have had an affair behind his father’s back. Now the seed has been sown in Pierre’s mind he keeps thinking and thinking, digging deeper and deeper. He tries to remember Maréchal from his youth and remembers a photograph of him that used to be in the house. Pierre wonders what he should do, after all at this stage they are only suspicions, but even if they were untrue it could easily lead to gossip and be a threat to his mother’s honour. But Pierre is unable to tell Jean his suspicions as the others are all celebrating their good fortune. Instead, Pierre tries to find out more about Maréchal from his parents.

    He kept on saying to himself: ‘Why has this Maréchal left all his money to Jean?’
     It was no longer jealousy that made him seek an answer, not the rather unworthy but natural envy he knew was hidden inside him and that he had been fighting against for three days, but terror of an appalling thing, terror of believing that his brother Jean was the son of this man!

But poor Pierre doesn’t know what to think; if it’s true then it means that his beloved mother had an affair. But he soon admits that it could be true.

    Certainly she might have loved just like any other woman. For why should she be different from any other even though she was his mother?

So, I wondered at this stage of the novel how a typical nineteenth century writer may have ended it: the mother may die of guilt and shame; the brothers may have fought over Pierre’s suspicions with one or the other dying or living their life in poverty; Pierre may have convinced Jean to give up the inheritance to protect their mother’s reputation, etc. etc. None of these are correct. I shall reveal the ending in what follows so you may wish to stop reading at this point if you don’t want to know the ending. Instead, after seeing the picture of Maréchal, Pierre is convinced that Jean is Maréchal’s son and finally confronts Jean with this information. Pierre has become increasingly irritable over the last few weeks and by now Pierre suspects that his mother knows of his suspicions. Jean thinks Pierre is just jealous of him, especially as he’s just announced his marriage to Mme Rosémilly. But Pierre unburdens himself and when he’s finished he leaves. The story up to now has been from Pierre’s viewpoint but it now cleverly switches to Jean’s viewpoint. Jean quietly tries to process the information and then goes to his mother, who was in the next room when Pierre blurted everything out, and asks her if were true. When she acknowledges that it is true she is prepared to depart from his life forever, however, Jean is having none of it and offers her love and protection.

Alone, Jean thinks about the events of the night and what needs to be done:

If he had learned the secret of his birth in any other way he would certainly have been outraged and felt a deep resentment, but after his quarrel with his brother, after this violent and brutal accusation which had shaken his nerves, the heartbreaking emotion of his mother’s confession took away all his energy to revolt. The shock to his feelings had been violent enough to sweep away all the prejudices and pious susceptibilties of natural morality on an irresistible wave of emotion.

He contemplates giving up the inheritance but reasons that he can no longer claim any inheritance from M. Roland as that is Pierre’s by right so then the inheritance from Maréchal is then his by right. The next day Jean arranges, with Pierre’s acceptance, to organise a doctor’s position on a cruise ship for Pierre. Pierre is quite happy to go as he’s now guilty about blurting out his suspicions to Jean and it will give him an income for a while as well as some time to think. M. Roland meanwhile is totally oblivious to everything that’s going on around him.

Pierre is not sure what his mother told Jean but seems happy enough to allow everything to carry on as normal. It’s funny how Maupassant subverts the nineteenth century novel with Pierre, the legitimate son, having to make way for Jean, the illegitimate son and it’s odd how no-one in the novel thought that splitting the inheritance between Pierre and Jean was a viable solution.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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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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‘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 the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘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 the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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