Sunday, February 14, 2016

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

 “FORT COMME LA MORT” (“Strong as Death”) by Guy de Maupassant (first published in serial form, then in book form, in 1889) 

For love is as strong as death, its jealousy as lasting as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame”, it says in Chapter 8 of the Song of Songs (or Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon if you prefer). This seems an unequivocal statement of the power of (sexual) love, doesn’t it? But the realist in me immediately points out that if love is really as strong as death then, logically, death must be as strong as love. And in death love dies.
I’m not sure if Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) consciously worked it out this way, but in his novel Fort Comme La Mort (Strong as Death – I have yet to see an English translation of the novel) he is at least as fixated on ageing, decay and the inevitability of death as he is on love, even if an unconsummated and rather pointless love is ostensibly the focus of the novel.
As I have remarked before on this blog (look up the posting on Pierre et Jean), de Maupassant tends to be known to Anglophone readers solely as the writer of short stories, in which genre he was indeed prodigious. This ignores the fact that he also published six novels, and left two more incomplete when he died. Fort Comme La Mort is regarded by the French as one of his best, even if it is scarcely known to the outside world. (Only once has it ever been filmed – as a French TV drama.) What interests me is that the novel was written by a man who was about to turn 40, and it clearly reflects the sense many get at that age that youth is irretrievably gone. Indeed the middle age of the main character (who is nearly 50) is as crucial to the novel’s meaning as Josef K’s reaching the age of 30 is to the meaning of Kafka’s TheTrial. Only hindsight lets us know that de Maupassant, who died at the age of 43, never lived into the old age that he apparently feared.
Olivier Bertin is a successful society portrait painter. His long-term mistress is the Comtesse Anne de Guilleroy, whose husband is a conservative member of parliament.  (“Anne” is apparently an abbreviation of Antoinette, and Bertin frequently addresses her as “Any” i.e. “Annie”.) The time is the early Third Republic of the 1880s, but many tone-ier members of the possessing classes still hanker for royalty and its titles. Like husbands in so many of de Maupassant’s work, the Comte de Guilleroy is a harmless, complaisant, unsuspecting chap who thinks that his wife and the artist are “just good friends”, especially as Olivier Bertin once painted an admired portrait of Anne.
Bertin paints, goes to his club, visits Anne and her family, and joins in the social chitter-chatter with his pals, although when they boast of their sexual conquests he tactfully says “Moi, je me contente de mes modeles.” (Part One, Chapter 3). But Bertin is increasingly unhappy. He’s losing his touch as a painter. Like a “blocked” writer, he’s run out of ideas. Worse, while he can remember the happy days of his first seduction of Anne (it is recalled in the opening chapter), and while she is still his good pal and confidante, the fire has gone out of their liaison.
And then he begins to notice Anne’s adolescent daughter Annette. To Anne, Bertin’s interest in Annette is at first unexceptionable. He is avuncular towards Annette and a part of a social group in which the girl is always chaperoned. But Bertin’s feelings for the girl become an obsession. In her, he sees a purer and more beautiful and more vibrant and (most crucially) younger version of his mistress. It doesn’t help that people often remark on how like the portrait of Anne (painted years previously) the young Annette looks. At first we think that this is heading towards the seduction of the girl by the middle-aged man – a “dirty old man” story verging on paedophilia, or a nineteenth century Lolita.
But that is not the way Fort Comme La Mort develops.
Step by step, and in painful psychological detail, de Maupassant shows how much the artist deceives himself in imagining that there is nothing sexual in his feelings and then how much he deceives himself in thinking that he can somehow recapture his youth through the girl. And it is clear that he hardly knows how the girl thinks or what the core of her being is anyway.
Stages of his obsession are chronicled. At one point, his mistress Anne’s mother dies. Anne goes into deep mourning. We as readers have the distinct impression that there is something as forced in her grief as there is in the attention that Bertin now pays to her, when his mind is preoccupied with her daughter. The trusting Comte de Guilleroy invites Bertin down to his country estate to comfort his wife and bring her out of her grief by taking her to Paris. But in the country setting, Bertin’s fixation increases. When Anne plays the piano for him, Bertin gazes instead at the listening Annette to the point where Anne asks him to look at her for a change. When the three of them walk in the country estate in the balmy summer season, far from the urban stinks of Paris to which Bertin is accustomed, the scene is like Eden to him. He watches the girl and
“… de plus en plus, d’heure en heure, elle activait en lui l‘evocation d’autrefois! Elle avait des rires, des gentillesses, des mouvements qui lui mettaient sur la bouche le gout des baisers donnes et rendus jadis: sensation precise, quelque chose de pareil a un present reve; elle brouillait les epoques, les dates, les ages de son coeur, les rallumant des emotions refroidies, melait, sans qu’il s’en doutat, hier avec demain, le souvenir avec esperance.” (Part Two, Chapter 2)
[“….more and more, from hour to hour, she aroused in him the sense of old times! Her laughter, her sweet manners, her movements all filled his mouth with the taste of kisses given and received long ago: it was an exact feeling, like a dream version of the present; she stirred up the eras, the dates, the different ages of his heart, lighting once again emotions that had long since died, mixing, without his fully suspecting it, yesterday with tomorrow, memory with hope.” – Pardon my clumsy translations in this notice.]
By this stage we realize that young Annette is as much pretext as object of desire. She is the past, which the roué cannot recapture. But also by this stage Anne is becoming aware of Bertin’s obsession. She begins to find stratagems to remove Annette from Bertin, especially when Bertin takes mother and daughter to his studio to paint a portrait of Annette as “Reverie”. The Comte and Comtesse de Guilleroy are in the process of arranging the marriage of Annette to the young, handsome, athletic and eligible Marquis de Farandal. The mere thought of this marriage overwhelms Olivier Bertin with irrational feelings of jealousy directed at the young marquis, directed at younger males, directed at the world in general. To make it more humiliating, Olivier Bertin is fully aware that his feelings are irrational and very nearly puerile.
But there they are.
The time comes when Anne at last sits down with her old lover and, as he frankly admits his obsession, she tries to persuade him that he will recover only if he never sees Annette again. Somewhere in their feverish exchanges, Bertin says: “Elle, je l’aime comme vous, puisque c’est vous; mais cet amour est devenu quelque chose d’irresistible, de destructeur, de plus fort que la mort. Je suis a lui comme une maison qui brule est au feu!” (Part Two, Chapter 6)
[“I love her like you because it is you; but this love has become something irresistible and destructive, stronger than death. I’m drawn to her as a burning house is drawn to fire.”]
            Like Pierre et Jean, Fort Comme La Mort is an intense study of the corrosive effects of an unhealthy obsession upon a single individual. For nearly the whole of the novel we are locked inside the head of this individual, although the narrative is in the third person. In Fort Comme La Mort however, there are some passages where we break free of Olivier Bertin’s thoughts to see what Anne is thinking – and here we discover her fear of being abandoned by her lover and her silent soliloquies before the mirror as she looks at her crow’s feet and compares herself with her daughter. Though not as irrational as her lover, she is just as consumed with time and ageing.
            I cannot say that this novel is all of a piece. To round it off, de Maupassant dips (in the last fifteen pages) into pure melodrama, sparked by Bertin’s seeing a review in a newspaper condemning his art as old-fashioned. This denouement involves a lurid death scene and the burning of love letters. There are touches of heavy-handed symbolism. The humid streets of Paris in summer – oppressing the worn-out Bertin – contrast with the Edenic country estate where Annette walks. There is a scene where Bertin goes to a Turkish bath, which Annette’s young fiancé the Marquis de Farandal is also attending, and the younger man’s naked body contrasts with Bertin’s, like spring and autumn personified. Most obviously, there is a scene where the leading characters go to the opera. On stage is a performance of Gounod’s Faust. With Annette is his sight lines, Bertin identifies with the saturnine necromancer’s wish to be young again and to make love to a young woman. His ears prick up at Faust’s lines “Je veux un tresor qui les contient tous. Je veux la jeunesse.” (Part Two, Chapter 6) [“I want a treasure containing all the others. I want youth.”] De Maupassant obviously knew his Zola, as the scene is a dead ringer for the one in LaCuree (published 18 years earlier than Fort Comme La Mort) in which stepmother and stepson, involved in a quasi-incestuous relationship, go to the theatre and see a performance of Racine’s Phedre, which echoes their situation.
            So this sombre reflexion on getting old is not as tightly structured as Pierre et Jean and is unlikely ever to have been deemed “perfect” by Henry James. Indeed the biographer Francis Steegmuller, who is generally very sympathetic to de Maupassant, accuses Fort Comme La Mort of suffering from “a most pernicious form of anaemia” and says “it is especially Maupassant’s failure to leave anything unsaid, any action unexplained, any thought unrecorded.” He is, in effect, accusing de Maupassant of being too obvious, spelling things out, and leaving no room for subtext.
Even so, we could also remember that this was the novel which Ford Madox Ford was consciously attempting to emulate when he wrote The Good Soldier. Until Fort Comme La Mort falls apart in melodrama, it gives a bracingly dyspeptic view of Paris and its wealthier society and its artistic circles as seen by an author who, even in his late 30s, was blasé about it all. De Maupassant shows a weary familiarity with the art scene of which Bertin is part when he gives us a set piece (Part One, Chapter 4) describing an art show, with artists jockeying for attention and attempting to devalue one another’s work in subtle and unsubtle ways. (The character of the art critic Musadieu becomes sour comic relief in such scenes). Even when Bertin and Anne are first being introduced to us, we are given a sense of world-weariness in the way fashionable conversation is described:
Connaissant tout le monde, dans tous les mondes, lui comme artiste devant qui toutes les portes s’etaient ouvertes, elle comme femme elegante d’un depute conservateur, ils etaient exerces a ce sport de la causerie francaise fine, banale, aimablement malveillante, inutilement spirituelle, vulgairement distinguee, qui donne une reputation particuliere et tres enviee a ceux dont la langue s’est assouplie a ce bavardage medisant.” (Part One, Chapter 1)
[“Knowing everybody in all sorts of high society, he as an artist to whom all doors were open, she as the elegant wife of a conservative member of parliament, they were drawn into the sport of French chatter – neat, banal, cheerfully malicious, pointlessly witty, vulgarly distinguished; the sort of chatter that can give you a special reputation, and is much treasured by those whose tongues are attuned to destructive gossip.”]
Then there is the advice, which Bertin gives to young Annette early in the novel, on how she can hold her own at dinner-table conversation:
Ecoute bien, Nanette. Tout ce que nous disons la, tu l’entenderas repeter au moins une fois par semaine, jusqu-a ce que tu sois vieille. En huit jours tu sauras par coeur tout ce qu’on pense dans le monde, sur la politique, les femmes, les pieces de theatre et le reste. Il n’yaura qu’a changer les noms des gens ou les titres des oeuvres de temps en temps. Quand tu nous aura tous entendus exposer et defendre notre opinion, tu choisiras paisiblement la tienne parmi celles qu’on doit avoir, et puis tu n’auras plus besoin de penser a rien, jamais; tu n’auras qu’a te reposer.” (Part One, Chapter 2)
[“Now listen carefully, Nanette. Right up until you are an old woman, you’ll hear everything we say here repeated at least once a week. In a week, you will know by heart everything that everyone in society thinks about politics, women, stage plays and all the rest. You just have to change people’s names or the titles of shows from time to time. When you’ve heard us all expound and defend our opinions, all you have to do is choose your own opinion from among those people are supposed to have, and then you won’t have to think about anything ever again. All you’ll have to do is relax.”]
I do not think Fort Comme La Mort is de Maupassant’s best work, but it has its strong moments, both as a reflexion on ageing and the male ego, and as a disenchanted portrait of a society.

Silly Anglophone footnote: I am always interested in Anglicisms that are taken up as fashionable words in other languages. In Fort Comme La Mort, I find de Maupassant speaking of fashionable circles as containing “la fine fleur du high-life” (Part One, Chapter 2), describing Annette’s young fiancé as having “des allures anglaises de sportsman” (Part One, Chapter 2) and also speaking of people who make miniscule fripperies as “des bijoutiers de Lilliput” (Part One, Chapter 3). This is just a selection, although of course the novel was written long before franglais took hold of the French language.

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