Monday, February 6, 2017
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.
“UNE VIE” (“A LIFE” – sometimes translated as “A Woman’s Life”) by Guy de Maupassant (first published as a serial in the newspaper Gil-Blas in 1883; then in book form as L’Humble Verite )
I’ve visited Paris in each of the last three years, and each time I have done so, one of my delights has been trawling through second-hand bookshops – not just those book booths on the left and right banks of the Seine, but also the excellent purveyors of livres d’occasion around the Place Saint Michel. I also like the habit some booksellers have in France of placing well-preserved second-hand books among new books, marking them for customers’ convenience with a special yellow sticker.
Now for some reason on each of my visits, one of the many books I have snapped up has always been a novel by Guy de Maupassant (1850-93). Why should this be so? I’m really not sure. Perhaps it is the general simplicity of his style (I’m one of those people who has to look up a French-English dictionary for a few words on each page when I am reading a novel in French). Perhaps it is the straightforwardness of his aims. Or perhaps it has been sheer chance. Anyway, on my second visit I bought de Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean (about which I’ve already commented on this blog, as I have on his Fort Comme La Mort) and on my most recent visit I bought his Bel-Ami, about which I will doubtless one day inflict a commentary upon you.
But on my first visit it was Une Vie which I bought and to which I will now turn my attention. This was the first full-length novel de Maupassant wrote (excluding such accomplished novellas as Boule de Suif) after already having launched his better-known career as a prolific writer of short stories.
Une Vie is, as its title says, the story of a life: the whole life of a woman – or at least most of her life, from buoyant youth to sad late middle age. As such it is “plotless” in the sense of allowing one event to follow another, sometimes in the haphazard fashion of real life. And it has its jolts of sensation. As has been noted, de Maupassant inserted into it episodes which he had previously used as the basis for short stories.
The daughter of Norman gentry, young Jeanne is delighted to at last be free of her convent education: “libre enfin pour toujours,” it says on the opening page, “prete a saisir tous les bonheurs de la vie dont elle revait depuis si longtemps”. “At last free forever, ready to grab all the joys of life about which she had dreamed for so long.” She joins her parents the baron and baroness on their estate in Normandy and her head is filled with vague romantic notions. But the tale shows her repeatedly thwarted by reality – and by nasty men. Thinking she is in love, she is persuaded to marry Julien, the young Vicomte de Lamare, even though alert readers can readily see that Julien is mainly interested in advancing his own wealth and prestige by marrying into her family. Before the wedding, Jeanne’s father advises her “N’oublie point ceci, que tu appartiens tout entiere a ton mari” (Chapter 4): “Never forget this – that you belong completely to your husband.” A wife is a husband’s property.
The Corsican honeymoon of Jeanne and Julien is idyllic enough. But Jeanne has her first shock when she has sexual intercourse and finds it disgusting and at odds with the vague romantic ideas of love she had had as a virgin. Physical sex is to her “quelque chose de bestial, de degrandant, une salete enfin” (“something bestial, degrading and finally dirty”) (Chapter 5). She comes to believe that men have nothing in common with the desires of women and that her husband’s sexual demands are at best something to be endured. She prefers to sleep separately from Julien.
Worse follows when she returns to cold, windy, rainy, depressing Normandy (Guy de Maupassant’s homeland). One day while dressing Jeanne’s hair, her faithful young maid Rosalie falls down and gives birth to a baby. It turns out that the baby was fathered by Julien, who warmed Rosalie’s bed whenever Jeanne cold-shouldered him. Jeanne momentarily considers throwing herself off a cliff but (dutiful daughter that she is) is restrained by the thought of how her mother would grieve. Rosalie is taken care of by being married off to a trusting peasant and everyone (including the complaisant local priest) persuades Jeanne that Julien’s behaviour should be forgiven on the basis that “boys will be boys”. So Jeanne forgives him.
By this stage, Jeanne herself is pregnant. When she gives birth to her son, Paul, he becomes the complete focus of her life, giving it such meaning as it has. It takes Jeanne an awfully long time to understand that her husband has embarked on another affair with the wife of a local squire. Even when she does know this, she inveigles Julien into sleeping with her again a few more time so that she can have another child. And then Julien dies. A new and fanatically puritanical priest (as a fervent anti-clerical, de Maupassant always produced negative portraits of priests) tips off the husband of Julien’s new mistress about the couple’s adulterous affair. The husband dispatches his wife and her lover in the most melodramatic way de Maupassant could devise – he pushes over a cliff the shepherd’s hut in which the guilty pair are swiving.
Hearing the news of Julien’s death, Jeanne miscarries her second child.
And Jeanne’s fortunes go down and down. When her mother dies, she discovers letters showing that this apparently righteous woman had lovers just as her father had mistresses. The family inheritance is lost. Rather than living in the chateau in which she was brought up, Jeanne is reduced to living in a drab house in town. Ironically, as she grows older she is looked after by the now-widowed Rosalie and her bastard son. But Jeanne’s consolation is her boy Paul upon whom she dotes, whom she spoils, and whom she visits obsessively when he is sent off to college.
The trouble it, Paul turns out to be a real shit, who runs off, gets involved in shady business affairs, shows no consideration for his mother and indeed exploits her for money. The character of Paul, according the Francis Steegmuller’s literary biography of de Maupassant (published in 1950), was based on de Maupassant’s scapegrace younger brother Herve, who, like Guy de Maupassant himself, ended up insane.
Where does it all end? It ends with Jeanne in late middle age, pathetically clinging to the idea that her son will one day come home and return the love she has lavished on him, when we know full well that this will never happen.
So Une Vie has shown a trusting, innocent and rather sentimental woman being exploited and deceived by a series of men – the father who arranged for her to marry a philandering husband and helped persuade her to forgive his behaviour; the husband who saw her as a source of wealth and prestige only and frequently betrayed her; the two priests who each gave the worst possible advice; and the thankless son.
Now here is part of my problem with this novel, and part of the reason I think it does not work. By calling the novel Une Vie, de Maupassant is suggesting that the sad life of Jeanne is somehow typical of something. But typical of what? Jeanne is throughout blazingly naïve, sometimes even downright stupid. She knows her husband cheats on her once and yet she is still surprised when he cheats on her again. She is shocked to find that her parents share the loose sexual morals of their social peers. She continues to trust her son when it has been made clear again and again that he is untrustworthy and will never keep a promise. At a certain point I found myself asking – when is she going to wake up? I can think of only one episode in the novel in which she asserts herself, this being when (in Chapter 7) she overrules her father and gets poor Rosalie to confess, in front of the priest, who was the father of her baby. Perhaps a proto-feminist theme could be squeezed out of the novel. It is possible that de Maupassant was commenting on how little power women had in marriage; and how young gentlewomen who had closeted educations were rendered incapable of handling their lives realistically. It is possible that he was deliberately showing minor aristocrats as a dying breed, without the practical savvy of the bourgeoisie or even the peasants. Even so, we have a huge problem in reading this novel of a shallow, one-dimensional protagonist who is bereft of much will or intellectual power. She becomes a bore.
Further to this, there is de Maupassant’s habit of spelling everything out. In most chapters, and every time Jeanne feels joy or woe, there will be a paragraph or two telling us that she bubbled with naïve romantic dreams or that her heart was desolate and broken as she wailed tears of grief. There is a recurring motif, too, of Jeanne going to the window and reacting emotionally to the dawn.
As a sidelight I note that while the novel does move from adolescence to late middle age, it is interesting that most of it takes place well before the 1880s in which the author was writing. In an early chapter, a man refers nostalgically to Napoleon and regrets that he is now locked up on St Helena (which means the time must be before 1821). In the second-to-last chapter, Jeanne finds the railway a novelty (and rather scary) when she travels from Le Havre to Paris on a vain quest to find her son. I would therefore guess that even the later scenes are set quite some time before the novel was written. Perhaps this retrospective view is part of de Maupassant’s view that domineering landed gentry were getting to be things of the past.
Francis Steegmuller says Une Vie caused some controversy when it was first published. Its indelicacies – especially in its airing of the loose morality of the French squirearchy – caused one powerful bookselling chain not to stock it. The matter reached (very brief) debate in the French parliament, although the book was not banned or subjected to censorship. It is easy to see why some things in the novel (especially its sexual references) would once have been thought objectionable, although they are discreet and mild from our perspective.
More surprisingly, Steegmuller notes that de Maupassant’s first novel was greatly admired by Leo Tolstoy, and was once placed on a list of “France’s ten greatest novels” by a committee including such illustrious names as Francois Mauriac, Andre Gide and Jean Giraudoux.
It makes me uncomfortable to disagree with such worthies, but disagree I do. It is not merely the plod of events and the repetitions, but the doggedly one-dimensional nature of the protagonist (and her unconquerable naivete) that defeat me. Of course this is one of those books one should read to fill out the card of well-known nineteenth century male writers who chose to produce studies of women protagonists (de Maupassant’s mentor Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; George Moore’s EstherWaters etc.). But I do not believe La Vie is the equal of others in this line, even if it has sometimes been compared with Madame Bovary as a study of provincial manners.
Naughty and puerile footnote: De Maupassant in this novel often uses the verb “penetrer” when he refers to the relations of the sexes and how men do not “penetrate” the inner thoughts and feelings of women (and vice versa). But the use of the word is so insistent that it is hard to believe he did not want us to interpret it in a more literal sense.