Tag: 2019 Classics Challenge

Delicious Decadence in Belle Epoch Paris: Guy du Maupassant’s “Like Death”

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Gustave Cailebotte’s “Paris Street: Rainy Day” (1877)

Are there any Guy du Maupassant fans out there?  If so, I’d certainly welcome your thoughts on his work.  I’ve just finished one of his novels, Like Death, and don’t know quite what to think.  I, dear reader, also have a confession to make that does not speak well for myself, namely that despite du Maupassant’s international reputation as a master of the short stoy, I was barely acquainted with his work.  And, my heavens, there’s certainly a lot of it to meet!

Although dying at age 42, Maupassant was an incredibly prolific writer who produced over 300 short stories, six novels, several travel books and lots of journalism in his brief writing career.  Of all that treasure trove I had read, prior to this time, one short story — “The Necklace” — and that only because I was required to do so in a literature class I was taking oh, so many, many years ago.  Despite enjoying the story (more than many of the others I was required to read), I had no interest at the time in further exploring Maupassant’s work.  Well, dear reader, a few years ago I purchased a copy of Maupassant’s Like Death (reissued by NYRB Classics in one of those gorgeous paperbacks that it does so well, i.e., acid free paper, tasteful cover art and introductions written by well-known folks), with the idea that his time for me had finally come at last!  And yet, and yet — the book has sat on my shelves, gathering dust for, oh, at least a couple of years.  All I can say is “thank heavens for reading challenges,” particularly ones that require me to stretch myself a bit.  Because I needed a selection for the “Classic in Translation” category for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate, I’ve actually, finally gotten around to reading a second work, and a novel, no less, by Guy du Maupassant.

Like Death revolves around a simple but piquant situation.  Olivier Bertin is a wildly successful society painter, acclaimed by the critics and beloved by the haute monde of late 19th century Paris.  As though to prove that life never seems to distribute its gifts fairly, Bertin is also good-looking, witty, athletic and, on the whole, not a bad guy.  The novel implies, without telling us his precise age, that Bertin is somewhat past the midpoint of life; although he is beginning to feel his age, Bertin is still vigorous  and eager to enjoy all the good things that life has to offer.

Included among the good things is Bertin’s long-standing relationship with Anne, Countess de Gilleroy, who has been Bertin’s mistress for over twelve years; the two began their passionate affair when Anne’s politician husband retained Bertin to paint his wife’s portrait.  Anne, a beautiful and intelligent woman, is quite adept at maintaining a delicate equilibrium between husband and lover; when as a young woman Anne was first presented with her husband-to-be, she quickly realized that “one cannot have everything” but must seek a balance between the good and the bad aspects present in every situation.  The countess is a successful society hostess, a devoted wife who listens with apparent interest to her husband’s accounts of his legislative triumphs (monsieur le comte particularly enjoys discussing agricultural issues) and a tender mother to her only child, her daughter Annette.  The chatelaine of  an elegant establishment (designed principally to appeal to her lover Bertin), the countess has structured her entire emotional life around her relationship with Bertin.  She is, in short, as passionately in love with the artist as she was as a young girl while Bertin, on the hand, regards their long-standing affair as more of an amitié amoureuse — a loving and irreplaceable friendship that is, nevertheless, lacking the magic and intensity of its earliest days.

The lovers’ delicate equilibrium is upset by the entry onto the scene of Annette, who has returned to Paris after a country upbringing to make her debut and to marry the excellent young aristocrat whom her father has selected for her.  Annette, whom the painter has not seen since she was a child, is the very image of her beautiful mother minus twenty years or so.  The aging Bertin is immediately and inevitably attracted; with great psychological acuity Maupassant charts Bertin’s emotions as he transfers his love from the aging countess to her young and unsophisticated daughter on the cusp of marriage and adulthood.  Bertin initially justifies his feelings for Annette by conflating his love for the two woman; his attraction for Annette, he (falsely) tells himself, is due simply to the fact that she is in some ways a reincarnation of her mother; his love for one inevitably includes his love for the other.  Ultimately, however, Bertin realizes that his passion for the countess has been totally subsumed by his love for her daughter.  The countess, of course, realizes far sooner than Bertin what is happening; while the novel focuses on Bertin it also presents a masterful and sympathetic portrayal of a strong and intelligent woman who is facing her emotional death and physical mortality with both dignity and courage.

Plot-wise, that’s it!  The “action” in this novel — the countess gives a dinner; she and Bertin meet their friends at the opera; Annette and Bertin walk through the park and so on — is a dull affair to us barbaric 21st century types.  There is, nevertheless, a great deal going on in this novel, albeit on an emotional and psychological level.  Although I did not find Like Death to be an altogether successful novel (more below), I have nothing but admiration for Maupassant’s grasp of psychology.  Based on the vast knowledge obtained from reading a single short story (please understand, I’m being sarcastic here) I had expected a well drawn, realistic description of late 19th century life among the well to do, as well as a twisty ending.  I was totally unprepared, however, for the subtlety of Maupassant’s psychological insight and the skill with which it was presented.  To give just one example, Maupassant sets a key scene in which Bertin realizes both his mortality and the hopelessness of his passion for the young Annette at the opera, where Bertin is listening to Faust, a story in which an aging scholar sells his soul for eternal youth and the love of a much younger woman.  Time and again Maupassant uses a small but convincing detail to expose a character’s state of mind, or sketches a scene of utterly convincing psychological realism.

So what’s my overall assessment of the novel, both positive and negative?  In addition to the positive points that I’ve already discussed it’s worth noting that various critics (who, unlike myself, can actually read French) have found the NYRB translation to be extremely well done and lively (apparently stiff and artificial translations have in the past hampered Maupassant’s popularity with anglophones).  On the negative side, however, I thought the interior nature of the story was perhaps better suited to a short story than a novel and that certain melodramatic plot devices rather undercut the subtle psychology that was elsewhere so evident.

There are a number of equally successful ways for a modern reader to approach this novel.  The easiest, and the most fun, is to regard it simply as a wonderful period piece.   If you choose this approach, pretend that a maid has just dusted your reading space (this requires a lively imagination if you’re reading in my living room), imagine that those wilting flowers from the farmer’s market are a fresh bouquet of ivory-colored roses in a crystal vase, pour yourself a glass of champagne (make this part real, not imaginary), put some Debussy on the stereo (or, better, Fauré) and settle in to enjoy the wealthy and well-connected life of 19th century Paris.  If you’re a bit more of a literary scholar, read the introduction by the novel’s talented translator, who makes a very cogent argument that Maupassant’s techniques influenced the latter work of Marcel Proust.  If you’re attracted to issues of gender, well, focus on the countess, the societal constraints dictating her choices and how a strong and determined personality can nevertheless fashion her own life.  Finally, the novel’s treatment of aging and mortality, and of how we all face both, give it a universal appeal.

Although I’ve already gone on for far too long, I simply must ask whether anyone else loves the painting I used at the beginning of this post?  Although a good deal of 19th century art leaves me cold, Cailebotte’s Rainy Day is one of my favorite paintings in the entire universe (and just think — we’re lucky enough to have it in the U.S., in Chicago!).  I cheated a bit to use it here, as Bertin, an academic painter, would have been horrified by Cailebotte’s new-fangled Impressionist style, with its cropped figures and unusual geometry.

The Tragic Muse (and How I came to love Henry James)

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Rachel Félix as The Tragic Muse (Jean-Leon Jerome, 1859)
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Mrs. Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784)

Which do you prefer as James’ model for Miriam?

I’ve recently finished reading Henry James’ The Tragic Muse, my first book of the new year and the 19th century novel I selected for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I feel quite a sense of accomplishment;  if I haven’t summited Everest, I feel like I’ve at least reached base camp!  My choice of a mountain climbing metaphor is quite deliberate.  I’ve at least gotten started on the Challenge (we all know what tends to happen to those good intentions, don’t we?).  Even more importantly, however, I’ve reacquainted myself with one of those “classic” writers whom I suspect is more admired than actually read.  Although I tremendously enjoyed The Tragic Muse, it was a lengthy novel that demanded time and a fair amount of attention.  No skimming or multitasking while I parsed those subtle Jamesian sentences!

In the brief life of this blog, I’ve referred to Henry James at least twice, both times in terms of adoration.  Despite my current high regard for James, however, I did not begin my reading life as an HJ fan.  After an unpleasant teenage encounter with his Portrait of a Lady  (my “mature” judgment at the time was that Portrait was tied with Eliot’s Silas Marner for the title of the most boring book ever written!), I consigned HJ to the category of writers who had little to offer me personally.  My opinion changed drastically about fifteen years later.  The catalyst for this transformation came when I casually purchased a paperback sales copy of  Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography of James.  Unbeknownst to me, Edel was the 20th century specialist in James studies.  Although later scholars (perhaps most notably Sheldon Novick) have attacked certain aspects of Edel’s work, his James biography continues be an indispensable source of knowledge about the author’s life.  Edel was a tremendous scholar and a marvelous writer who used great sensitivity in evaluating many areas of James’ life about which little is known (James, who was no admirer of the biographer’s art, deliberately destroyed certain personal writings before his death to preserve his privacy).  Because his work was a literary biography, Edel combined a factual account of James’ life with very perceptive discussions of James’ novels and major fictional works.  At that particular time in my life I had the great gift of an undemanding job that allowed me the spare time and mental energy to plough through Edel’s biography.  As I learned the details of James’ life, which included financial problems, a tortured sexuality and some very difficult family relationships, I began to see him as a far more sympathetic figure than I had previously considered him to be; increased knowledge about his life also made his work more interesting and accessible.  Perhaps more importantly, however, Edel’s biography was a wonderful introduction to James’ literary output.  As I read about James’ novels, I became interested in James’ novels, particularly as I saw how his literary work related to his own life and reflected the culture of which he was a part.  Although I read a lot of other things during this time in my life, I primarily focused on James’ novels and, to a much lesser extent, his shorter fiction (James was also a gifted travel writer and perceptive literary critic; alas I’ve read next to nothing of his output in either field).  Nineteenth and early 20th century literature, however, requires time and attention, and as both became increasingly scarce over the years (eventually I had to get a real job) I’m afraid I gave James’ novels more shelf space than attention.  I was in fact quite startled when I realized some time ago that for all my prattle regarding my love for James’ fiction it had literally been years since I had actually read any of it.  I decided to participate in the Classics Challenge this year in large part because it increased the likelihood that I’d actually re-read at least one novel by a writer whom I hold in such high regard.

Because James was a prolific author (he turned out a lot of writing as he was heavily dependent on the income it produced), I had a wide array of novels to choose from in making my selection for the Classics Challenge.  I settled on The Tragic Muse (Muse) largely because this was one of the novels I had never re-read (unlike, say, Portrait of a Lady) and so remembered few details about the plot.  Another important factor in my selection was style.  Although James’ writing is synonymous in the minds of many with subtle complexity, this idea is rather inaccurate when applied to his output as a whole.  While it is certainly true that the sentence structure and syntax of  his “late” novels (The Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors) can be quite bewilderingly complex, his earlier novels (and even Muse, which dates from the  mid-period of his productivity) are often quite straightforward stylistically.  It’s also worth mentioning that Muse doesn’t fit a couple of other familiar tropes regarding James’ novels.  Rather than offering an intense psychological study of a few individuals (as in, for example, The Golden Bowl) it has a large, sprawling cast of characters.  Muse also doesn’t concern the theme, so prevalent in James’ early fiction (Portrait of a Lady; Daisy Miller) of naive American innocents forced to grapple with the sophisticated wiles of an older European culture.

Muse contains two separate but symmetrical narrative arcs, one centering on Nick Dormer, an upper class Englishman who rejects family and heritage to become a painter, and the other on Miriam Rooth, a penniless girl of partially Jewish ancestry (a point that matters to several of the other characters) who is determined to become a great actress.  James sets his novel in the Paris and London of his own day, i.e., the late 19th century, and depicts how the acts and attitudes of an interrelated group of English aristocrats affect the decisions, and fates, of Nick and Miriam.  His story begins in Paris, where we first meet the Dormer family.  The widowed Lady Agnes, attended by her daughters Grace and Biddy, has reluctantly accompanied her son Nick, who has insisted on attending the latest Paris exhibition of avant-garde art.  It’s easy to miss a certain dry humor that often turns up in James’ work; here, for example his description of the Dormer ladies’ reaction to the French avant-garde is quite funny (Lady Agnes observes that in London art is “much less unpleasant” than the Parisian “horrors” admired by her son).  Nick himself is a charming and devoted son, a quintessential golden boy, destined by birth and training to emulate his late father’s political career.  Although outwardly amenable to this plan for his future, Nick secretly cherishes an ambition to be a painter.

Also in Paris is Julia Dallow, a widowed cousin and friend of the Dormer family.  Rich, beautiful and talented,  Julia is indifferent to art and contemptuous of painting.  From the outset it is clear that Julia is not only in love with Nick but is also extremely eager to put her money and formidable talents behind his political career.  Her reasons for doing so are far from disinterested; unlike Nick, Julia is fascinated by politics and sees their marriage as a way for her to become a great political hostess.  As the novel progresses Nick becomes increasingly unable to hide his boredom and distaste for the political life in which he is engaged, while Julia increasingly reveals the full extent of  her antipathy and contempt for the life of an artist.  When Nick ultimately resigns from Parliament, he does so knowing that it will cost him his marriage to Julia as well as a large bequest from a family friend who is willing to back a political career but refuses to leave his money to a painter.  One constant in James’ novels is that choices have consequences and he never spares his characters the full weight of their decisions.

One of the most interesting and ambiguous characters in Muse is Gabriel Nash, whom James purportedly modeled on Oscar Wilde, an acquaintance and fellow writer.  Although Nash and Nick Dormer were friends at Oxford, they subsequently drifted apart and, when they meet by chance at that fateful art exhibition in Paris, have not seen each other for many years.  Nash, like his real-life counterpart Wilde, is a kind of 19th century performance artist.  After dabbling with literature in his Oxford days, Nash forswears any active engagement with the arts (or with anything else for that matter) in favor or simply enjoying beautiful sensations in whatever form they assume.  In Nash’s view, creating or producing a tangible work of art is a crude and imperfect expression of the ultimate art of simply living a “beautiful” life.  He and Nick quickly reestablish their old friendship, much to the dismay of Nick’s family.  In his subsequent struggle to balance the demands of his family and heritage against his urge to lead the life of an artist, Nick regards Gabriel Nash as a kind of “artistic conscience” or lodestone who constantly reminds him of the primacy of art over all other endeavors (while painting may be crude, it beats canvassing for votes!).  The other characters, however, view Nash as an irresponsible tempter or frivolous wastrel; essentially they see him as a Mephistopheles who leads Nick away from his duty to family and country.  Every reader of Muse will, of course, have his/her own interpretation of this equivocal character and the role he plays in Nick’s choice.  In addition to functioning as a symbol (good or bad) of the supreme value of a certain type of art, James uses Nash to advance the novel’s action and to link the symmetrical plots; it is Nash, for example, who effectively launches Miriam’s career by introducing her to Nick’s circle.

Miriam’s parallel narrative recounts her rise from an untrained “wannabe” to one of the great actresses on the English stage.  When the novel opens she is a penniless and awkward girl, who wanders Europe with her rather feckless mother, living hand to mouth in a series of cheap hotels and pensions.  Outwardly at least Miriam is distinguished by nothing except good looks and a fierce conviction that she is destined for theatrical greatness, an opinion unshared by those who view her informal “audition” before a retired great of the French stage.  Although she acknowledges her performance was bad, Miriam’s belief in herself as an artist remains unshaken.  She realizes, however, that she needs training and opportunities but lacks the financial means and social connections to secure them.  Her material situation changes when Gabriel Nash introduces her to Peter Sherringham, a relation of the Dormer family and a rising star in the British diplomatic service.  Extremely ambitious (he sees himself as a future ambassador), Sherringham’s one unprofessional passion is for the dramatic art of the classical theater.  He provides Miriam with the financial backing and emotional support she needs and becomes intensely involved with her expanding prospects.  Although Sherringham steers clear of a sexual entanglement, and prides himself on keeping his emotional distance, it is clear to his friends, to Miriam and to the reader that he is soon totally, hopelessly in love with her.  It is a measure of his passion that this cool, self-controlled man proposes marriage; because a diplomat of his stature can’t be married to an actress he conditions his proposal on Miriam’s leaving the stage.  The scene in which she refuses Sherringham’s proposal, and exposes his hypocrisy to himself and to the reader, is perhaps the most powerful in the novel.

As this brief (and, I hope, not too tedious) summary makes clear, there’s a lot going on, plot-wise, in this novel.  As was common in the 19th century, Muse was first published as an ongoing serial in The Atlantic Monthly, one of the fashionable magazines of his day; James was writing for a popular, albeit prosperous and literate, audience and knew what his readers expected for the $15 per printed page that he was ultimately paid.  In addition to the developments alluded to above, James also included at least two love triangles (one involving Nick’s young sister Biddy, who has nursed a passion for Peter Sherringham since she was a child; the other concerning Miriam’s incipient passion for Nick, which comes into play when he paints her portrait); an engaging and ironically humorous subplot involving the family friend who disinherited Nick and several very interesting supporting characters (for example, Basil Dashwood, the actor whom Miriam ultimately marries.  She does not leave the stage!).  The novel also includes some powerful and very emotionally gripping scenes and, as an extra bonus, has an ambiguous ending that leaves hope for Nick and Julia.  While I can’t speak for the reaction of James’ contemporaries, there was more than enough action and suspense to keep me turning the pages.

As with most great novels, moreover, Muse suggests a dimension extending beyond the quotidian actions of its characters.  Most obviously, James is offering his meditation on the demands that art places on its practitioners and the barriers, both tangible and psychological, that an artist must surmount to achieve his or her goal.  He also contrasts the visual and dramatic arts and the different demands, training and pitfalls that each places on the artist and actor.  Remember how, at the beginning of this far-too-long posting, I noted how the facts of James’ life often play into his fiction?  Muse was the last full length novel he wrote before turning to the stage; one could make a strong argument that the entire novel is James’ attempt to define the very nature of dramatic art, in all its tawdry glory (although Miriam is one of James’ great creations, HJ is tough on her at times).  As a sidenote for the historically inclined, James’ career as a playwright ended in public humiliation in 1895.  It’s a testament to his enormous talent and strength of will that he survived this ordeal and, in his 60s, went on to write what many regard as his greatest novels.

Finally — which of the two actresses whose likenesses are at the beginning of this post best fits your idea of Miriam?  French Rachel in red, so very classical, or English Sarah Siddons, so romantic and tasteful in Reynolds’ subdued palette?  Both women were the leading actresses of their day and both, I believe, have been suggested as models for Miriam.  My answer, a very Jamesian one, is both!  Miriam receives her earliest training in Paris, from a legendary French actress of the classical school; visits the Théâtre Français, where James places her in front of “Gêrome’s fine portrait of the pale Rachel, invested with the antique attributes of tragedy;” has her breakout performance in London as a romantic lead in a traditional English comedy and, as the novel closes, reaches the pinnacle of her art in the tragic role of Juliet.