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.