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Posts Tagged ‘Maupassant’

Short Stories, Guy de Maupassant, translated by Marjorie Laurie (Everyman’s Library 1934)

Sympathy is an interesting word. It literally means “with-feeling”, that is, sharing someone else’s feelings, while the Latin compassio means “with-suffering”. But both of these words have weaker and wetter meanings in modern English. When I say that Maupassant was a compassionate writer who had sympathy for his characters, you need to read it in the older, stronger senses. He could feel with other human beings, victims and villains, the ordinary and the eccentric, and bring them to life on paper.

But he could do more than that: he had sympathy for, sympathy with, animals too and some of his most moving stories are about dogs, horses and donkeys. One, “Love”, is about a pair of wild birds and the hunters who shoot them. It’s included in this collection, which begins with “Boule de Suif” and ends with “The Horla”. “Boule de Suif”, or “Ball of Lard”, was Maupassant’s early great success. It combines three of his obsessions: prostitution, cruelty, and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. The title is actually the nickname of a plump, amiable prostitute who befriends but is then betrayed by the respectable folk who share a coach with her on a journey through occupied France. A Prussian officer wants to sleep with her, but she refuses. He won’t let the coach go on until she gives in. Her fellow travellers force her to do so, then salve their own consciences by treating her like “a thing useless and unclean” when their journey resumes.

It’s one of the longest stories here and also one of the most powerful, finely observed, closely and compassionately written. And it’s echoed by another story, “Mademoiselle Fifi”, which is also about prostitutes and the German occupation. But this time the title is the nickname of a Prussian officer, a sadistic dandy who treats the French with contempt but gets more than he bargains for when he mistreats a young prostitute called Rachel. That name is Hebrew for “Ewe” and Rachel is in fact Jewish, so the revenge in the story has even more resonance now. She stabs Mademoiselle Fifi to death and then successfully escapes. But the story is less successful than “Boule de Suif”. It’s too obviously a wish-fulfilment fantasy and the victim turns the table too neatly on the villain. And if Rachel’s name is intended to be ironic, it’s a literary touch that undermines Maupassant’s realism.

I think I’d read the story before in French, but it didn’t stay with me strongly. Other stories I’d read in French did stay with me strongly, like “Miss Harriet”, about a repressed English virgin who commits suicide far from home, and “The Devil”, about a peasant woman who’s given a fixed price to oversee the final hours of a dying woman. “Miss Harriet” is tragic, “The Devil” tragi-comic, and both are good examples of Maupassant’s sympathy for women and his ability to write about them convincingly. But “The Devil” is also a good example of his sympathy for peasants. As the Roman writer Terence said: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. – “I am human and I regard nothing human as alien to me.”

But many people can say that: Maupassant was one of the rare few who could translate his sympathy into powerful art, whether he was writing about an Italian widow avenging her only son in “Vendetta” or a French diplomat learning about the cruel fate of “the only woman I ever loved” in “Shali”. That story is actually expurgated: the French original, in 1884, went further than the English translation did in 1934. And Maupassant should be read in the original. As Gerald Gould says in the introduction: “It has been said by one rather acid French critic that one reason English people think so highly of Maupassant as a writer is because his French is so easy.”

That’s right: he writes with the utmost clarity and simplicity, but when I read him in French I have to concentrate, so the meaning blossoms more slowly and powerfully in my mind. That’s why I find myself unable to re-read some of his stories. They’re not extravagantly violent or cruel, but I find them too powerful and too unpleasant. “The Horla” isn’t one of those stories and although it is one of Maupassant’s best, some of its power comes from what you know about its background. Maupassant was beginning to go mad from syphilis when he wrote it. In “The Horla”, the human being he’s sympathizing with is himself. Not long afterwards, he was confined to an asylum. Then he was dead at the age of forty-two. No other writer has written so much so well in such a short life. Some of his best stories are here, but anyone who can should read him in French. He was a genius who combined simplicity with sympathy in a way that no other writer I’ve ever read has matched.

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Death in Venice and Other Stories, Thomas Mann, translated by David Luke (1988)

The first time I tried this collection, I read the first story, “Little Herr Friedemann”, and the last, “Death in Venice”. I thought they were both very good: powerful, moving, and mysterious. But I didn’t try any of the other stories, except for a little of “Gladius Dei”. I felt somehow that they wouldn’t be worth it.

Now I’ve come back to the book and tried to read it from beginning to end. I’ve failed and my reluctance to try the other stories seems to have been justified. “Little Herr Friedemann” was still good and so was “Death in Venice”. The others I found variously trite or impossible to finish. “The Road to the Churchyard”, about an unhealthy drunk on foot encountering a healthy youth on a bicycle, reminded me of Maupassant. But Maupassant would have done it much better.

At least, I’ve found Maupassant very good in French. But the same stories have been less good when I’ve tried them in English. Maybe that was part of the problem here. I can’t read Mann’s stories in German and if I could I still wouldn’t be sure of judging them right. But I assume it’s easier for a good story in the original to become a bad story in translation than for the reverse. And “Death in Venice” is a very good story in this translation. After you’ve read it, David Luke’s clever and insightful introduction to the collection will make it even better.

As he points out, “Death in Venice” is in part an updating and expansion of “Little Herr Friedemann”, which is also about thwarted passion and the eruption of Dionysiac energies in an Apollonian life. But the earlier story is tragic and realistic, the later tragicomic and dream-like:

Aschenbach bedeckte seine Stirn mit der Hand und schloß die Augen, die heiß waren, da er zu wenig geschlafen hatte. Ihm war, als lasse nicht alles sich ganz gewöhnlich an, als beginne eine träumerische Entfremdung, eine Entstellung der Welt ins Sonderbare um sich zu greifen, der vielleicht Einhalt zu tun wäre, wenn er sein Gesicht ein wenig verdunkelte und aufs neue um sich schaute. – Der Tod in Venedig (1912), Drittes Kapitel.

Aschenbach put his hands over his forehead and closed his eyes, which were hot from too little sleep. He had a feeling that something not quite usual was about to happen, that the world was undergoing a dreamlike alteration, becoming increasingly deranged and bizarre, and perhaps this process might be arrested if he were to cover his face for a little and take a fresh look at things. (section 3)

The world will indeed become increasingly deranged and bizarre, as the distinguished novelist Gustav Aschenbach allows his infatuation with a young Polish boy to strip him of his reason, his dignity and, finally, his life. The title tells the reader that his doom is inevitable, so Mann has to make the journey there interesting. And it is: psychologically, symbolically, allegorically, and literally too. Aschenbach couldn’t have stayed in Munich: he needed a rich, fantastic, southern and sea-washed setting for his doomed romance.

The boy, Tadzio, is delicately and skilfully depicted – “presented,” as David Luke says in the introduction, “with extraordinary subtlety, mysteriously yet very realistically paused between innocence and a certain half-conscious coquetry”. I was reminded of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (1945), who also visits Venice with the protagonist. But that’s a novel and the protagonist will see Sebastian grow old and lose his beauty. Aschenbach will never see that happen to his object of desire: Tadzio’s beauty enthrals and destroys him, successfully tempting him to stay on in Venice as cholera rages and tourists flee.

“Death in Venice” is also reminiscent of Lolita (1955) and you could call it the homosexual variant on the same paedophilic theme. But I found Lolita too repulsive to finish the last time I tried it. “Death in Venice” is more ironic, more comic and more moral. Its unnatural love-affair is never consummated and it will be news of Aschenbach’s death that shocks the world, not news of his arrest. Where Lolita has undoubtedly encouraged crime, “Death in Venice” may occasionally have admonished those contemplating it.

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Face PaintA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

The Aesthetics of AnimalsLife: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)

Less Light, More NightThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

The Power of Babel – Clark Ashton Smith, Huysmans, Maupassant


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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