Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories

Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories. Oxford World’s Classics, 1993. Translated by David Coward.

Photo of Guy de Maupassant

Photo by Nadar, from Gallica Digital Library and is available under the digital ID btv1b53155773n, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w /index.php?curid=1250918

Born near Dieppe, Normandy in 1850, Maupassant lived from the age of eleven with his mother at Étretat, on the Normandy coast, after she obtained a legal separation from her abusive husband. This setting and background may well have influenced the largely cruel stories in this collection, notable for their unrelieved cynicism, misanthropy and depiction of shabby, mendacious, sensual Norman peasants and bourgeoisie as grasping, venal, cunning, violent and selfish.

Two years later he was placed at a school in Rouen, and hated it (I started reading this collection on the train back from my recent visit to Rouen and Normandy). This school became the basis for the characteristically bleak story here, ‘The Question of Latin’. At seventeen he met Flaubert, who as I posted recently was born in Rouen (they both attended the Lycée Corneille there, at different times), and was to become a mentor to the younger man when his writing career began, and through him was introduced to other literary figures like Zola and Turgenev, who also influenced his style and themes.

Soon after graduating in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out; several of the stories in this collection are set during or soon after this traumatic time for the humiliated, defeated French. Although he enlisted in the military, Maupassant saw no action personally. But as David Coward points out in his introduction to this edition of selected stories, Maupassant would have seen first-hand examples of the arrogance of the conquerors – a feature of the war and post-war stories here – and the ‘spineless collaboration of local bourgeois notables.’

This misanthropic tendency is seen in most of the stories here. His view of humanity is that we’re a pretty hapless, grotesque lot, driven by implacable lusts and forces beyond our control, while religion is a fantasy to disguise the futility of existence. Morality and higher feelings are an illusion. Coward concludes that Maupassant’s bleak and cynical view of the human condition is that it’s a ‘ghastly comic farce’.

The opening story sets the tone. An apparently fanatically zealous, but deeply hypocritical priest is so outraged by the carnality of his flock – a tendency which he secretly shares – that he murders a young couple he finds fornicating in a shepherd’s wheeled hut by pushing it over a high cliff with them inside it. He’d earlier kicked a whelping bitch to death because a group of curious village children were watching this shameful scene with interest.

The ‘Fifi’ of the title story is the nickname of one of the stereotypically boorish occupying Prussian officers during the war. Despite his effeminate ways, he’s the most outrageously boastful, violently destructive and arrogant of the lot of them. His favourite pastime is gratuitously to destroy or vandalise the priceless artefacts the owners of the château in which they’re billeted had left behind. When he hires a group of girls from the local brothel to a debauched ‘party’ to entertain himself and his bored fellow officers, he goads and degrades one of the girls too far, with horrifying murderous consequences. But the girl’s desperate act of patriotism isn’t portrayed as entirely noble.

Several of the stories remind me of Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’; ‘Call it Madness?’ is narrated as a first-person rant by a madman who insists repeatedly that his murderous, irrationality isn’t mad…’ In Who Can Tell?’ the narrator believes he’s seen his furniture leaving his house one night as if animated. When it later reappears, as if by magic, in an antique shop, his precarious hold on reality finally gives way.

‘Two Friends’ appears to set up a tale destined to be less nasty as two drunken city chums set out behind enemy lines to enjoy some peaceful fishing at their favourite pitch on a river. It doesn’t end well for them.

Maupassant Fifi and Henry James lit crit coverOne of the longest and best stories is ‘Miss Harriet’. Henry James even found a vestige of ‘tenderness’ in it (it doesn’t last). She’s an ageing English spinster who catches the eye at a farmhouse inn of a philandering young artist. When he realises this religiously fanatical, virginal spinster is falling in love with him he behaves less than chivalrously, and her suffering destroys her.

So it goes on. Vengeful violence is exacted on Prussians by some French patriots, goaded out of their passivity by grief or the arrogance of their oppressors. A pretty artist’s model becomes the subject of local gossip at a holiday haunt as the story of her having to use a wheelchair reveals a sordid secret.

Women generally fare even worse than the flawed men in these tales. They are scheming and devious, intent on snaring any man foolish enough to fall for their tawdry charms, or too stupid or besotted to perceive their duplicitous greed.

‘Monsieur Parent’ is the longest and probably the nastiest in this selection. Henry James refers to its ‘triumphant ugliness’. He characterised Maupassant’s ‘most general quality’ as ‘hardness’, and the stories, which he acknowledges as ‘masterpieces’, are filled with ‘pessimism’ and are ‘extremely brutal’:

His vision of the world is for the most part a vision of ugliness…[with] a certain absence of love, a sort of bird’s-eye-view contempt.

Maupassant’s literary method involves little attempt at psychological exploration; his characters act on instinct, unreflectingly, as they feel impelled to, and that’s it. He was at pains not to reveal motivation – beyond the usual greed and cruelty. He pokes the teeming antheap of his world with his authorial stick and describes the ensuing furious turmoil – which is ‘mean, narrow and sordid’, a ‘picture of unmitigated suffering’ (James again).

I become savage at the futility: Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet…

Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War. The Feminist Press, New York, 1989

Helen Smith, the protagonist of this novel, is a prim, callow woman of 21, daughter of a jam manufacturer who considers himself solidly middle-class. She’s sufficiently bourgeoise to be considered suitable as a volunteer ambulance driver in France in World War I. Only girls from the upper classes were accepted, partly because they could pay for the privilege of volunteering, and also, as Helen cynically muses at one point, because they came from that ‘stiff upper lip’ class that would keep quiet about the truth of the horrors and carnage of trench attritional warfare.

Women ambulance drivers WWI

Female motor ambulance drivers with their vehicles, Étaples, France, 27 June 1917, during World War I. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2015 and Imperial War Museums website: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205078785)

Hers is one of the grimmest, unflinching accounts of that war that I’ve read. What makes it more harrowing, in many ways, is that it’s not the usual male-camaraderie viewpoint of fighting in the front line. Although not a combatant, Helen gets to see the worst of the aftermath of modern warfare. Here’s a typically hard-hitting sample, one of countless descriptions of the horrors she witnessed:

We hate and dread the days following on the guns when they boom without interval. Trainloads of broken human beings: half-mad men pleading to be put out of their misery; torn and bleeding and crazed men pitifully obeying orders like a herd of senseless cattle, dumbly, pitifully straggling in the wrong direction, as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader, herded back into line by the orderly, the kind sheep-dog…men with faces bleeding through their hasty bandages; men with vacant eyes and mouths hanging foolishly apart dropping saliva and slime; men with minds mercifully gone; men only too sane, eyes horror-filled with blood and pain…

It seems churlish to take issue with what some readers might consider the overwrought style here, the thumping rhetorical repetitions and parallel structure; for the awfulness of the scenes described surely justifies such verbal excess. It’s the language of anger and despair. Even the echoes of Wilfred Owen resonate and chill. Smith has the same anti-war sentiment; she too uses the word ‘futility’ to sum up the scenes through which Helen is required to drive her wounded, dying men – it makes her feel ‘savage’.

The senselessness is heightened by the contrasting levity of Helen’s letters home to her jingoistic ‘flag-crazy’ parents: “It is such fun out here, and of course I’m loving every minute of it; it’s so splendid to be really in it”, she gushes deceitfully. It’s ‘the only kind of letter home they expect, the only kind they want’. They don’t want to hear the truth: that she hated and feared it, is ‘terror-stricken’, and has lost all ‘ideals and beliefs’:

You don’t believe in God or them or the infallibility of England or anything but bloody war and wounds and foul smells and smutty stories and smoke and bombs and lice and filth and noise, noise, noise – that you live in a world of cold, sick fear, a dirty world of darkness and despair – that you want to crawl ignominiously home away from these painful writhing things that once were men, these shattered, tortured faces that dumbly demand what it’s all about in Christ’s name…

No, all the parents want to do is boast to their smart friends, competing to exceed the patriotism of their rivals and to recruit more innocent young men (including Helen’s own teenage brother) to go to their slaughter, brag that their daughters are ‘doing their bit’, examples of ‘England’s Splendid Daughters’. They don’t want to hear that she’s been ‘pitch-forked into hell’. ‘Nobody cares because I’m going mad, mad, mad’, has ‘no guts’ and is ‘white-livered’, a ‘rank coward.’ There’s no heroism or nobility in the abject, often terrifying routine she endures: vile, dysentery-inducing food, sleep deprivation, a sadistic, megalomaniac female commandant known unaffectionately by the girls as ‘Mrs Bitch’, who delights in meting out ‘punishment’ duties on the already exhausted, starved and freezing drivers (their ambulances have open cabs and they have to drive the shell-pocked roads at night without lights; the winter winds cut through them until their lips bleed) on top of the disgusting menial cleaning tasks they already do as part of their daily routine. Descriptions of the daily cleansing of their filthy vehicles of every kind of human effluent and effusion are stomach-churning.

HZ Smith Not So Quiet coverIt’s not a misery memoir, however. In her Afterword , academic Jane Marcus gives useful literary-historical, political and socio-cultural context for this novel (and provides an interesting explanation for its strange subtitle). Smith was the pen-name of Australian-born Evadne Price (1896? – 1985), an unusual woman who began adult life as an actor, turned to journalism, then became a prolific author of romantic pulp fiction and children’s stories; she was even house horoscope writer for women’s magazines. Marcus suggests these less than right-on credentials have caused her to be unjustly neglected by feminist literary historians and critics.

I learned a lot from her essay (though it has some strange flights of fancy, such as war’s frenzied blood-letting being ‘menstruation envy’ from men). She places this novel in the context of canonical war literature by men (Hemingway, Ford, Graves, etc.) – but also by less canonical women (about whom I only began to learn recently when I read and researched Edith Wharton’s WWI novel about life on the home front in Paris, A Son at the Front). She has some interesting, fairly convincing theories about masculinized women and feminized men, female ‘potence’ and male impotency.

Not So Quiet…, as its title suggests, was commissioned as a spoof riposte, from the woman’s point of view, to Remarque’s best-selling novel about the German experience of the war, All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in 1929. Not having witnessed the trench war at first hand, Smith used an unpublished diary by a real-life woman ambulance driver called Winifred Young for source details. The narrative certainly rings horribly true. There were four sequels, tracing Helen’s decline in post-war, depressed Britain.

Smith was keen to depict the gender confusions arising from the women who served behind the lines, in the ‘Forbidden Zone’, in support roles to the fighting men. Unlike the more traditionally caring role of nurse (who ‘domesticates devastation’, says Marcus memorably), often the only women portrayed in this literature, these well-bred young women driving ambulances in danger zones challenged the gender stereotypes. Back home it would have been considered unthinkable, unladylike for them to drive solo, let alone with a load of shell-shocked, gangrenous wounded men, unchaperoned. Just as these girls risked being jeered at as ‘she-men’, unfeminine (Helen worries about losing her ‘womanliness’ if she cut her hair short like her braver colleague, to reduce the torments caused by lice), so the men in novels like All Quiet tended to be considered unmanly, cowardly, if they showed fear or lack of bellicose aggression towards ‘the enemy’. (There’s a powerful passage in Not So Quiet…in which Helen reflects with bitter passion on the real enemies: the politicians and armchair elderly who start wars but don’t participate themselves).

Marcus’s literary analysis is also interesting when she considers Smith’s fragmented, modernist prose style, with its breathless present tense narrative and prevailing use of free indirect discourse in multiple voices. Smith’s anti-imperialist and socialist-realist, feminist depiction of the class elements in the war are also well covered (Helen pointedly rejects class privilege towards the novel’s end – to the horror of her friends and family – when, disillusioned and shattered she leaves the ambulance convoys and re-enlists as a lowly cook’s orderly, working alongside working-class girls from the urban slums).

As Lissa Evans showed in Old Baggage, the women who’d learned to organise themselves and fight the patriarchy in the suffragist movement reacted in many different ways to the challenges to their struggle posed by the war, and the transitions they had to consider. The Pankhursts famously handed out white feathers to conscientious objectors and enthusiastically joined in the jingoism of the likes of Helen’s blinkered parents. Some made use of their new-found discipline and taste for rebellious direct action to become proto-fascists, as Evans shows in her novel.

There’s one aspect of this novel that took me a while to figure out, but Marcus spells it out with withering clarity: Smith was partly engaged in a PC counterblast to the prevalence of lesbianism among women ambulance drivers in Radclyffe Hall’s wartime sequences in The Well of Loneliness (1928). A sub-plot involves the unedifying persecution and ultimate banishment home of a couple of women in Helen’s group who are lesbians. Smith dutifully narrates this sequence, but turns it into a harsh critique of the crazed values of wartime Britain: a woman was forced to see out her driving duties no matter what crime she committed, or how cowardly or inept was her performance; only show ‘immorality’, however, and she was kicked out with alacrity.

I find, once more, I’ve gone on too long. This is an indication of what a fascinating, powerful text this is. It may not be the best written (anti-)war novel, but it’s probably one of the most memorable and unusual, and it packs a terrific punch.

 

 

Javier Marías, Berta Isla

Javier Marías, Berta Isla. Hamish Hamilton, 2018. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Spanish novelist Javier Marías deals in what grammarians (and philosophers, probably) call epistemic modality: the degree of certainty in a belief or knowledge upon which a proposition is based. Things are left unresolved, indefinite, vague (as Berta tells herself, resignedly, towards the end of this intriguing, sporadically brilliant novel). From the opening words of Berta Isla this is apparent:

For a while, she wasn’t sure her husband was her husband…[next sentence] Sometimes she thought he was, sometimes not, and at other times, she decided to believe nothing and simply continue living her life with him, or with that man so similar to him, albeit older.

On the next page:

She had discovered how boring it was to live with absolute certainty, and how it condemned you to just a single existence, or to experiencing the real and the imaginary as one and the same, but then none of us ever quite escapes that.

This gives an indication of that unmistakeable Marías style, brilliantly translated (another act of interpretation, a central Marías theme) by Margaret Jull Costa. Long, looping sentences, multiple clauses, often loosely (paratactically) linked, as here with ‘or…’ Often the parallel possibilities proposed culminate with a generalisation seeming to come from the omniscient narrator, who invites the reader into complicity with the propositions stated, with a teasing air of certainty that’s at odds with the ambiguities and equivocations within those propositions.

Javier Marías, Berta Isla coverAmong the first posts I wrote on this blog was a series on Marías’ superb trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. This tendency to cloud certainties, the (un)knowability of a person or situation, was a central feature there, and in subsequent novels I’ve posted on (list of links at the end). Hence his interest in espionage, surveillance and secrecy, fluidity of identity, interpretation (and interpreters – of other languages, and of other people’s natures), predictability of possible outcomes.

Several characters depicted in earlier novels in this context feature in Berta Isla. Most notable is Peter Wheeler, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oxford University when this novel is set – from 1979. He’s also a recruiter of spies for MI6, dipping into the talent available in the student body.

Here his target is Tomás Nevinson, aka Tom (Marías habitually gives his central characters several names to match their multilingual skills.) Tom is half Spanish, half English, has an extraordinary capacity to acquire and speak foreign languages, and is a prodigy in mimicry: talents that make him ideally suited to the espionage work into which Wheeler recruits him (with typically nasty duplicity and subterfuge – the first of many treacheries).

The other main character also seen in earlier works is Bertram Tupra. He’s an elegantly louche, sinister, and as Berta finds when she meets him, seductive field operative who handles Tom and keeps him (and Berta) in line.

This is the trade of ‘dirty tricks’, made up stories. Because what Marías is usually about in his novels is telling stories about…well, storytelling. Marías’ novels thus become reflexive artefacts, halls of mirrors in which it becomes impossible to tell what is ‘real’ and what is reflected – or simply told. Here’s Tupra, a little patronisingly explaining to Tom soon after he’s lured into their world, what they’re about:

We both exist and don’t exist. We both act and don’t act, Nevinson; or rather [even the characters ‘speak’ like Marías’ own narrative voice – there’s that “or” clause again], we don’t carry out the actions we carry out, or the things we do are done by nobody.

Yes, it’s meant to sound like a riddle, a paradox. Like prose fiction, where what is usually intended to recreate truth and a real world – verisimilitude – is all lies, made up, fabrication and fabulation. Berta reflects (p. 369) on Tupra’s words (he’d told her much the same as he had Tom): ‘only what we’re told, what succeeds in being told, exists.’ That inserted qualification is telling.

This is Tupra a little later in that early speech to Tom, getting into his stride (it takes time; nothing is rushed in a Marías narrative; the reader has to yield to its leisurely, accretive flow):

‘We’re a bit like the third-person narrator in a novel, and I’m sure you’ve read a few novels, Nevinson,’ Tupra went on didactically. ‘He’s the one who decides what will happen and the one who does the telling, but he can’t be challenged or interrogated. Unlike a first-person narrator, he has no name and he’s not a character, therefore we believe and trust him; we don’t know why he knows what he knows and why he omits what he omits and keeps silent about what he keeps silent about and why it is that he can determine the fate of all his creatures, without once being called into question. It’s clear that he exists and doesn’t exist, or that he exists but, at the same time, cannot be found. He’s even undetectable. I’m speaking about the narrator, mind, not the author, who is stuck at home and is not responsible for anything his narrator says; even he can’t explain why the narrator knows as much as he does…’[and so on for another half page!]

That’s classic Marías: playful, witty, cerebral, didactic and knowing, teasing his characters, narrator(s) and readers with what’s apparently going on – or not. What exists and does not exist: this novel’s mantra – along with key enigmatic lines from TS Eliot. And there’s crucial reference to Balzac’s story ‘Colonel Chabert’ (also featured in The Infatuations), of a husband (or is it really him?) returned to his wife after a long disappearance. Ulysses and Martin Guerre are also invoked: revenant spooks, or real?

Omissions and known (un)knowns. For example, we learn that Berta studies for a doctorate, but the narrator withholds its topic or subject. We deduce, from her later career in academia, that’s in English literature. Another self-relexive feature in a novel of reflections. As I noted in my previous post, about a painting by Caillebotte in which a character looks out at the viewer, his back to a mirror in which we see reflected the other occupants of the café who both exist yet don’t exist. This is that ‘mise-en-abime’, epistemic self-referentiality, in which a person is both the knowing subject (as Foucault puts it) and the object of his own study. This stuff may not be to every reader’s taste, but I find it works a treat. Though I did find this novel flagged a little halfway through, then picked itself up again with a flourish for the final part.

As I’ve said in earlier posts about Marías, his work is clearly influenced by some of the authors he translated (interpreted) himself: Laurence Sterne, Nabokov, Faulkner, Stevenson and Conrad, all great fabulists and innovative manipulators of fiction; Sir Thomas Browne, with his labyrinthine style and eclectic, arcane subjects. Borges is in there, too, with his labyrinths.

Links in addition to Your Face Tomorrow: 

The Infatuations

 Thus Bad Begins

Rouen, Monet, Flaubert, Maupassant

Last week I had a short break with Mrs TD and a friend in Normandy. We spent a long weekend, after a couple of days in London, based in Rouen. Went by Eurostar and SNCF trains to keep it green. Plenty of time to read on the trains, too. Finished Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet (post forthcoming), then moved on to local boy Maupassant (see below).

The main reason for the trip was to visit Monet’s garden at Giverny, a few miles along the meandering Seine from Rouen – another short train ride. Our visit coincided with the recent European heatwave; mercifully the Friday when we went to the garden wasn’t as hot as the weekend, and there were plenty of shade trees, and an excellent restaurant for lunch, where I had the deepest quiche I’ve ever seen.

The Monet pond seen from the famous Japanese bridge

Monet water garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gardens were breathtakingly beautiful. The famous water garden was of course the main attraction, but the rest of the site was also gorgeous. Inside the house, now a museum, there were plenty of Japanese prints, attesting to the influence on Monet’s art, and his design of the garden. A meadow in the grounds was full of wild cornflowers and poppies, a lovely contrast with the formal gardens next to the house.

Rouen cathedral west front

The west front of the cathedral catching the late evening sun on our first day there. The lantern and spire can’t be seen here

Rouen itself has an attractive city centre (beyond is pretty average), with plenty of ancient timbered buildings (most of them restored, I’d have thought, after heavy Allied bombing during WWII). The cathedral, dedicated to Notre Dame, has a graceful wooden lantern and spire. Inside is less elaborately decorated than many continental churches, and has a peaceful atmosphere. It too was badly damaged in the bombing raids, and has been carefully restored.

Nearby the gothic church of S. Maclou has a highly decorated facade with multiple arches and statues, but is also quite austere and serene inside. Its gargoyles are magnificent.

I wasn’t able to fit in a visit to the Flaubert Museum – which bizarrely also houses a Medical Museum, complete with Cabinet of Curiosities. He was born in the city in 1821, and lived there until 1840. Eventually he returned to Normandy, and died in 1880 in Croisset, just outside Rouen.

Another literary association with this part of the world is Maupassant. Although he was born some miles away on the coast near Dieppe (in 1850), he spent some of his youth at nearby Étretat (with its famous cliffs). Aged 13 he attended school in Rouen; he hated it, and used it as the basis for his story ‘La Question du Latin’ – I hope to give some thoughts on this, from his collection Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories, which I started on the Eurostar home, in a later post.

Fourié, Un repas de noces à Yport

We particularly liked this enormous painting (this reproduction can’t do it justice) by Albert Fourié, Un repas notes à Yport (1886). The sunlight dappling the table spread with the wedding feast is beautifully done. There’s a real story going on among the guests, too.
Via Wikimedia Commons, Par Adoc — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66709288

I didn’t discover until I was home that there’s a statue of him in the park opposite the Musée des Beaux Arts. This houses a fine collection of Impressionist works, including some excellent Monets (his famous painting of the facade of Rouen cathedral is reproduced everywhere across the city). You have to search them out, however, for there are two separate staircases leading to different sections of the gallery, and we nearly missed it. First we went round the section with earlier works, including a depressing number of deathbed and martyrdom scenes.

At 18 Maupassant returned to the city to attend the Lycée at which his mentor Flaubert had been a student some years earlier. It’s named after the dramatist Corneille (1606-84), also a native of Rouen.

Caillebotte, Dans un café

I liked the tricky mise en abime in this one by Gustave Caillebotte, ‘Dans un café’, c. 1880. The back of the man in the hat gazing out, glass of absinthe on the table behind him, is reflected in the mirror behind him, as are the men seated in front of the space he occupies; but the artist isn’t (maybe a pun on Las Meninas by Velázquez)