On we sail

Julian Barnes

One of the great examples of literary advice-giving took place in the summer of 1878. Guy de Maupassant was on the verge of becoming famous. As Flaubert’s literary nephew, and a member of the new group calling themselves Naturalists, he was already well known in Paris; three years previously, he had made his first appearance – as ‘le petit Maupassant’ – in the Goncourt Journal, delighting a company of already famous writers with a long story about Swinburne’s decadent behaviour in Etretat. He had written poems, stories and journalism, coauthored a lewd play, and was working on his first novel, Une Vie. He was socially and sexually successful, and physically very fit: the previous summer, having bought a small boat on Zola’s behalf, he had rowed it the 50 kilometres from Bezons to Zola’s house at Médan. Yet on 3 August, two days before his 28th birthday, he made the following complaints to Flaubert about life: ‘Fucking women is as monotonous as listening to male wit. I find that the news in the papers is always the same, that the vices are trivial, and that there aren’t enough different ways to compose a sentence.’

Flaubert – who signed himself in another letter to Maupassant, ‘Gve Flaubert severe but just’ – sent the following reply:

You complain about fucking being ‘monotonous’. There’s a simple remedy: cut it out for a bit. ‘The news in the papers is always the same’? That’s the complaint of a realist – and besides, what do you know about it? You should look at things more carefully … ‘The vices are trivial’? – but everything is trivial. ‘There aren’t enough different ways to compose a sentence’? – seek and ye shall find … You must – do you hear me, my young friend? – you must work harder than you do. I suspect you of being a bit of a loafer. Too many whores! Too much rowing! Too much exercise! A civilised person needs much less locomotion than the doctors claim. You were born to be a poet: be one. Everything else is pointless – starting with your pleasures and your health: get that much into your thick skull. Besides, your health will be all the better if you follow your calling … What you lack are ‘principles’. There’s no getting over it – that’s what you have to have; it’s just a matter of finding out which ones. For an artist there is only one: everything must be sacrificed to Art … To sum up, my dear Guy, you must beware of melancholy: it’s a vice.

Parts of this advice are inevitably self-advice, or self-justification (Flaubert’s hatred of all forms of exercise, gymnastics and sport was well known). Parts of it miss the mark: it would take more than work to keep Maupassant in good health, since the previous year he had contracted the syphilis that would kill him in 1893. Parts of it are both wise and true. And parts of it would be wise and true had Maupassant been the sort of writer Flaubert was, or had he wanted to be. To take the most obvious point of comparison: speed. Flaubert, the agoniser and perfectionist, liked to quote Buffon’s line ‘Talent is a long patience’ to his disciple. Boule de Suif, the long short story which made Maupassant’s name, and was equally acclaimed by Flaubert, Zola and the general public, took him two months to write – and that represented a Flaubertian agony compared to his subsequent rate of composition. In 1884 he published more than a story a week; in 1886 three every two weeks.

Maupassant is one of the least reliable narrators of his own literary life. The richer and more successful he became, the more he diminished his motives and methods. In 1889 he told his friend Hugues Le Roux that not only was he not ‘born to write’, but ‘with my obstinacy and my method of work I could just as well have become a painter as a literary man – anything, except probably a mathematician.’ He had arrived at writing, he claimed, by a process of ‘reasoning’ rather than through any vocational seizure. Further: ‘Never in my life, neither today nor at any time, have I found the slightest joy in work. For me literature has never been anything but a means of liberation.’ ‘Liberation’ from his day job as a civil servant; from routine and comparative poverty; from having to frequent people whom he didn’t want to be with. Literature was a transaction: Maupassant on another occasion described himself as a marchand de prose, happy to sell his wares to the highest bidder. In other words, he was now provocatively defining himself in direct opposition to Flaubert, who never sullied himself with journalism, never wrote for money, and hated dealing with it, except to complain about its lack.

Though literary uncle and nephew remained devoted to one another, Boule de Suif marks a moment of separation. Maupassant had submitted his early attempts at writing to Flaubert, who had responded with detailed advice. He was especially harsh on Maupassant’s verse, just as he had been on Louise Colet’s (this despite – or because of – Flaubert not being a poet himself). But when it came to Boule de Suif in January 1880, Maupassant, whether from idleness, obstinacy or a sense of literary self-worth, didn’t submit the manuscript. Nor did he leave Flaubert much room for manoeuvre: ‘Tomorrow or the next day I shall send you the proofs of Boule de Suif. I can make only a few word changes because we aren’t allowed to change the line setting as that would throw out the whole book. But epithets are important and can always be improved.’ Thus warned, Flaubert suggested only two small cuts, which Maupassant dutifully carried out. More significantly, in the course of his letter, Flaubert switches for the first time from vous to tu, as if treating Maupassant as an equal in the confraternity of writers.

The year of Maupassant’s first serious success was also the year of Flaubert’s death; and the younger man’s speed and fecundity thereafter were contra-Flaubertian: six novels (plus two more unfinished), nearly 300 short stories and copious journalistic chronicles came out over the next decade, before syphilis closed off his mind. But the presence of Flaubert is not expunged. If Maupassant’s practices were freer and more commercial and his aesthetic less high-minded, the two men had affinities of temperament and outlook. Both were Normans constantly balancing a need for society against a profounder need to be alone; both – in youth at least (and despite Flaubert’s rebuke) – enjoyed taking their pleasures; both valued their privacy, and were profoundly suspicious of marriage and emotional entanglement; both were pessimistic and melancholic, oppressed by human stupidity and easily moved to disgust at the whole business of living.

Flaubert, the more intransigent of the two, thought that for a writer to give the public details of his private life was a bourgeois weakness which should be avoided. Maupassant in this respect was a little more bourgeois, allowing some of his opinions and habits to become known. Afloat, one of two less-known Maupassant works recently reissued with new translations, is one of the most personally revealing of his texts. It purports to be a simple, guileless account of a nine-day cruise along the Riviera coast between Saint-Tropez and Monaco. While the two-man crew of the Bel-Ami dealt with the rigging and the cooking, Maupassant steered and ‘every day … jotted down things I’d seen and thought. In fact what I saw was water, sun, cloud and rocks and that’s all. I had only simple thoughts, the kind you have when you’re being carried drowsily along on the cradle of the waves.’ This is true to some extent; and it’s easy to read the book innocently, trusting the narrator, believing his account of things, and letting yourself be carried along as by an unthreatening breeze. Maupassant is often called ‘a natural storyteller’: that’s to say, a professional, practised, unnatural storyteller. Such is invariably the case, with both the paid and the unpaid variety (think of the best anecdotalists you know in life: their effect of spontaneity is always based on adjustable tropes, prepared impromptus and trusty set-pieces). Here, you are the fourth person aboard the Bel-Ami, merely required to pay attention as the skipper points out the characteristics of wind and wave, the beauties of the shoreline and the secret history of islands and reefs. On the first day, for instance, off Cannes, he tells the extraordinary (and to me unknown) story of Paganini’s burial. The great violinist had died of cholera in 1840, and his corpse was being taken home to Genoa by his son. But the Genoese declined to let the body ashore for fear of infection, a refusal repeated at Marseille, and then at Cannes, until the son, in desperation, sighted the rugged reef-island of Saint-Ferréol, and stashed his father there in secret. Five years later, when the cholera scare was over, he returned, exhumed the coffin, and took it to Genoa for final, honourable burial. Though, as Maupassant notes: ‘Wouldn’t one have preferred this extraordinary violinist to have remained on this jagged reef where the waves themselves moan in the strange gashes in the rock?’ Yes, skipper, we would, the reader is likely to reply.

When we pass the fortress island of Sainte-Marguerite, Maupassant recounts the daring escape of Marshal Bazaine – a story he had from an inside source. On we sail. He takes us fishing in his favourite spot, near the Cap du Dramont, a part of the coastline which hasn’t yet been ‘polluted’ by the ‘Parisians and the English and Americans’. Between Saint-Raphaël and Saint-Tropez, by contrast, the rich forest land is currently being cleared for winter resorts. Here, for instance, is Saint-Aygulf, designed to attract successful artists from Paris; as yet unbuilt, but with streets laid out, and their alluring names already up on metal plates – boulevard Rubens, boulevard Van Dyck, boulevard Claude-Lorrain. On we sail. From time to time we might overhear the crew arguing about the direction of the wind; once, we get caught in a storm; one evening, in the Bay of Agay, a slim crescent moon incites the skipper to philosophical reflection and literary reference about our relationship with this nearest of astral bodies. We forgive him the banality of his observations.

These sections of nautical travelogue are engaging enough; but ‘afloat’ implies its counterpart, ‘ashore’, and it is here that the tone darkens and the book becomes more self-revealing. Afloat you are as free as the weather allows you to be; you are surrounded by nature; and you are (forgetting the crew) as solitary as you need and want to be. Ashore is where the problems start, because ashore is full of other people. The skipper is profoundly suspicious of other people, who not only display their own inadequacies but point up your shared ones: ‘We don’t know anything, can’t see anything, do anything, solve anything, imagine anything, we’re shut up, imprisoned inside ourselves. And there are people who think that the human race is wonderful!’ Man is no more than a ‘two-legged insect’; we are ‘beasts and beasts we shall remain, dominated by our instincts in which nothing can change’; people are stupid and ugly and (a surprising complaint from a Frenchman) smell of garlic. Like Flaubert, Maupassant hates people en masse, quoting Lord Chesterfield’s remark that ‘every numerous assembly is mob’; but, not being a snob, he also hates people as individuals, for their monotony, their ‘paltriness’ and their ‘mediocrity’ (médiocre is a key word in Madame Bovary).

He doesn’t let himself off much more lightly than he does others. And his complaints are often close to those he voiced to Flaubert ten years previously. He feels ‘utter revulsion’ at the repetitious nature of life. He has ‘lusted after everything and enjoyed nothing’. And if men and women are both mediocre and unchanging, then what is the point of art for representational artists? ‘Because man never changes, their art is not only pointless but constantly repetitive.’ Now, however, Flaubert is eight years dead, and there is no literary uncle to help, to offer perspective, to reply that his complaints are those of a Realist, and in effect point up the inadequacies of Realism. Flaubert once claimed that he had written Madame Bovary because he ‘hated Realism’.

Nodding to a different French master, Maupassant notes that most of mankind’s ills come from ‘the dread of being alone’. And he himself shares that dread, which is why, even in nine days, he shuttles between afloat and ashore. He hates receiving letters, which ‘tie me down’; he fears friendship, because affection turns out to imply ownership; and yet this self-described ‘brute’ and ‘faun’, with an animal love of the earth, of landscape, of the sea, cannot resist the tide pulling him back to human beings. At Saint-Raphaël he goes ashore and comes across a wedding – ‘that solemn, carnal and comical act which causes such agitation in mankind’. This is a toxic combination for a man who hates marriage, distrusts happiness, writes as if he has never been in love and, further, loathes the crowd. He stands there, waiting for the bride to come out of the church – a normal human reaction for most of us, but not for Maupassant, who deduces that his individual will has been subsumed into the powerful and dangerous force of mass desire. And so: ‘I stood on tiptoe to look – and I really did have the vile, repugnant, vulgar desire to take a look.’

The disgust here has reached pathological proportions. At every turn the darker or more pessimistic option or interpretation is chosen. France’s sunny, idyllic coastline and its immediate hinterland are at times rendered as tormentedly as van Gogh’s Provence. Death is everywhere, even if the rest of us fail to spot it. For Maupassant, Menton means a hecatomb of juvenile TB cases. Travelling inland from Saint-Tropez, he discovers a cork forest which has been harvested for the wine industry:

the bare trunks turn red, blood-red, like a human limb that’s been skinned, making a bloody forest in a hell where the men have roots and their bodies, weirdly crippled and deformed by torture, look like trees, in which, from their wounds dripping with blood, life was forever ebbing away in endless suffering.

Reductivists might see this as the vision of a diagnosed syphilitic – at one point on the trip he has a violent migraine and resorts to the ether bottle – who would try to kill himself within four years and be dead within five. Anti-reductivists might refer to his previous complaints against the world when still a fit young man, and see a consistency of vision now reinforced by greater knowledge of the world.

If the horror of life at the book’s centre is authentic, much of what surrounds it is a confection. Had Maupassant really just been ‘jotting down things I’d seen and thought’, it would have demonstrated a photographic memory for his own past journalistic work. As Edward Sullivan, who 60 years ago first identified several dozen lengthy recyclings, put it: ‘If Maupassant did compose his book on the Bel-Ami in 1887, the yacht’s gear must have included a file of clippings of his old articles in the Gaulois and the Gil-Blas, as well as scissors and an ample supply of paste.’ There is nothing necessarily wrong with the reuse of material – most prolific writers indulge in it – and travel writers have always told much larger lies than novelists; Douglas Parmée suggests that Afloat is ‘best read as fiction’. Even so, it is still disconcerting to discover that the story of Paganini’s corpse is completely spurious, the escape of Marshal Bazaine not much more reliable, and that anecdotes about those Maupassant met while supposedly going ashore on specific days in a specific year come from another time and another place, and/or were second-hand in the first place.

You will not get much indication of truth versus untruth – and originality versus recycling – from this new translation; if you care about that, you will need to go to a French edition. Presumably an editorial decision was taken not to annotate (though there is an annotation on page 13). And yet, in a sly way, the book does just that. On the very first page the following sentence occurs: ‘Antibes loomed up dimly in front of me, with its two towers dominating the town which is cone-shaped and still walled in by the fortifications of Louis XIV’s Vauban.’ ‘The fortifications of Louis XIV’s Vauban’ is an ugly phrase – untypical of Douglas Parmée’s reliably elegant translation – and a suspicious one. Indeed, Maupassant wrote of ‘la ville bâtie en cône et qu’enferment encore les vieux murs de Vauban’. What’s wrong with inserting ‘Louis XIV’s’? Only that Maupassant didn’t write it, and would never have written it. But isn’t translation about being helpful to the reader, conveying in English what would be conveyed in the French to a French reader? Yes, but many French readers – to judge by the Folio edition, which annotates the name of Vauban – no longer know who the famous fortifier was either.

Then there is the opposite habit, of suppressing information judged tedious. Thus, ‘le poète Haraucourt’ loses even his obscure name to become merely ‘one poet’; while in a list of the failed besiegers of Saint-Tropez, ‘le duc d’Anjou … le connétable de Bourbon … le duc de Savoie et le duc d’Epernon’ are shuffled off as ‘divers other foreign aggressors’. Perhaps this seems a minor offence against a text which is hardly major; harmless, indeed rather helpful. But what about this? Maupassant wrote of the island of Sainte-Marguerite that it contained ‘la forteresse célèbre où furent enfermés le Masque de fer et Bazaine’. This is translated as:

a famous fortress in which were imprisoned the Man in the Iron Mask (said to be the twin brother of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who wanted to keep him out of the way) and Marshal Bazaine, who had the bad luck of having to surrender Metz to the Prussians in 1870 and the good luck to have his death sentence commuted to imprisonment.

Apart from this plodding example, the tucks and trims and interpolations are suavely done. Did the late and distinguished Parmée make them of his own volition? Was he leant on by an editor, or was it a process of collaboration? They are still quite low on the traduttore/traditore scale; but it’s easy to imagine what might happen to translation if this principle of ‘helpfulness’ were logically developed.

Maupassant’s chapter on Cannes begins with a couple of pages about the multiplicity of foreign princelings on the Riviera. These are followed by four recycled pages about salons, the tactics of the women who run them and the talented men who frequent them. There is no indication that any of these salons is located in Cannes; indeed, it seems quite clear they are Parisian, as they would have been in the original newspaper articles. Maupassant discusses the pecking order of guests: musicians at the top, artists next, writers coming a close third, with other riff-raff like generals and parliamentarians occasionally tolerated. He notes how musicians are treated like royalty and inspire a fetishistic following (that tuft of his beard enclosed in your ring); artists can be a little unreliable and rough-mannered, but worth it; while writers are useful because they talk a lot. Among the latter, your poet is more idealistic, and also more trustworthy, than your novelist, who ‘loots and exploits and gnaws away at everything he sees. With him, you can never feel safe, never sure that one day he won’t lay you naked on the pages of a book.’ These matters were on Maupassant’s mind for both social and literary reasons. He increasingly enjoyed high society (one of the attractions of the Riviera was that social barriers were more vaultable than in Paris); and he was preparing to write his novels of worldly life. One of those who were both work and play for him was Madame Marie Kahn, who ran an artistic salon in the rue Murillo; we know that Maupassant visited her at Saint-Raphaël in December 1886. She was one of two beautiful, intelligent and grandly married Russian sisters. Marie, who according to a family member was ‘less aggressively virtuous than her sister’, is generally held to be the prototype for Michèle de Burne in Maupassant’s last completed novel, Notre Coeur.

Alien Hearts is its first new translation for a hundred years. The novel has never been much known or valued among Anglophone readers: Francis Steegmuller, in his 1950 biography, called it ‘lamentable’, a term he also applied to Maupassant’s other high-life novel, Fort comme la mort. By their very subject matter they are set apart from what most readers consider ‘real’ Maupassant – his stories of peasant and bourgeois life – but Steegmuller’s dismissal is far too harsh. Fort comme la mort is the stronger of the two, a complex and finally terrifying story of the emotionally incestuous passion of a society painter for the daughter of his long-term mistress; it explores the inequalities of love between the generations, and the punishments the heart endures for not knowing how to grow old. (Ford Madox Ford called it ‘that really greatest of all renderings of atrocious love – of atrociously painful love’, and said that when he wrote The Good Soldier he had the ambition ‘to do for the English novel what in Fort comme la mort, Maupassant had done for the French’.) Notre Coeur has less heat and less terror: André Mariolle, a young, drifting arty type who has published ‘some notably “stylish” travel sketches’, meets Michèle de Burne at her salon, falls in love with this ‘born coquette’, is frustrated when she doesn’t love him back sufficiently, and runs away to the forest of Fontainebleau. There he meets Elisabeth, a simple but true-hearted waitress who loves him completely and with whom he spends an idyllic month; however, he in turn doesn’t love her enough, and is eventually reclaimed by Mme de Burne. Yes, summary does make it sound rather lamentable.

But if the novel is conventional in its procedures, and some of the pages about salon life lack the swiftness of point which is the essence of Maupassant, there are two central themes worthy of our attention. The first is the idea that Michèle de Burne, despite her long-established social function, is ‘modern’. The word is used repeatedly and pointedly of her; while one opinion of her rival salon-holder the Baroness de Frémines is that ‘modernity can go no further.’ This is not a matter of either woman’s aesthetic taste or social and political opinions, but of emotional development. Comparing the two women, the novelist Lamarthe says: ‘Our friend Burne is more of a woman, more of a modern woman, you know what I mean, irresistible in the artifice of seduction which has replaced the old power of natural charm. I shouldn’t even call it artifice, it’s really an aesthetic, the deep sense of a feminine aesthetic. All her power is there.’ What Mariolle discovers is that the modern woman is not able to love as deeply as her predecessor: she is able to attract, entrap and seduce, but even in intimacy there is a final withholding of heart and body – which, of course, becomes a source of further power. And this change in women, Mariolle decides, is the fault of literature. As he puts it to Lamarthe,

In the days when poets and novelists exalted women and made them dream … they sought and believed they found in their lives the same things that their hearts responded to in books. Today you eliminate all the poetic trappings in order to reveal nothing but disillusioning realities. And when there’s no love left in books, my dear fellow, there’s no love in life.

This complaint against literature from within literature is very French; it also directs us back to an earlier and more famous such complaint, that in Madame Bovary. Emma is the typical reader of those romantic books which make women dream and give their hearts expectation – though look where it got her. Indeed, Flaubert’s novel deals in precisely the sort of ‘disillusioning realities’ Mariolle is now complaining about. And there is a pure Flaubertian moment when Mariolle is doing his final checks on the suburban cottage he has rented for his trysts with Mme de Burne: ‘In the silence of that little pavilion where he awaited the greatest happiness he had ever hoped for, he savoured, alone with his dream, walking back and forth from salon to bedroom, talking to himself, the truest pleasure in love he was ever to know.’

Michèle de Burne is aware of her modern condition, aware that the love she feels for Mariolle is not enough in his terms, or on some hypothetical universal scale. She thinks love is ‘a kind of legend of the soul’ in which some can believe and others not; she says of herself: ‘I love drily.’ But there is nothing she can do about it; when she tries to love Mariolle more than her nature permits, she produces only a ‘factitious ardour’. The upside of this diminished wattage, she points out, is that at least no one dies of love any longer. Furthermore, and despite Mariolle’s example, this sociopathology is not restricted to women: ‘Nowadays men and women don’t love each other to the point of really doing themselves any harm.’ This incapacity, or insufficiency, leads into the second main idea of Notre Coeur: that, as Mariolle puts it to himself, ‘life consists of approximations.’ Completeness lies beyond our capabilities, and the lack of completeness in love – whether we are donor or recipient or both – is how and where we measure life’s ability to fail us (or our ability to fail life) most sharply.

At the conclusion of the novel, Mariolle agrees to come back to Paris and continue his role as courtier in a salon of similarly emasculated males. His own private makeweight in the deal is that he is secretly going to install Elisabeth in his household. He finds himself in male fantasy land (a condition doubtless also the fault of literature), longing for ‘a woman who would be the two of them, who would have this one’s love and that one’s charm! Why do we never find the reality of our dreams and always meet with approximations?’ In a crude, quantitative way you could say that Mariolle gets to have his cake and eat it; but in the bleaker emotional accountancy of the novel, he knows that two halves, however separately enviable, can never make the whole we yearn for.