Alien Hearts (New York Review Books Classics)
by Guy De Maupassant
Reviewed by Lorin Stein
Sooner or later, in writing about Guy de Maupassant, one feels impelled to address a rumor. Classy writers refer to this rumor obliquely. Tolstoy, in a preface to Maupassant's stories, mentions "something remarkable and incredible in regard to his relations with women." Henry James, in a book review, rather more subtly calls him "master [of] his instrument . . . that of the senses." Frank Harris, a memoirist who had no class whatsoever, claims to have got the straight dope from the master himself:
"I suppose I am a little out of the common sexually," he resumed, "for I can make my instrument stand whenever I please."
"Really?" I exclaimed, too astonished to think.
"Look at my trousers," he remarked, laughing, and there on the road he showed me that he was telling the truth.
"What an extraordinary power," I cried. "I thought I was abnormal in that way, for I always get excited in a moment, and I have heard men say that they needed some time to get ready for the act; but your power is far beyond anything I have ever seen or heard of."
"That is the worst of it," he remarked quietly. "If you get a reputation some of them practically offer themselves."
In a career that spanned barely a decade -- the 1880s and early 1890s -- Maupassant
produced some 300 stories, 200 articles, three travel books, a collection of poems, three plays, and six novels, and the bulk of this production was consumed with the pursuit of illicit sex. His specialty was the conte leste
, a kind of bawdy comic story we have very little of in English after Chaucer
or The Arabian Nights
). Maupassant modernized this tradition, testing the boundaries of what was permissible even in the Paris tabloids, where many of his stories first appeared. He was the best-selling writer of his generation.
According to his mother, who doted on him, Maupassant had his first romance at the age of sixteen, "followed by a friendly affection which lasted a long time." This pattern would repeat itself all his life. He had a succession of mistresses, society women known for their wit and beauty, and a long intermittent affair with a spa attendant (who bore him several children), plus hundreds or thousands of briefer liaisons. Friends said he took more pride in his sex life than in his books. He never married.
He was born in 1850 into the Norman gentry and grew up in the coastal village of Etretat. He was a sailor, a troublemaker at school, a budding outdoorsman. After serving in the Franco-Prussian War, during which the family lost its money, Maupassant moved to Paris and took a job as a government clerk. There he grew close to Gustave Flaubert -- a cousin on his mother's side -- who saw talent in the young man's poems. Flaubert gave Maupassant weekly writing tutorials as well as plenty of scoldings ("Far too many women, much too much rowing, and all that exercise! You were born to write!"). In 1880 Maupassant published his first story, in an anthology edited by Zola. By the time he was in his early thirties, not just Flaubert and Zola but Turgenev, James, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, and millions of ordinary French people, were reading everything he wrote. He had become "a lion in the path," as James put it -- a writer so "strong and definite" that he seemed able to reduce life almost solely to a matter of animal urges. "In the face of the demands made by the art of Maupassant," Chekhov complained, "it is difficult to work." His French was notoriously vivid and to the point. When Isaac Babel has a narrator say, "No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place," in the story "Guy de Maupassant," it is a tribute to this style.
What most troubled and delighted Maupassant's readers was his erotic identification with women. He saw them as sexual objects, and he saw himself as a sexual object. The protagonist of his first story, "Boule de Suif," is a prostitute who insists on her right to refuse a customer. The protagonist of his first novel, Une vie, is a young wife whose sexual awakening and disillusionment constitute the heart of the book. Maupassant created hundreds of female protagonists, and he treated them not with the uneasy moral irony you find in Madame Bovary
or Anna Karenina
but with complete solidarity. I can't think of one who kills herself out of guilt.
The men who interest Maupassant exist in the feminine sphere -- cads, seducers, beauties. Husbands, in his books, tend to be tyrants or buffoons. His heroes fly under their radar. His most famous protagonist, Georges Duroy, a.k.a. Bel-Ami, sleeps his way to the top of the magazine business thanks to his sensitivity and a pretty mustache. He's a monster and we know it from chapter one, where we learn that he committed atrocities in Algeria. Maupassant doesn't make much of this (though he was passionately antiwar and anti-empire). What interests him is the dance between Bel-Ami and the women who buy his charms. First a prostitute gives him a night for free. Then a mistress gives him a cash allowance. Soon he's demanding jewelry. Duroy is what Maupassant liked to call an homme-fille
in this context meaning whore: a man who lives for and by women's pleasure. Maupassant was that way himself. He trumpeted the fact, from his early pornographic poem "69" to the book he wrote about sailing on his yacht, the Bel-Ami. A girlfriend once burst into his house and left a note that read simply, cochon. (Maupassant to his valet: "They don't give me time to breathe.")
Not everyone was so attuned to the desires of the opposite sex, or so much at their mercy. But it was the only state of being that Maupassant could deeply imagine. As he had it, even a genius couldn't write about sensuality if he wasn't inclined that way himself. The reverse held too. In the aesthetic battles of the day between the "psychological" and the "objective" novel, Maupassant took a hard objectivist line. For most of his career he was wary of looking too deeply into characters' motivations. "The man who goes in for pure psychology can only substitute himself for all his characters," Maupassant wrote, "for it is impossible for him to change his own organs, which are the only intermediaries between the outside world and ourselves." Better, he thought, to report what people do and say, and say to themselves, than to ask what makes them tick.
Paradoxically, in the early novels, that reticence lets Maupassant inhabit his characters to an unnerving degree. In Bel-Ami, Duroy waits in a church for his boss's wife, whom he is about to seduce. He sits wishing for a cigarette and then notices a working-class woman deep in prayer: "Duroy watched with interest, wondering what sadness or suffering or despair it was that had overcome this humble creature. She was obviously completely distressed." For Tolstoy this would have been a teachable moment. For Flaubert it would have been ironic. Maupassant just lets it happen. (Tolstoy: "The author . . . at times seems to be losing the fundamental, negative point of view upon his hero and passes over to his side.")
Around 1888, something starts to change in Maupassant's fiction. For the novella Jean et Pierre, he adopts the point of view of a young physician tormented by the thought that his mother may have cheated on his father. Maupassant called Jean et Pierre a "psychological study," as opposed to a novel -- but he would never write an objective novel again. His last two finished books, Fort comme la mort
(1889) and Notre Coeur
(1890) -- the latter recently translated by Richard Howard as Alien Hearts
-- are psychological novels par excellence.
It's no wonder these two works have been out of print in English for almost a century. They don't match anyone's idea of his strengths. By the late 1880s, Maupassant, who contracted syphilis in his twenties, was in the last stages of the disease. He wrote these books in a rush, amid crippling headaches, hallucinations, and bouts of blindness. Often he repeats himself. At times he overexplains a situation rather than wait for the few right words. The young Proust dismissed Fort comme la mort
as "a second-rate book with everything that is kept silent in a good one."
What makes the books fascinating is their urgency and narrowness and Maupassant's continued refusal -- even at his most psychological -- to indulge in psychological diagnosis. (It's said that Maupassant fell out of fashion thanks to Freud.) In Notre Coeur
a fashionable novelist classifies Michele de Burne -- Maupassant's heroine -- as a "contemporary neurotic." This novelist claims to have "anatomized" her "type" as a "new race of women tormented by the nerves of a rational hysteria." Maupassant shrugs: "He had failed, like the others, in his attempts at seduction." That is, you don't understand a person by assigning her a type. The kind of understanding that interests Maupassant, here and throughout his fiction, is what happens between lovers: the complicity, the seduction, the compromise. Nowhere does Maupassant push this idea further than in Notre Coeur
Michele de Burne is a rising society hostess when she first meets Andre Mariolle. Young, widowed, beautiful, she is known for attracting famous artists to her salon. It's always the same story. They fall in love and try to sleep with her. She puts them off. The crisis passes, and they subside into semiplatonic worship, competing with the others for her attention. She is addicted to this little dance, and sick of it, sick of her stilted dinners, where the guests speak only to show their rivals up, sick of the self-absorption of writers and composers, whose sense of vocation will always limit her importance in their lives.
Most of this she explains to Andre Mariolle the first time he comes to her house. The rest he's more or less figured out on his own. To Mme de Burne, he's merely an easy conquest. He is rich, witty, presentable, but at thirty-seven, he has spent his adult life in the shadow of more accomplished men. He has never had much luck with women. His love affairs outside the beau monde have "ended in disgust": the women were after his money. Within the beau monde, he feels he doesn't count. That first evening at Mme de Burne's, Mariolle watches his hostess while she, in turn, watches their famous friend Massival play piano:
At the sight of this woman's gaze fixed on such an Illustrious Personage, his masculine vanity was humiliated by the thought of how She might classify him, according to the amount of fame achieved. It was not the first time he had secretly suffered from encountering famous men.
Mariolle has spent his life stuck in rooms like these, in thoughts like these. He's trapped and he's too ashamed to admit it even to himself.
Mme de Burne jolts him out of his rut. Once the piano playing is over she comes and sits next to him. She talks brilliantly, but mainly she knows how to listen. Mariolle feels himself being seduced -- it doesn't matter: "Perhaps there had been some adroitness on the young woman's part; but what impressed Mariolle was the pleasure of finding someone who listens, who understands, who responds." In return he reveals "that hidden turn of mind, so personal, so delicate, which won him, when it was perceived, such rare and lively sympathy."
This will be the outward pattern of their affair: her powerful, him naked. But he is so vulnerable, so starved, that he disarms her too. When they have known each other three months, he sends her the letter she's been waiting for, his declaration of love -- and it's a letter goodbye. He means it. He can't stand the rivalry, can't stand how much Mme de Burne already means to him. And she's touched. This is a better love letter than the ones her professionals write. In order to hold on to Mariolle she summons him to her house and tells him the truth: "I am a dreadful coquette: I admit it -- but no one's ever died of it; I don't even think anyone's suffered from it . . . I don't have what's required to be madly adored . . . I'm quite incapable of really loving anyone." One truth after another. For reasons Maupassant doesn't insult us by explaining, it works. He sticks around. They keep seeing each other, as friends. And he writes more and more passionate letters, which they never talk about, and which become the center of his life, and of hers. Then Mme de Burne arranges for Mariolle to meet up with her family, as if by accident, in Brittany. Thrilled by her own sneakiness, buzzing from a visit to the ramparts of Mont-Saint-Michel, late one night she lets herself into his hotel room. Their first sexual encounter disappoints them both. At the same time, Mariolle is overjoyed -- he has a mistress. Back in Paris he rents a discreet pavilion where they can meet, confident the sex will get better. Their rendezvous replace letter-writing as the main occupation of his days.
Yet Mme de Burne would always rather talk than make love. When he kisses her fingers, "keeping them a moment, one after the next, like bonbons, she seemed eager to pull them away, and along the whole length of her arm he felt a secret effort of withdrawal." Over time Mariolle grows terrified that some man will come along who truly excites her, or that she's drawn to women, or that he simply isn't up to scratch socially. Together these two have reached what Tolstoy called the core of Maupassant's fiction: "the agonizing state of loneliness . . . that barrier . . . felt the more painfully, the closer the bodily contact." And here, one hundred pages in, Maupassant regains the form that made him great. The details crystallize, the senses and sentences sharpen:
During the first three months she came anywhere from three-quarters of an hour to two hours late. Since the autumn showers forced Mariolle to wait shivering under an umbrella, his feet in the mud behind the garden door, he had a sort of little wooden vestibule built there, in order to wait for her without catching cold each time they met. The trees were bare now. Instead of roses and all the other flowers, the beds were full of pink, white, lavender, yellow, and russet chrysanthemums which added to the moist air, already heavy with the melancholy smell of rain on dead leaves, their slightly acrid, balsamic odor, a little melancholy as well.
This is classic Maupassant, beautifully rendered by Howard. The umbrella, then the mud, then the little gatehouse outside the little house (where they're supposed to be together), make you feel what two hours of waiting means. It's funny and pathetic, and the smell of the fall rain -- like a pair of 3-D glasses -- brings the scene and the feeling up off the page. Maupassant often uses odor in this way.
He is no less sympathetic to Mme de Burne. Nineteenth-century novels, especially French ones, are full of men brooding over their own sexual ambivalence. We know to consider this natural. In women the same feelings are generally a problem to be solved -- a moral problem, a physical problem, a fatal flaw, depending on the novel. Maupassant offers, instead, a series of possible reasons why Mme de Burne doesn't want to sleep with Mariolle, or anyone at all: she is indeed drawn to women; her late marriage, to a brute, has left her traumatized; her father treats her like a wife. In Maupassant's mind these "explanations" cancel one another out. He floats them and bats them aside. For Maupassant, so strong in his own sense of being born "a little out of the common," the question isn't what is wrong with Mme de Burne but how she feels and what she's going to do. He listens in at her thoughts:
She even calculated that Andre's love was more likely to last if she denied herself to him a little more, for every hunger is intensified by fasting, and what is sensual desire but appetite? Once this resolution was made, she decided she would go to [see him] that very day, but would pretend to be ill. This excursion, which a moment earlier had seemed so painful in such terrible weather, immediately appeared the easiest thing in the world, and she now understood, smiling to herself at this sudden development, why she had so resisted such a normal thing. Just now she hadn't wanted to go -- and then she was quite happy to do so. Just now she had resisted because she reviewed in advance the thousand exasperating little details of the encounter! How she would prick her fingers with the steel pins she always handled so clumsily; how she could never find the clothes she had dropped here and there in the bedroom while hurriedly undressing, already anticipating the hateful task of having to put her things back on afterward without a maid.
It's hard to believe Proust didn't like this paragraph. (He must have read it. Everyone knew that Mme de Burne was based on their mutual friend Genevieve Straus -- later an inspiration for the Duchesse de Guermantes.) There is something truly Proustian in the rhythm of it, in its amusement, in those pins, and, more basically, in its sympathy toward the beloved, who can never reciprocate enough, who will always withhold the one last thing the lover most demands. As in A la recherche du temps perdu
, you really don't know which person suffers more.
Eventually Mme de Burne and Mariolle face facts. "‘It's my imagination that misled me,'" she tells him, "‘I cannot love more or better than I'm doing at this very moment.'" When her confession sinks in, Mariolle goes back to his original plan: he writes Mme de Burne another goodbye letter and escapes to a house in the country.
It is an amicable breakup -- and it wrecks him: "He had accomplished nothing, achieved nothing, succeeded in nothing. . . . His one sincere effort to conquer a woman's heart had failed like all the rest. It couldn't be denied: he was nothing but a failure." This is more than self-pity or disappointment. Some necessary lifelong anesthesia is wearing off. Maupassant compares the pain to "the slow and chronic diseases which frequently prove to be fatal." In moments of bitterness, Mariolle has sometimes told himself that Mme de Burne wants to live in a novel. Now it's as if he is swimming to the surface of the very novel in our hands, looking up at us with the eyes of Maupassant's own suffering -- Maupassant who in three years, worn down by his own slow and chronic disease, will cut his throat, and fail, and spend his last months in an asylum. (He died in 1893, at the age of forty-three.)
But Mariolle, that mediocre version of himself, will live on. He meets a pretty waitress at a nearby hotel. He installs her as his housekeeper. Through his depression he watches her fall in love with him, and he takes her as his mistress: "compassion has no part to play in sentimental victories." By the end of the novel, he has recovered sufficiently to face Mme de Burne again. We realize this has all been prologue, that the long negotiation between Mariolle and Mme de Burne has only begun. We know enough to feel sorry for the waitress.
Tolstoy dismissed Notre Coeur
as having "no inner problem except the description of all kinds of sexual love." There is truth in that. For Maupassant, describing sexual love pretty much was the problem. When he wrote Notre Coeur
he'd run out of time to worry about other people's problems, or to bother smudging his features in the people he made up. As Howard observes in the preface to his translation, Maupassant assigns versions of his own name to half the male characters in the book.
But Notre Coeur
is saved from self-absorption not just by Maupassant's willingness to play both sides, lover and beloved, but by the way in which love survives the illusions it burns away. The night Mme de Burne first meets Mariolle she tells him that, for women, "Le sentiment . . . eclaire," feelings have a clarifying effect. It is the only mysterious thing she says, and almost the only thing she tells him that isn't a warning. I think the novel illustrates her point.
It makes sense to call the book Alien Hearts
(an amalgam of Notre Coeur
and the title of Maupassant's unfinished novel L'Ame etrangere
). His protagonists are often alien to each other, and to themselves. But if "Our Heart" didn't sound so bad in English I'd vote for it. It suggests a self-portrait. At the same time it suggests that sexual love is, even at its loneliest, a shared predicament, the one in which we come to know each other best. Lorin Stein is the editor of The Paris Review.