`every heart imagines itself the first to thrill to a myriad sensations which once stirred the hearts of the earliest creatures and which will again stir the hearts of the last men and women to walk the earth'What is a life? How shall a storyteller conceive a life? What if art means pattern and life has none? How, then, can any story be true to life? These are some of the questions which inform the first of Maupassant's six novels, A Life (Une Vie) (1883) in which he sought to parody and expose thefolly of romantic illusion. An unflinching presentation of a woman's life of failure and disappointments, where fulfilment and happiness might have been expected, A Life recounts Jeanne de Lamare's gradual lapse into a state of disillusion.With its intricate network of parallels and oppositions, A Life reflects the influence of Flaubert in its attention to form and its coherent structure. It also expresses Maupassant's characteristic naturalistic vision in which the satire of bourgeois manners, the representation of the aristocracy inpathological decline, the undermining of human individuality and ideals, and the study of deterioration and disintegration, all play a role. But above all Maupassant brings to his first novel the short story writer's genius for a focused tension between stasis and change, and A Life is one of hismost compelling portraits of dispossession and powerlessness.
Maupassant writes with knowledge of emotional truths, and it was quite surprising to read him describing the wedding night, and later the age-old problem of the differences in sexual desires between husband and wife. You just never see this sort of thing in 19th century literature. The extent of her “sex education” is as follows, and this from her father (wow):
“There are mysteries which are carefully kept from children, especially girls, for girls should remain pure in spirit, pure beyond reproach, until we give them into the arms of a man and their happiness passes into his keeping. It is he who will lift the veil and reveal to them what is life’s sweetest secret. Only, if they have guessed nothing of it beforehand, they often recoil from the reality, the crude facts behind their dreams. If they feel wounded in spirit as they are, indeed, in the body, they may refuse their husband what is his by law – both human and natural law – his absolute right. I cannot tell you more than this, my darling; but never forget that you belong to your husband entirely.”
The wedding night (and their subsequent marital relations) are described in just the right level of detail, and I won’t quote it, except the truism of her feeling: “The rough contact was brutal to her and her breath came fast; and she wanted above everything to escape, to run away through the house, shut herself in somewhere, get away from this man.” And some time later: “She said nothing more, but waited with eyes downcast, revolted body and soul by this continual desire of the male, submitting only with distaste, resigned but humiliated, for to her there was something bestial and degrading in it, indeed something obscene.”
I also really appreciated his little touches, such as the character of Aunt Lison, who nobody pays attention to, and the mention of whom is “as though somebody had mentioned the coffee-pot or the sugar-bowl.” He’s also good in his descriptions of nature, and it was fun to look up the elephant-like rock formation near the small port of Etretat he mentions. Lastly, he has the right sentimental touches, such as when Jeanne revisits her old house, and finds an old pin of her mother’s and sees the “curious figures that imagination often sees in the pattern of a fabric, in marble, in ceilings shaded with the dust of time.”
There are some dramatic moments, one of which is spoiled in this illustrated edition by having the event shown pictorially a few pages before it happens in the text. That’s unpardonable, but rather than penalize Maupassant with a lower rating score, I will just avoid books from ‘The Folio Society’ of London. Another of its illustrations shows up a full 15 pages before the event, which is not a spoiler, but baffling, and reflects poor editing.
On being alone:
“…she felt that there was a veil, a barrier, between them, as she became aware for the first time that two people can never penetrate into each other’s souls, into their inmost thoughts; and that even when they are together, side by side, sometimes interlaced, still they cannot intermingle, and the moral being of each one us remains eternally separate and alone throughout our lives.”
“…he made obeisance to a sort of pantheistic deity, and his hackles rose at the Catholic conception of a god with a bourgeois disposition, the wrath of a Jesuit and the vengefulness of a tyrant; for God to him was a glimpse of creation in miniature, inevitable, limitless and omnipotent, the creation of life, light, earth, thought, plant, rock, man, air, beast, star, God, and insect all simultaneously, creating for the sake of creation, stronger than will, more vast than reasoning, endlessly bringing forth without object or reason in all directions and all forms throughout infinite space, in accordance with necessity as it arises and with the proximity of suns to heat the worlds.
Creation contains the seed of all things, and thought and life develop within it like flowers and fruit on the trees. Accordingly, reproduction was a general law, a divine act, sacred and praiseworthy, fulfilling the obscure, eternal will of the Universal Being.”
And this one:
“Jeanne, feeling herself under attack, retorted: ‘Is it not possible to believe in God without attending Mass?’
The marquise answered: ‘No, Madame; the faithful go to the church to pray to God, just as we go to visit people in their own homes.’
Jeanne was nettled, and replied: ‘God is everywhere, Madame. For my part, I believe in His goodness from the bottom of my heart, and when certain priests come between Him and me I lose the sense of His presence.’”
On a sunset at sea:
“It seemed that a boundless calm had stilled the air, creating a space of quiet about that meeting of the elements; the curve of the sea beneath the sky was like the lustrous liquid belly of some giant bride waiting for her fiery lover to descend on her. He came down in a swift rush, purple as though with ardour to embrace her. Sea and sun became one; and gradually she engulfed him.
Now a chill rose from the horizon; a ripple ran over the heaving bosom of the waters, wrinkling the surface, as though the star they had absorbed sighed out its contentment over the world.”
I loved the writing of this story. The characters were rich and believable - although not likeable. I found it very interesting how Jeanne completely fell apart. Although I tried not to compare her to women in the present, she was helpless and overall not a good role model. I am curious if de Maupassant was making a commentary about women in general, or perhaps the upper classes. Very few strong characters and Jeanne and her family seemed kind, but very incompetent. Surprisingly easy to read.