I’m reading some stories by Guy de Maupassant and they’re all excellent but one in particular put a lump in my throat. It’s called “Mademoiselle Fifi” and it’s set during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), when Maupassant was about 20. He wrote it a few years later. That war actually changed Europe forever, because it prompted Prussia and various smaller German states to become a unified Germany. There is something very astute and foreshadowing in the story regarding the events that were eventually to shake Europe in the 20th Century. I don’t get the sense that Maupassant was anti-German per se, but simply that he was anti-war and anti-cruelty in any form.
You can read, online, the very edition of the story that I got from the library. The link is below this photo of the author as a young man. How often do you get to read a story with such distinguished credentials: story by Guy de Maupassant, translation by Mrs. John Galsworthy, and preface by Joseph Conrad! . . . .
Her gaze wandered over Paris, over the sky from which the light drained a little earlier each day, with an impartial severity which possibly condemned nothing.
We saw the movie, recently, about her, and decided we wanted to read one of her books. We had never heard of Colette. But it turns out that we were very familiar with her work. Gigi is one of my wife’s favorite movies. And when I was a kid and began learning to play the cornet, the title song of Gigi was one of the songs in my head that I longed to hear coming out of the bell of my instrument.
So from the library we got Colette’s volume containing her short story Gigi and her short novella The Cat. Reading this mere sample of Colette’s work does not make us experts. It only makes us fans. Here are some thoughts from a fan:
Gigi is a charming story, the movie tracked it pretty closely, just adding a few scenes and characters and a perfect musical score. With refreshing realism and sweet undertone of satire, Colette wrote a story of what one publisher refers to as “the politics of love”. That interesting phrase seems to be a good label for the story, which I would probably have called a comedy of manners. But labels don’t do justice to the story, which is a very special sketch of a very unique romantic entanglement created by the moral ambiguity of early 20th Century Paris. I finished the story with the sudden realization that I had just read a fine piece by a writer of underestimated talent. The Cat did nothing to dispel that opinion and only cemented it.
The Cat gives new meaning to the term “cat lover”. It is a sweet portrayal of human weakness and shortcomings, including awkwardness, jealousy and mistrust between lovers. Colette painted the portrait with a keen sense of observation. And, assuming that the translation is true to the original*, she wrote in language of such rich color and impressive depth that I will keep some of her work in the little gallery in my head where I try to collect bits of artistry, bits of intelligence that may not be masterpieces to others but are priceless to me.
*My brother-in-law could tell me. He used to teach French.
“I’ve always thought,” I said, “that anyone who makes someone else doubt the foundations of his morals hasn’t lived in vain.”
Our daughter loaned us the book. My wife and I both read it. I had never heard of Marguerite Duras. I am glad to have crossed paths with her at last. The Sailor From Gibraltar is an odyssey of sorts, and a strange kind of love story. A nameless disenchanted bureaucrat becomes infatuated with a woman pursuing an endless voyage to find a lost lover. Both loves are one-sided, obsessive, and blind. At the deepest level, the novel is a study in philosophy and psychology. It charts the murky depths of love and, certainly, life as well.
Written and translated in tough, lean prose, the book is a search for something that doesn’t exist. The story and its characters are full of contradictions. They don’t know their own minds—or hearts. And that’s what ultimately touches ours.
I recently read a very powerful and disturbing novel, The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France. The story is set in the same historical context as A Tale of Two Cities (probably my first choice for greatest novel of all time). Anatole France does not have Dickens’ wit (who does?), but he crafts an intricate and well-woven drama about the French Revolution and its unspeakable Reign of Terror. France’s comprehensive knowledge of history, as well as theology and ancient mythology, make the novel more challenging to read, but a richer experience. If you appreciate the tradition and style of Victor Hugo, you will probably enjoy The Gods and place it in the same distinguished class.