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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Not above Maupassant premier bourgeois


though not, save in one respect, the most "arresting" of Maupassant's books, has rather more varied and at the same time coherent interest than some others. It is also that one which most directly illustrates--on the great scale--the general principles of the Naturalist school. Not, indeed, in specially grimy fashion, though there is the usual adultery (_not_ behind the scenes) and the (for Maupassant) not unusual _accouchement_. (His fondness for this most unattractive episode of human life is astonishing: if he were a more pious person and a political feminist, one might think that he was trying to make us modern Adams share the curse of Eve, at least to the extent of the disgust caused by reading about its details.) The main extra-amatory theme throughout is the "physiologie" of an inland watering-place, its extension by the discovery of new springs, the financing of them, the jealousies of the doctors, the megrims of the patients, etc. All these are treated quite on the Zolaesque scheme, but with a lightness and beauty not often reached by the master, though common enough in the pupil.[490] The description of Christiane Andermatt's first bath, and the sensations of mild bliss that it gave her, is as true as it is pretty; and others of scenery have that vividness without over-elaboration which marks their author's work. Nor are his ironic-human touches wanting. Almost at its birth he satirises, in his own quiet Swiftian way, an absurd tendency which has grown mightily since,
and flourishes now: "'Tres _moderne_'--entre ses levres, etait le comble de l'admiration." As for the love-affair itself, one's feelings towards it are mixed. A good deal of it shows that unusual grasp of the proper ways of the game with which Maupassant is fully credited here. Personally, I should not, after quoting Baudelaire to a lady (so far so good), inform her that I was a donkey for expecting her to enjoy anything so subtle. But perhaps Paul Bretigny, though neglectful of the Seventh Commandment, was an honester man than I am. And it is quite true that Christiane was _not_ subtle. Her hot lover's[491] cooling partly dated from the time when she expected him to show palpable interest in the fact that she was likely to have a child by him. And though her cry (on the question what name this infant, of course accepted as his own by the unfortunate Andermatt, should bear) that as for _her_ name, "Cela promet trop de souffrances de porter le nom du Crucifie," could not be better as a general sentiment, the particular circumstances in which it is uttered show a slight want of grace of congruity. Still, the minor characters are not only more in number, but more interesting than is always the case; and the book, if you skip the obstetrics, is readable throughout. Yet it is, to use wine-language, not above "Maupassant _premier bourgeois_," except in some of the earlier love-scenes.

[Sidenote: _Fort comme la Mort._]

In _Fort comme la Mort_ the author rises far above these two books, powerful as they are in parts. The basis is indeed the invariable and unsatisfactory "triangle." But the structure built on it might almost have been lifted to another, and stands foursquare in nearly all respects of treatment. The chief technical objection that can be brought against it is that there is a certain want of air and space; the important characters are too few, the situations too uniform; so that a kind of oppression results. Olivier Bertin, one of the most popular of Parisian painters though no longer young, a great man of society, etc., has, for many years, been the lover of the Countess de Guilleroy, and, of course, the dear friend of her husband. We are introduced to them just at the time when a sort of disgust of middle age is coming over him, as well as a certain feeling that the springs of his genius are running low. He is not tired of the Countess, who is passionately devoted to him; and, except that they do not live together, their relations are rather conjugal than anything else. Just at this moment her daughter Annette comes home from a country life with her grandmother, and proves to be the very double of what her mother was in her own youth. Bertin, without ceasing to love the mother, conceives a frantic passion for the daughter; and the vicissitudes of this take up the book. At last the explosives of the situation are "fused," as one may say, by one of the newspaper attacks of youth on age. Annette's approaching marriage, and this _Figaro_ critique of his own "old-fashioned" art, put Bertin beside himself. Either hurrying heedlessly along, or deliberately exposing himself, he is run over by an omnibus, is mortally hurt, and dies with the Countess sitting beside him and receiving his last selfishness--a request that she will bring the girl to see him before he dies.

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