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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

497 and she by no means jilts or threatens jilting


Maupassant's

last novel of some magnitude, _Notre Coeur_, was written when the shadow was near enveloping him; and it cannot be said to have the perfection of _Pierre et Jean_. But it still rises higher in certain very important ways--it is perhaps the book that one likes him best for, outside of pure comedy; and there is none which impresses one more with the sense of his loss to French literature.

[Sidenote: _Notre Coeur._]

The story, like all Maupassant's stories, is of the simplest. Andre Mariolle, a well-to-do young Parisian bachelor of no profession, is a member of a set of mostly literary and artistic people, almost all of whom have, as a main rendezvous, the house of a beautiful, wealthy, and variously gifted young widow, Mme. de Burne. She lives chaperoned in a manner by her father; indisposed to a second marriage by the fact that she has had a tyrannical husband; accepting homage from all her familiars and being very gracious in differing degrees to all of them; but having no "lover in title" and not even being suspected of having (in the French novel-sense[495]) any "lover" at all. For a long time Mariolle has, from whim, refused introduction to her, but at last he consents to be taken to the house by his friend the musician Massival, and of course falls a victim. It cannot be said that she is a Circe,[496] nor that, as perhaps might be expected, she revenges herself for his holding aloof by snaring and throwing

him away. Quite the contrary. She shows him special favour: when she has to go to stay with friends at Avranches she privately asks him to follow her; and finally, when the party pass the night at Mont Saint-Michel, she comes--uninvited, though of course much longed for--to his room, and (as they used to say with elaborate decency) "crowns his flame." Nor does she turn on him--as again might be expected--even then. On the contrary, she comes constantly to a secret Eden which he has prepared for her in Paris, and though, after long practice of this, she is sometimes rather late, and once or twice actually puts off her assignation, it is "no more than reason,"[497] and she by no means jilts or threatens jilting, though she tells him frankly that his way of loving (which _is_ more than reason) is not hers. At last he cannot endure seeing her surrounded with admirers, and flies to Fontainebleau, where he is partly--only partly--consoled by a pretty and devoted _bonne_. Yet he sends a despairing cry to Mme. de Burne; and she, gracious as ever, actually comes to see him, and induces him to return to Paris. He does so, but takes the _bonne_ Elisabeth with him; and the book ends abruptly, leaving the reader to imagine what is the outcome of this "double arrangement"--or failure to arrange.

But, as always with Maupassant's longer stories and not quite never with his shorter ones, the "fable is the least part." The "atmosphere"; the projection of character and passion; the setting; the situations; the phrase--these are the thing. And, except for the enigmatic and "stump-ended" conclusion, and for a certain overdose of words (which rather grew on him), they make a very fine thing. It is here that, on one side at least, the author's conception of love--which at some times might appear little more than animal, at others conventional-capricious in a fashion which makes that of Crebillon universal and sincere--has sublimed itself, as it had begun to do in _Fort comme la Mort_ (_Pierre et Jean_ is in this respect something of a divagation), into very nearly the true form of the Canticles and Shakespeare, of Donne and Shelley and Heine, of Hugo and Musset and Browning. But it is curious, in the first place, that he whom his friends fondly called a _fier male_, who has sometimes pushed masculinity near to brutality, and who is always cynical more or less, has made his Andre Mariolle, though a very good lover, a distinct weakling in love. He is a "too quick despairer," and his despair is more illogical than even a lover's has a right to be. And this is very interesting, because, evidently without the author's knowledge (though perhaps, if things had gone more happily, he might have come to that knowledge later), it shows the rottenness of the foundation, and the flimsiness of the superstructure, on and in which the Covenant of Adultery--even that of Free Love--is built. Michelle de Burne gives Andre Mariolle everything with one exception, if even with that, that the greediest lover can want. She "distinguishes" him at once; she shows keen desire for his company; she makes the last (or first) surrender like a goddess answering a hopeless and unspoken prayer; she is strangely generous in continuing the _don d'amoureux merci_; she never really wearies of or jilts him, though he is a most exacting lover; and when he has flung away from her she allows him, in the most gracious manner, to whistle himself back. But there is one thing, or rather two which are one, that she will not, or perhaps cannot, give him. It is the idealised passion which nature has denied to her, though not to him, and the absolute faithfulness and "forsaking of all others" proper to what?--to a perfect wife. So here, in the realms of spouse-breach, marriage is once more king, or rather the throne is felt to be empty--the kingdom an anarchy--without it!


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