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Afloat by Guy de Maupassant
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Afloat (1888)

by Guy de Maupassant

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Guy de Maupassant

Afloat

New York Review Books, Paperback, 2008.

8vo. xx+105 pp. Translation and Introduction [vii-xx] by Douglas Parmee.

First published in French as Sur l'eau, 1888.
This translation first published, 2008.

Contents

Introduction

Afloat
- Antibes, April 6
- Cannes, April 7, 9 PM
- Agay, April 8
- April 10
- Saint-Raphael, April 11
- Saint-Tropez, April 12
- Saint-Tropez, April 13
- April 14

Logbook

================================================

This is one of the strangest and most disturbing books I have ever come across. It provokes myriad of thoughts that are very difficult to put into words. It completely defies categorization. It can, rather lamely, be described as something between travelogue, diary and a collection with essays and short stories. It certainly has one of the most accurate yet misleading prefatory notes:

This diary has no interesting story to tell, no tales of derring-do. Last spring I went on a short cruise along the Mediterranean coast, and every day, in my spare time, I jotted down things I'd seen and thought.

In fact what I saw was water, sun, cloud, and rocks and that's all. I had only simple thoughts, the kind you have when you're being carried drowsily along on the cradle of the waves.


Well, yes, the cruise itself is vastly uneventful, but it does contain a number of compelling stories interwoven with the main narrative. In fact, Maupassant also saw several cities and a number of people. And his thoughts were not exactly simple.

But perhaps the most misleading impression is concerned with the very prose. Nothing in this innocuous note suggests the vast range of Maupassant's pen. There are gentle, subtle and evocative passages of poetry in prose. Side by side with them, there is some of the most passionate, uncompromising, brutal and savage ranting imaginable on paper. But first things first.

The beautiful thing about this particular edition is that it comes with a wonderful introduction. I cannot vouch for Mr Parmee's translation, but I can certainly say that his essay is very well written and very much worth your time. It can be read as an introduction, it can be read as an afterword, and it repays re-reading. Consider the wonderful opening paragraph:

In the middle of the twentieth century, on his yacht Christina in Monte Carlo harbor, Aristotle Onassis, a wealthy Greek shipowner now mainly remembered as the second husband of the widow of President Kennedy, is said to have remarked: ''The great thing about a yacht is that you raise anchor and tell the entire world to bugger off. It's pure freedom.'' Is it? In Afloat, the most personal of all his works, we see how the French short-story teller and novelist Guy de Maupassant writes about a similar experience some seventy years earlier, on a far less grand yacht.

In addition to a fine biographical portrait of Maupassant at the time when Afloat was first published, Mr Parmee provides us with an excellent summary of the work itself. He shrewdly points out some recurring tendencies – e.g. Maupassant's obsession with death or his passion for anti-climax – and he makes it clear that those misguided souls who expect a ''nautical read'' would be terribly disappointed. Mr Parmee's beautiful summary of a work so difficult to describe at much greater length is worth quoting:

Maupassant has devoted a great deal of care and attached much importance to this travelogue, full, he wrote, of ''intimate thoughts,'' and the vehemence of many personal reflections, the frankness of some confessions, carry strong conviction: his hatred of war and militarism, his repulsion at people's ugliness, his contempt for ''the mob'' and the senseless excesses of the crowds, his anguished frustration at his own limitations - and anger at the stupid smugness of the many who fail to recognize their own shortcomings - in sum, most of mankind. But such gloom is far from unrelieved nor must we forget that being a professional story-teller involves a certain trickery – he calls it ''illusionism''; not everything may be as black as he's chosen to paint it: ironic humour constantly lurks round the corner and the skillful manner of the telling ensures that the reader is frequently intrigued rather than appalled and even tempted to smile than to weep.

Not that it much matters – indeed it doesn't matter at all – but it is worth demolishing the myth about the fictional nature of the work; for some mysterious reason some people consider this matter with great seriousness. Maupassant being a great story-teller, it is perfectly natural that some of the incidents along the cruise would be greatly elaborated versions on real events or even entirely invented stories. Would it matter if Maupassant had never taken the cruise in the first place? Not in the least, I should think. A great writer's style is always intensely personal. This is enhanced here by having the author writing in the first person singular without being himself a character in any story. Mr Parmee flatly calls Afloat ''blatantly spurious'' but he is smart enough to close the case like this:

Afloat is thus best read as fiction, in which he expresses a number of strong personal opinions and equally certainly contains many entertaining, largely invented stories and anecdotes: in a word, a superb example of his skills as a short-story writer, with an eye as sharp as his brain.

There is a really nice bonus in this edition – ''Logbook'' – which is a charming demonstration how Maupassant re-used the same material in different works. This piece was published as a short story in 1887 and it clearly contains material for one of the ''subplots'' of Afloat. Interestingly enough, a number of details and especially the conclusions are completely different (the earlier one is a cynical twist in the end worthy of Somerset Maugham). By reprinting this short extract here, Mr Parmee has added a further value to his editorial work. It's a fascinating glimpse into the story-teller's workshop.

Now, leaving aside such mundane matters of no importance such as the fiction or non-fiction status of some episodes, Afloat is brimming with life in at least three main directions. One is the main narrative which consists of a simple description how Maupassant and his crew of two competent sailors handled Bel-Ami, the yacht named after his successful novel, in and out of the ports of some French Mediterranean cities with euphonious names. Even this most pedestrian part of the book often has such lovely bits of comedy as this:

Bernard, Raymond, and the barometer are often at odds and they act an amusing comedy with a cast of three, one of whom, the best informed, never speaks.

When he is in the poetic mood, Maupassant digresses a little to give us a vivid description of ''the chilly morning air, when mankind is still asleep and the earth is awaking'', when the ''air is full of a mysterious quivering, unknown to slugabeds''. Or he inserts a fulsome eulogy to the wind from a sailor's point of view: ''terrifying, capricious, sly, treacherous, savage creature'', thoroughly unknown to ''you landlubbers''. My personal favourite is a dazzling – and disturbing – description of a forest of cork oaks somewhere around Saint Tropez. Maupassant recalls the last time he was there, when the bark of the trees had just been stripped in order to be turned into wine corks. This is what I call amazing writing and a great flight of the imagination:

They strip them from top to bottom, from the first branches downward, and the bare trunks turn red, blood-red, like a human limb that's been skinned, making a bloody forest in a hell where the men have roots and their bodies, weirdly crippled and deformed by torture, look like trees, in which, from their wounds dripping with blood, life was forever ebbing away in endless suffering.

Apart from such poetic ''digressions'', Afloat contains at least five or six short stories as integral parts of it. Some of these are mere sketches, but they are far better than many pieces I have read in anthologies. Some even purport to be historical facts, such as the gruesome story with the corpse of Paganini (which rested for a while on a small island Bel-Ami passed by) or the fantastic escape of General Bazaine from the fortress Sainte-Marguerite. Some are clearly parables, for example the delightful story about the fellow who was sentenced to death in Monaco but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and finally, due to various complications in this most civilised country, he was actually paid to leave the state. Whether any of these stories happened, or how much historical truth they contain, of course doesn't matter at all. They are written with all of Maupassant's consummate skill for story-telling.

There are at least two stories which are absolutely heart-rending. One is a short sketch about a wretched old hag, dressed in rags and making pathetic efforts to walk with a loaf of bread in her bag, that the author saw on one of the most crowded boulevards in Paris during a pleasant sunny day. This ''human wreckage'' contained, not a mind, but ''a dreadful, constant, nagging sensation of pain''. Everybody passed her with the superbly ineffective ''Poor old girl!'', caring nothing whether she would ever reach alive whatever hole she lived in.

Another shattering, deeply affecting story deals with two peasants, a mother and a daughter, dying from diphtheria in misery that's simply unspeakable though not, alas, indescribable for somebody as talented with the pen as Maupassant. The oppressive atmosphere, considerably augmented by the pouring rain, is superbly conveyed. So are the futility of life and the desolation of death. To die is bad enough; indeed it is unthinkable for any thinking creature that a time will come when it will cease to exist. But to die alone in filthy poverty is even worse.

In these short sketches Maupassant suggests more than others say in whole volumes. Moreover, they are highly revealing for his personality. Everybody who doubts that the author had a genuine and profound compassion for the suffering of human beings should read these pages. But take care not to read them before going to bed.

But neither descriptions of nature nor masterful story-telling is the essence of Afloat; these you can find in his short stories, too. What makes this work an unique experience, a truly outstanding and ever-fresh book, are Maupassant's ''digressions'' in which he ruminates on just about everything under the sun.

The first thing that strikes me, except the intensely personal and impassionate prose, is the inconsistency of Maupassant's views. In the beginning he cries out that he wants to get away from the bondage of society, from the trivial table talk, from artificial smiles and fatuous flattery. So he raises the anchor. In the end, however, he craves to be back, he is hungry for dinner parties and gossip. At one place he despairs how pointless and powerless science is, bogged down in useless discoveries; but later he praises people for their dedication to research that has improved the life of man. Now he is ranting how utterly pointless everything is – the human race, the world, the universe – but then he raves about his animal delight in nature, in yachting, in women, in everything.

How seriously should one take these confessions? Who is the ''real'' Maupassant? For my part, I am pretty sure that the author is perfectly sincere in both extremities. They just stem from very different moods of the same complex, multifarious and sensitive personality. However that may be, if one happens to agree, as I do, with at least some of Maupassant's major sentiments, Afloat becomes an especially shattering read.

Occasionally, Maupassant is light and amusing. Perfect example is his ironic discourse on the most ridiculous of all types of snobbery: the passion for titles. Cannes seems to be the perfect place to dwell on that. Maupassant starts in the manner of Rossini's Figaro – ''Princes here, princes there'' – and he continues to make a stupendous fun of those preposterous creatures who all but deify titles, no matter how poor or commonplace their holders may be. Consider this delightful comparison of several types of people:

If you could open people's minds as you can lift the lid of a saucepan, you'd find figures in the head of a mathematician, silhouettes of actors gesticulating and making speeches in a dramatist's, a woman's face in the head of a lover, bawdy images in the head of a rake, line's of verse in a poet's head; but in the skull of the people who come to Cannes, you'll find crowns of every shape and size, swimming around like pasta in a soup.

But such easy-going passages are exceptions. They are certainly not the rule. For the most part Maupassant writes with something very much like anger. I am not normally attracted to such writing, but in this case I think it is magnificent. Thanks to such vehement and anguished shouting in print, Afloat may well hold the record for giving me most pauses per page than any other work I have read.

As there are few things I detest more than war, Maupassant's violent diatribe against it I consider one of the absolute highlights. He takes as a sparing partner Field Marshal von Moltke and quotes his legendary words that war is ''a holy, divine institution, one of the sacred laws of the world; it fosters in men every great and noble feeling: honor, virtue, unselfishness, courage, and prevents them from sinking into the most hideous materialism.'' Maupassant's answer easily ranks among the most brutal things ever put on paper. Here is one very graphic example:

We all know what war is like. We've seen men turned into brutes, mad brutes, killing for pleasure, through terror, for bravado, to show-off. When there's no justice, there's no law and any notion of legality is ignored: we've seen innocent men shot when they've merely been on the street and become suspect because they were afraid. We've seen dogs killed when they've been seen chained outside the door of their owner's house – killed by soldiers wanting to try out their new revolvers; and we've seen cows being sprayed with machine guns as they were lying down in a field – for no reason at all, as a joke, for the pleasure of squeezing a trigger.

All this to avoid ''sinking into the most hideous materialism.''


Maupassant may well have drawn from personal experience here; he had some fresh memories from the Franco-Prussian War. But whether he did or did not see these horrifying spectacles is beside the point: they can certainly be corroborated, and outdone, by many a war crime. The whole tirade becomes even more chilling when one remembers the year of first publication. Little did the author, who died but five years later, know that the next century would set tragic records in this respect. Since he is wont to finish with an anti-climax, Maupassant ends his anti-war part fully convinced that the day when there will be no war would never come. Horrifyingly prophetic words.

I guess Maupassant, who describes battleships as ''representing all our genius and all our impotence'', would have been greatly impressed by the modern nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers. It is difficult not to be. He might even have regarded them with awe. But it cannot be doubted that his anti-war feelings would have been every bit as fierce today, if possible even more so, than they were in those mild in terms of warfare times.

Contemplating war makes it easier to agree with Maupassant's essentially misanthropic and nihilistic attitude. It is by no means as simple as it seems but, on the whole, I think he doesn't think much of ''that two-legged insect that we are''. He is prophetic in other areas as well, again quite unintentionally as in the case of war but nonetheless powerfully for that. His implacable contempt for artists who merely repeat themselves has been completely confirmed by history since. It cannot be doubted that one of the main reasons for abstract painting, serialism in music and similar perversities in other arts is precisely the misguided intention to be original at the expense of everything that can be regarded as imitation. Nor should modern scientists neglect Maupassant's remarks about the utter pointlessness that often accompanies scientific research. Never in human history has this been more relevant than it is today.

It is hardly surprising that some of Maupassant's most profound observations should deal with the writer's vocation. With the exception of Somerset Maugham, I don't think I have ever read a more perceptive analysis of this strange, marvellous and mysterious animal: the professional writer. The word ''professional'' does not necessarily imply profession. It is here used to denote a man who writes compulsively, because he cannot help it; this may or may not be his major source of income. I am also convinced that Maugham would have agreed completely – and indeed he most probably did – with Maupassant's masterful dissection of the writer's mind. No justice can be done to it except by extensive quotation, repetition and confused passages included:

Why do I suffer so much in my life when most men experience only its satisfactions? Why have I fallen victim to this unknown torment? Why can't I enjoy life's true pleasures and hopes?

It's because I possess that second sight which is both the strength and the bane of the writer. I write because I understand and suffer from everything that exists, because I know it all too well and, above all, can see it all mirrored inside my mind yet am unable to participate in it. So don't envy us but pity us for this is what makes the man of letters different from his fellow men.

He finds it no longer possible to have simple feelings; everything he sees, his joys, his pleasures, his sufferings and despair are immediately turned into something to observe. In spite of himself, in spite of anything, he constantly analyzes everything, faces, gestures, tones of voice, people's hearts. As soon as he sees something, whatever it may be, he needs to know. Why? He never feels an impulse, utters a cry, gives a kiss, straightforwardly, he never has any of those normal reactions that you have because you can't do otherwise, without thinking or knowing or understanding, without realizing afterward what you've done.


[…]

He seems to possess two souls, one of which records and comments on every sensation of its neighbour, the usual, natural sort which he shares with us all. He feels himself fated, always, at all times, to be a reflection of himself and of everybody else, condemned to watch himself feeling, acting, loving, suffering, thinking – and yet never feeling, acting, loving, suffering, thinking in the same way as other people, simply, openly, straightforwardly, without analyzing every feeling of joy, every feeling of sorrow.

When talking, he often sounds unkind because he's clear-thinking and can unravel all the hidden motives of other people's feelings and actions. When writing, he can't prevent himself from putting everything he's seen, everything he's understood, everything he knows into his books, making no exceptions for relatives or friends, cruelly and impartially exposing what is in the hearts of those he loves or those he has loved, even exaggerating to create an effect, because his only concern is for his work, not for his affections.

And when he loves, if he loves a woman, he will dissect her as one dissects a corpse in a morgue. Everything she says or does is instantly weighed in the finely adjusted scales of his inner observation and graded for its documentary value. If she throws herself impulsively, without thinking, into his arms, he'll analyze her action: was it well judged, appropriate, dramatically effective? And if he feels it was a sham or badly executed, he'll condemn it.

Being simultaneously the actor and the spectator, of himself and of other people, he's never really acted like your normal straightforward sort of person. Everything surrounding him is seen, as it were, in a mirror – people's hearts, actions, secret intentions – and he suffers from a strange disorder, a sort of split personality which turns him into a terrifyingly complicated, vibrant machine, immensely exhausting for himself. His unique and unhealthy sensitivity makes him like someone being skinned alive, for his sensations always cause him pain. I can remember dark days when I was racked by something I had glimpsed for only a second, the memory of which haunts me.


(At this point Maupassant tells the two harrowing stories about the old woman and the dying family mentioned above.)

Granted that the writing styles are different, Somerset Maugham might have been proud to write every word of the above quotes. It is strange, however, that Maupassant never even alludes to what Maugham claimed to be the greatest reward of the writer: his ability to get rid of every suffering by putting it down on paper; admittedly, it didn't always work with Maugham himself, but on the whole it must have been fairly effective. And it must indeed be a great advantage over the rest of us.

To be sure, there are quite a few people, including many writers, who would disagree completely with Maupassant's views. Indeed I think he tends to be a trifle dogmatic as regards the accuracy of a writer's judgment, ''the exaggeration for creating an effect'' notwithstanding. Surely even the greatest writers are not infallible, are they? But I do suspect that most great, truly great writers would fit his psychological profile rather well. Those who write mostly non-fiction of course would not.

On the whole Maupassant's point is, I believe, quite correct. A powerful and perceptive writer may be wrong now and then, but for the most part his ''unique and unhealthy sensitivity'' would spot real things most people would never suspect. That's why I am always amazed when people are angry with writers for having been ''exposed'' as characters in their books. In such cases, rather than being offended, one should learn and profit by the writer's insight, such as it is, as much as possible.

There is a lot more in Afloat to ponder over. It is well-nigh inexhaustible – a pretty good achievement for mere hundred pages or so. The strange notion of God, the mindless nature of the mob, the possessiveness of friendship, the deadly dullness of the office, the ugliness of humanity, the pathology of society: these are merely a few of the topics on which Maupassant has something shrewd, funny, intriguing or profound to say. Quite unexpectedly, out of the blue, he can always come with an observation that just knocks you out; it provides that singular kind of illumination that only great writing can. (By this overused phrase – ''great writing'' – I mean exclusively the effect that a writing can produce, not mundane matters like vocabulary and style.) Here is one example, selected almost at random, of Maupassant's probing exploration of human nature:

Nobody seems able to hear the word ''affection'' without adding to it an idea of owning you, ordering you about. It seems that being liked by someone inevitably involves obligations, feeling concerned – submission. As soon as you've shown some appreciation of the compliments of someone you've never met before, that stranger has a hold over you, is troubled by the thought of what you may be doing, reproaches you for failing to do something. If it turns into a friendship, everybody thinks that he or she has certain rights; relationships turn into duties, bonds into nooses.

This affectionate concern, this jealous suspicion, this need to keep an eye on you all the time, to cling to you, by people who've met and feel forever bound to each other just because they like each other, springs from the dread of being alone which never ceases to plague mankind.


Cynical? Here is another reason for Maugham's admiration of Maupassant. Cynical or not, such passages sound uncommonly convincing and thought-provoking to me, and this is one of the main reasons for my finding Afloat one of the most stirring reads I have ever experienced. With the possible exception of Bertrand Russell's What I Believe (1925), I can't think of another book that gives so much in so limited a space.

I only want to add, as something like conclusion, that Maupassant passes brilliantly the two most severe tests for any writer: writing nonsense and writing something I completely disagree with. There is something of both here. Neither matters.

I have never read a perfect book and I don't expect I ever will. And Afloat is certainly imperfect, if only slightly. There are several passages which are positively dull or even nonsensical. The longest and the most boring of these is Maupassant's discussion of the peculiar condition ''moonstruck''. Apparently the author shared Othello's notion that when the Moon comes closer to Earth people are more likely to become crazy. Be that as it may, this is definitely one of the moments where Maupassant's reflections are singularly uninspiring. He seems to have been aware of that, as he admitted that he must have been moonstruck himself that night…

Another inferior part is Maupassant's going way overboard on the Frenchman's unique regard for women, a most all-consuming, irrational and ridiculous affection. But, as Mr Parmee has wisely suggested, one can smile indulgently and murmur ''Typically French''. What is rather more difficult to stomach – and of which the idolizing of the gentle sex is but a minor part – is Maupassant's astonishingly blatant chauvinism. Consider this fine specimen of it:

The Frenchman is the only witty man in the world and the only one who can enjoy and understand wit.

Was he serious? Well, it's often difficult to say whether Maupassant really means something or he is just pulling your leg and laughing up his sleeve. This inordinate praise of the Frenchman's wit is followed by a most notorious list of witticisms by French monarchs, most of which are stupendously commonplace. Yet, unlike his glorification of women, here I am not sure that Maupassant is not having a very subtle fun at the expense of the French kings and, more indirectly, at the French people. It might not be accidental that he concludes with a terrific anti-climax, innocently suggesting that most of these witty gems were probably said by anybody else but the kings, yet this doesn't matter at all as long as the people believe in their authenticity.

In the end, however, Maupassant – seriously or not – is unusually modest:

People are asking me to publish these inconsequential, unassuming, and badly composed pages which follow one, one after the other, without rhyme or reason until they come to an abrupt halt, because my cruise came to a sudden end in a gale.

I've acceded to their request. I hope it wasn't a mistake.


There's only one way to decide, personally, whether it was a mistake or not, and this is to read the thing. I daresay if one doesn't share at least to some extent many of Maupassant's most extreme notions, one may find Afloat distasteful if not appalling, not to mention carelessly written. Never mind that. Read the book. If then you feel like throwing it away in disgust, rating it with half star and writing a withering review, by all means do so. But read the book anyway. You can do it in a single sitting. I promise it will take much longer to forget it. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | May 6, 2012 |
A marvellous work, an account of a voyage GDM made on his yacht along the coast of the South of France with his two hired sailors. His most personal work, in which the author comes closest to the reader, perhaps because it's plotless, and the narrator gives himself time to dream, to rant, and reflect. It contains matchless descriptions of the sea and the South of France, and amazing confessional stuff, in which Mauppassant comes across as a precursor to all the modern confessional writing of French lit: the Celines, the Cendrars. It contains Maupassant's famous rant against militarism and war, his reaction to the sack of Paris by the Germans in the 1870-71 Franco Prussian war. Here's a snippet:

Men of war are the scourge of humanity. We fight against nature, against ignorance, against all sorts of obstacles to mitigate the evils of our miserable existence. There are men, philanthropists, learned men, who spend their whole lives toiling to discover how to help, support, relieve their brother mortals... then along comes a war, and in six months, the generals have destroyed the work of twenty years of patient effort...

An incredible work, one to turn to again and again. ( )
2 vote tomcatMurr | Apr 8, 2012 |
A quasi-fictional travelogue? Regardless of what's true or not Maupassant's writing and observational skills are as impressive as ever here. It's probably only recommended for dedicated fans of the author, but such people will find some very nice passages here. A short read and definitely worth it. ( )
  DRFP | Mar 14, 2010 |
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ANTIBES, APRIL 6

Fast asleep when my skipper Bernard flung a handful of gravel at my bedroom window. I opened it and my face, lungs and even my soul were refreshed by the deliciously cool night air.
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