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Maupassant - Une Vie (A Life)

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Mar 31, 2013, 10:34pm Top

My review:

A Life: The Humble Truth by Guy de Maupassant
First published in French 1883
English translation by Roger Pearson 1999


In 1819 a 17-year-old girl named Jeanne eagerly awaits her departure from the convent where she has been educated for the last five years. Her father, the Baron Le Perthuis de Vauds, has kept his beloved only child in peaceful and virginal seclusion as part of his plan to keep Jeanne innocent of the sins and cares of the world. He is now taking her to the family's estate on the Norman coast which is destined to be her home as soon as she marries.

Life on the coast of Normandy with her idle and free-spending parents continues to be a fairy tale dream for Jeanne. Almost on cue, she is introduced to a dashing young man, the Vicomte Julien de Lamare. After a story-book courtship, the two are married and and installed as master and mistress of the estate. But on Jeanne's wedding night, the fairy tale comes to an end. She is as innocent as possible of conjugal matters, and is shocked into tears at what Julien does to her. It is rather shocking for readers as well that the author of this heretofore chaste and idyllic tale takes us, not only into the bedroom, but between the sheets.

Jeanne eventually overcomes her sexual inhibitions, but also realizes "that there was nothing left for her to do, ever. Her whole childhood at the convent had been taken up with the future, and she had busied herself with fantasies." Her focus had always been on becoming, not on being, and once the honeymoon was over "...there was nothing left to do, today, tomorrow, ever again. And she sensed all this in some way as a kind of disillusion, as the collapse of her dreams."

But much more disillusionment is in store for Jeanne. Those whom she has idolized and idealized begin, one by one, to disappoint her. Her fairy-tale pure world begins to crumble, and she comes to rage and despair "at the cravenness of human beings, slaves to the foul procedures of carnal love that makes cowards of the heart as well as the body. Mankind seemed to her unclean when she thought of all the dirty secrets of the senses, the degrading caresses, and the dimly discerned mysteries of inseparable couplings." Religion ceases to be a consolation when even the parish priest nonchalantly advises her to accept the infidelities she sees around her with a "boys will be boys" attitude. In response, Jeanne "cursed God, whom she hitherto had considered just. She railed against the culpable favouritism of destiny, and the criminal lies of those who preach goodness and the straight path of virtue."

A Life is a very insular story, as the focus stays on Jeanne in her relative seclusion in rural Normandy. Almost thirty years of tumultuous French history go by without notice, even while the passage of the seasons of nature are closely followed. While many might view Jeanne as representative of the idle aristocracy living in its world of self-delusion, there is no overt social agenda to the novel. Nonetheless, one can't help but notice that the lower classes all seem to have happier, healthier and more balanced lives than the gentry who themselves serve no useful role in society. And when Jeanne is sunk deep in self-pity, her maid does finally lose her temper and exclaim: "And what would you say if you had to earn your daily bread, if you had to get up as six o'clock every morning and go and do a full day's work! Yet lots of women have to, and when they get too old, they die of poverty."

A Life was Maupassant's first novel. He started it when he was only 27, but took several years to complete and refine it. When it came out in 1883 it was an immediate and controversial bestseller and established Maupassant as a worthy compatriot of Flaubert and Zola. Though it's a bit uneven at times and circumscribed by the narrow horizons of Jeanne's little world, it is a captivating story, briskly told, and full of beautiful descriptions of the Norman landscape and people.

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