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Love X-rayed

January 17, 2013 45 comments

Notre Cœur by Guy de Maupassant.1890 English title Alien Hearts.

Aime-t-on parce qu’on rencontre une fois un être qu’on croit vraiment créé pour soi, ou bien aime-t-on simplement parce qu’on est né avec la faculté d’aimer ? Do we love because one day we meet someone we believe is our soul mate or do we love only because we are born with the capacity to love? (My poor poor translation)

When I read Guy’s review about Alien Hearts, I wanted to read this novel and I was delighted that the other members of my Book Club agreed to read it. Our meeting was scheduled on January 17th, but since I have the flu we postponed and I’m not able to share our discussion with you. Notre Coeur is the last novel written by Maupassant who was already ill at the time.

André Mariolle is a well-educated, affable man who meets with artist friends in different salons in Paris.

Âgé d’environ trente-sept ans, André Mariolle, célibataire et sans profession, assez riche pour vivre à sa guise, voyager et s’offrir même une jolie collection de tableaux modernes et de bibelots anciens, passait pour un garçon d’esprit, un peu fantasque, un peu sauvage, un peu capricieux, un peu dédaigneux, qui posait au solitaire plutôt par orgueil que par timidité. Très bien doué, très fin, mais indolent, apte à tout comprendre et peut-être à faire bien beaucoup de choses, il s’était contenté de jouir de l’existence en spectateur, ou plutôt en amateur. At thirty-seven Andre Mariolle,  unmarried and without profession, rich enough to live as he pleased, to travel where he liked, and to collect a houseful of modern paintings and old porcelain, passed for a witty fellow, rather whimsical, rather wilful, rather superior, who affected solitude for reasons of pride rather than shyness. Talented and astute but lazy, likely to understand everything and even to accomplish something, he had nonetheless been content to enjoy life as a spectator, or rather as an amateur. Translation by Richard Howard (thanks Guy)

 When the book opens, one of his friends suggests that he introduces him to the famous Madame de Burne who runs a trendy salon. André isn’t thrilled by the idea but his friend insists and organizes the meeting. Madame de Burne is a widow and her marriage has been such an awful experience that she doesn’t want to live through that again. As she’s beautiful, witty, intelligent and well-read, men tend to fall in love with her. She’s a flirt, she loves to be adored. She chooses a victim and makes him fall for her but she neither gives her heart or her body.

Cela l’amusait tant de les sentir envahis peu à peu, conquis, dominés par sa puissance invincible de femme, de devenir pour eux l’Unique, l’Idole capricieuse et souveraine ! It amused her so much to watch them being overwhelmed, conquered, dominated by her invincible feminine power, to become for them the Unique, the whimsical and reigning Idol. (My poor poor translation)

Mariolle is far from a womanizer. He’s a bachelor and happy to be:

Il considérait les femmes comme un objet d’utilité pour ceux qui veulent une maison bien tenue et des enfants, comme un objet d’agrément relatif pour ceux qui cherchent des passe-temps d’amour. He considered women as useful objects for those who want a well-tended house and children, as an object of relative pleasure for those who look for love as a hobby. (Again my poor poor translation)

Note the reference to women as objects, no more than useful furniture. I believe that at this stage, Mariolle has more affection for dogs than for women.

André becomes her next target. They spend a lot of time together and develop a close relationship. He resists at first and then gives in. Their relationship is a first for both of them. André is passionately in love while Madame de Burne is fond of him. She loves him as much as she’s capable of love. She offers companionship, stability. He wants the throes of passion. Alien hearts.

I think the English title is very well chosen. Mariolle and Madame de Burne have their own hearts, with limitations and they’re not exactly on the same wavelength. She loves him in a way he finds unacceptable. He loves her in a way she enjoys but can’t reciprocate. How will they go out of this impasse?

It took me a few pages to accept the names of the characters (literally Andrew Cleverdick and Lady Balls) but then I was taken in the flow of Maupassant’s prose. I prefer him to Balzac. He goes straight to the point, doesn’t indulge in emphatic descriptions and pictures lovely scenes:

Se tournant vers lui, elle souleva ses deux bras, par un ravissant geste d’appel, et ils s’étreignirent dans un de ces baisers aux yeux clos qui donnent l’étrange et double sensation du bonheur et du néant. Turning to face him, she raised her two arms in a lovely calling gesture and they embraced in one of those kisses with closed eyes that give the strange and double sensation of happiness and nothingness. (My poor poor translation)

Maupassant has a fine knowledge of the human heart and describes precisely the stages of Mariolle’s love. But he’s quite cynical and the book is the opportunity for him to criticize the women of his time. The generalities about women didn’t appeal to me very much but they are part of that time. Maupassant argues that the high society women are frivolous and not able to love deeply anymore. They are taken in a whirlwind of social events and are shallow in their feelings. (This is in total contradiction with the passion Zola describes in La Curée where Renée falls madly in love). To make a long story short, Mariolle wishes Madame de Burne were Mathilde de la Mole and not a mature woman who knows her own limitations.

I liked Madame de Burne because she’s honest. She doesn’t pretend to love him more than she does; she genuinely cares about him and tries to give him what he needs but can’t. And André is honest too; he wants to be adored, not less. I have to say the ending is as ironic as a Thomas Hardy short story. It was unexpected and yet so plausible.

Apart from the story, there are beautiful descriptions of the Mont Saint-Michel area and of the Fontainebleau forest. I’ve never been there but he makes you want to visit the places at once. This passage reminded me of a painting by Caillebotte Place de l’Europe par temps de pluie.

Caillebotte_Place_Europe_temps_pluie

Le coupé de Mme de Burne roulait au grand trot des deux chevaux sur le pavé de la rue de Grenelle. La grêle d’une dernière giboulée, car on était aux premiers jours d’avril, battait avec bruit la vitre de la voiture et rebondissait sur la chaussée déjà sablée de grains blancs. Les passants, sous leurs parapluies, se hâtaient, la nuque cachée dans le col relevé des pardessus. Après deux semaines de beau temps un odieux froid de fin d’hiver glaçait de nouveau et gerçait la peau. Madame de Burne’s coupé was trotting hastily on the cobblestones of Grenelle Street. The hail of a last April shower was beating noisily against the car’s window and was bouncing on the road already sanded with white grains. Under their umbrellas, the passers-by were hurrying, their nape hidden in their turned up overcoats’ collars. After two weeks of fine weather, a hateful cold of end of winter froze people again and chapped their skin. (My very poor translation. It’s awfully difficult to translate.

The quote is more than tricky to translate, don’t hesitate to leave suggestions to improve it. In English, you say April showers and in French, the corresponding expression is giboulée de mars. So the sentence, la grêle d’une dernière giboulée car on était aux premiers jours d’avril battait avec bruit la vitre de la voiture (literally, the hail from a last April shower –since we were at the beginning of April—was beating against noisily against the car’s window.) doesn’t translate easily, unless you change April into May. But then, you change the chronology of the story. And what about this one!

Qu’allait-elle lui dire ? le mot « aimer » y serait-il ? Jamais elle ne l’avait écrit, jamais elle ne l’avait prononcé sans le faire suivre du mot « bien ». – « Je vous aime bien. » – « Je vous aime beaucoup. » – « Est-ce que je ne vous aime pas ? » Il les connaissait, ces formules qui ne disent rien par ce qu’elles ajoutent. Peut-il exister des proportions quand on subit l’amour ? Peut-on juger si on aime bien ou mal ? Aimer beaucoup, comme c’est aimer peu ! On aime, rien de plus, rien de moins. On ne peut pas compléter cela. What would she say this time? Would she use the verb “love” without spoiling it by adding “very much”? Could there be much or little to add to “love.” if it was really love? Who can say a person loves “well” or “badly,” a lot or a little–were there such proportions in love? A human being loves, nothing more, nothing less, the meaning cannot be completed beyond the word–nothing further can be imagined, nothing said beyond those letters in that order.Translation by Richard Howard

When I read about it in French, I immediately wondered how the translator dealt with this. In French, you have only one verb for love and like. This paragraph is so intertwined with French language, grammar and usages that I genuinely wondered how it would be in English. Thanks to Guy for providing me with a solution to this mystery: he looked for the quote in his English copy of the novel. The meaning is there, undoubtedly, but part of the beauty of the French is gone. For example, Il les connaissait, ces formules qui ne disent rien parce qu’elles ajoutent. Literally, it would be He knew these phrases that mean nothing because they add to it. [the verb Love] It’s not in the translation. I wonder what David Bellos would do with that paragraph. This is where blogging in English adds a new dimension to my reading. Reading and knowing I’ll have to write a billet in English made me notice things about Maupassant’s style that would have remained unnoticed otherwise.

Well, that’s all, folks. I suppose my enthusiasm for this book filters through my billet. It’s a short book and I highly recommend it.

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