Love X-rayed

January 17, 2013 Leave a comment Go to 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.


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.

  1. January 17, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    I’m stunned by the liberties Richard Howard takes with that last passage and agree with you that it saps a good deal of the beauty from the original French. His translation of The Charterhouse of Parma is among my favorite books; I’m now thinking I owe it to myself to re-read the novel in French.


    • January 17, 2013 at 7:21 pm

      Thanks to, I have another translation of that passage:

      What had she to say to him? Would he find the word “love” there? She had never written or uttered this word without qualifying it by the adverb “well”; “I love you well”, “I love you much”; “Do I not love you?” He knew all these formulas, which are inexpressive by reason of what is tacked on to them. Can there be such a thing as a comparison between the degrees of love when one is in its toils? “To love much” what a dearth of love that expression manifests! One loves, nothing more, nothing less; nothing can be said, nothing expressed, nothing imagined that means more than that one simple sentence.

      I don’t know who the translator is. It’s more faithful. (


      • January 17, 2013 at 8:48 pm

        This is a tricky passage to translate. For one thing, isn’t “je vous aime bien” the usual formula for conveying “I like you very much”? There’s so much restraint in France, even today, about saying “je vous aime” (or, well, today, “je t’aime”) -unlike in the U.S. where it gets tossed off without a thought, and in French the “bien” really serves as a qualifier to block any misunderstanding, right?

        The funny thing about this passage is that – out of context – it comes across as the kind of convoluted wrangling over word choice that adolescents with crushes indulge in when writing love notes.


        • January 17, 2013 at 9:03 pm

          Yes, I suppose that “I like you very much” is the equivalent of “je t’aime bien”. I don’t think people say “je vous aime” anymore. When you’ve reached the stage of saying I love you, you’re on a “tu” basis nowadays.

          That’s odd, I would have thought the situation reversed: more restraint in using “love” in the US than in France, especially since you use and differenciate like and love. But then, what do I know, I’ve been married for a while now.

          “Je t’aime bien” is the kiss of death for any hope of a romantic relationship. When someone says that, it mostly means “let’s be friends”

          I believe that French teenagers “kiffent” each other now, especially in the banlieues. Do you think they still write love notes? Or they text each other?


          • January 18, 2013 at 1:19 am

            I guess I was giving away my age. Of course, they text now. “Je t’kif trop bonne” – or something like that.


            • January 18, 2013 at 2:51 pm

              I’m always amazed at how good your French is. Why did you even bother reading The Charterhouse of Parma in English when your French is so good?


              • January 18, 2013 at 5:40 pm

                Believe me, my French wasn’t always this good, but thank you. I’m still frequently challenged when reading it, and often just too lazy to make the effort, so I’ll read the translation – particularly if I have it lying about. And the slang takes less effort too.:)


              • January 20, 2013 at 11:48 pm

                I also have English books in translation, out of laziness. It still requires less efforts to read in Fou thinkrench.
                Lucky you if you think slang is easier, that’s my weakness in English. (I love the things you can do with slang in French, like in songs by Brassens or Renaud)


  2. January 17, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    First quote: I believe that some people are not born with the capacity to love.

    I also think that some people can only love in very limited ways. We tend to think that love is love–an all-encompassing word but it’s never that way, and I think Maupassant explores the limitations in this novel.

    Like you, I enjoy Maupassant’s cynicism. If only he’d left more novels behind.


    • January 17, 2013 at 7:26 pm

      I don’t believe in the soul mate crap that Hollywood wants us to believe. I think we are born with the capacity to love. Some have it killed right away, that’s all.

      I agree with you about his exploration of limitations. I enjoyed this in the book. He’s a bit judgemental though. He can’t help resenting Mme de Burne for not being able to love more or differently. She’s very reasonable but what she offers is a healthy relationship, not as passionate as he’d wish to but a strong relationship without drama.

      I wish they used condoms at the time (well, they would have said capote anglaise), it would have saved some artists…


      • January 17, 2013 at 11:58 pm

        Going to have to disagree here: IMO some people cannot love although they may be able to do a good job of mimicking it for a while.

        Wasn’t there some sort of device like condoms in the past?


        • January 18, 2013 at 2:54 pm

          Don’t say that please, it’s too depressing. If you say some people can’t love from the day they were born (and not because they were screwed up later), then it means it’s in the genes. And then you can’t do anything against it. Life is hopeless if everything is written in DNA.

          I think Casanova used condoms and coined the expression capote anglaise. I suppose they didn’t know it helped against VD.


  3. January 17, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Lovely excerpts, Emma – each of your reviews makes me more keenly aware of how important it is for me to take my acquaintance with French literature beyond Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine.

    That quote – “One loves, nothing more, nothing less” – reminds me of the whole treatment of love in Kundera’s “Life is Elsewhere”, where one of the characters insists that “Love must either be absolute, or it must be nothing.” Kundera is cynical too, in his way, especially about the idea of romantic love, and it makes for some fascinating reading to see how his cynicism plays out through his characters.

    One, very minor nit-picky point, if I may – the phrase is “throes of passion”.


    • January 17, 2013 at 7:41 pm

      Thanks, it’s a short book and really worth reading.

      Funny how I remember nothing of all the Kunderas I’ve read except that I enjoyed them. I don’t share that vision of love. I have little patience for the Mathilde de la Mole.

      Thanks for pointing out my mistake, I made the correction. Nobody dares to tell me when I make mistakes but I’d rather know so that I can remove them.


      • January 18, 2013 at 2:06 am

        If there is just one book of Kundera’s you ought to re(read), I recommend Life is Elsewhere.

        The capacity-to-love quote is brilliant, by the way – I tend to agree with the sentiment as well.

        I can’t find any English translations online – do you know of any? If not, I’ll just have to walk down to Blackwell’s and read it in the cafe (no money left on a student budget!).


        • January 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm

          I haven’t read this Kundera (or I borrowed it at the library at the time) I have read:
          The Farewell Waltz
          The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
          The Unbearable Lightness of Being
          Laughable Loves
          I’m on a book buying ban or I should say a do-not-increase-the-TBR resolution for 2013, so it can only go to wish list!

          For a free English version of Notre Coeur: go here


          • January 21, 2013 at 11:22 pm

            Thanks very, very much. I’m halfway through the book, and thoroughly enjoying it. Will review it soon.


            • January 21, 2013 at 11:26 pm

              Your comment is one of the best rewards for writing blog posts about books. I’m so glad you’re spending a nice reading moment with this book and this marvelous writer.


  4. January 17, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    I seem to be far more romantic…
    I’d love to read this, all of Maupassants novels actually. I don ‘t care much for some of the things he says about women but he still a very perceptive writer.
    That last translation brutalized the text quite a bit.
    Funny, I wouldn’t have thought this is a short book. It sounds so rich.
    Get well soon!


    • January 17, 2013 at 7:46 pm

      He’s rather misogynistic, like most French writers of that time. They don’t write about how trapped by society the women are. Do you remember a novel like that? Pointing out how little freedom women had? I can think of Miss McKenzie or A Pair of Blue Eyes but not about a French novel.
      It’s a rich book, I have tons of quotes.


  5. Brian Joseph
    January 18, 2013 at 1:32 am

    I like well though out character studies and this one sounds really good.

    I think that the way that yourself and Guy worked together in your research is really neat!


    • January 18, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      It’s an excellent little book and quite original too.

      That was nice of Guy to look for that passage in his copy.


  6. January 18, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Maybe French literature has to wait for Colette to get some balance. Although I wonder what is in George Sand’s Consuelo?

    What I wanted to say, though, is that I admire your translations, however imperfect. They get the job done! And I know that they can be a lot of work.


    • January 18, 2013 at 8:23 am

      My point exactly: these are women writers.

      Thanks for being so kind about my attempts at translation. For Caroline’s sake I refrained from using that Japanese word that sums up how I rate my translations.


      • January 18, 2013 at 9:40 am

        🙂 I’m was looking for it.


        • January 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm

          Now you’re disappointed, I should have used it! 🙂


  7. January 18, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    I haven’t read your whole post, too afraid it will reveal anything about the plot 🙂 I was too excited by the beginning – it turns out, there are still books by Maupassant that I haven’t read!!! Yay!! I’m so happy now and I can’t wait to read this one. Only in original because translations seldom do justice to any books but those in French in particular.


    • January 18, 2013 at 2:49 pm

      Hi Anna,
      As a rule, I write my billets without spoilers. I don’t give away too much about the plot. When I do, I always include a warning. So you’re safe and can read my entries until the end.

      Lucky you: you can read the original. It’s always better, of course. But without translations, there are lots of writers I would never know.


      • January 21, 2013 at 10:09 am

        That’s true – and I have to admit sometimes there are translations that are almost better than the original. That’s quite rare but I always feel lucky when I stumble upon a good translation! Unfortunately, if I were to generalize, the quality of translations is far from impeccable. You have no idea just how many books (translated into both Russian and Polish) I have (tried) to read that contained obvious grammar and style mistakes, word-by-word translations etc etc. Frankly, that makes me quite sad. Why bother doing the job if you cannot do it well?


        • January 21, 2013 at 9:02 pm

          Perhaps the French tradition of translating books is older and thus more polished. Translators do as best they can with the money and time they get to translate…


  8. January 21, 2013 at 12:02 am

    I have a great affection for de Maupassant but have not encountered this one before. I also know the Mont St Michel area well and have stayed in Avranches with my wife. I see that it is only available to purchase in English in Kindle format rather than in free ebook format on Gutenburg – what a shame. I have downloaded a sample and will look for a second-hand paperback copy.


    • January 21, 2013 at 12:05 am

      Tom, look in the comments, I’ve added a link to a free online version.
      I think you’ll like it and as Maupassant was born in Normandy, he has a thing for describing that region.


  9. January 22, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    I’ve not yet read Bel Ami, which I own a copy of, so I can’t read this before that (one of my rules of buying books). It does sound very good though.

    That last paragraph/quote would have been a pig to translate. Fascinating. Should I ever work fewer hours learning French is very high on my priorities (but then, it is my favourite language).

    Slang is particularly nasty. I just finished Berlin Alexanderplatz and the translator there chose to use American period slang to represent the Berlin period slang in the book. That leads to characters telling each other to “cheese it” or referring to being “on the q.t.” which are both deeply uneuropean. On the other hand, it does I suspect capture the spirit of how the characters talk, where a more literal translation would have had to either lose the vernacular or carry it over directly (in which case it would likely be incomprehensible).

    The lack of any equivalent of tu/vous in English (which does exist in most other European languages) means a lot of nuance can’t help but be lost, particularly in these older books set in milieus where such fine distinctions really mattered.


    • January 23, 2013 at 12:12 am

      I know what you mean about the slang: that’s my problem with translated American Noir fiction. When they speak French slang they sound so weird. And yet, it would be wrong not to translate the slang.

      I have to disagree with you on the tu/vous difference. The loss in translation doesn’t really matter in old books. The difference mattered so much that people rarely discarded the rule. So, in most cases, they just say vous to each other in high classes, keep it in mind and you’re 99% ok. It matters in contemporary books because the rules are blurred and then, if characters say tu or vous, it matters. It means something about the characters and their relationship.


      • January 23, 2013 at 1:05 am

        I was thinking of tu/vous in part because of a recent post of yours where you talked through the language between Marcel and Albertine. Obviously you’ll know better than I will, isn’t there though sometimes also an issue with when one moves from vous to tu and capturing that?

        It’s also not just French of course. It crops up in Italian (though historically it’s much like French and now it’s mostly tus all round) and I think most other European language (and Shakespeare in a couple of places).

        Thanks for the info on the older books though, good to know I’m missing less than I thought.


        • January 23, 2013 at 1:11 am

          Max – are you referring to the thou/you distinction in Shakespeare?


        • January 23, 2013 at 8:25 am

          You can count on Proust to be an exception to the rule. It’s interesting to see how the narrator mostly says vous to Albertine, and says tu to Saint-Loup after a while.

          Yes, it’s important to catch a moment when someone shifts from vous to tu. I think it deserves a footnote from the translator, especially in old books. It happens rarely (so you wouldn’t get so many footnotes) but when it does, the writer wants to show something.


          • January 23, 2013 at 4:28 pm

            I was thinking of the you/thou distinction. There’s one play with a line like “I thee thou, thou rogue” which to a modern audience is meaningless. Thee I think persisted in some parts of Northern England until after the second world war, but I don’t think it persists today.

            I hadn’t realised Proust was such an exception Emma, thanks for that.


            • January 23, 2013 at 11:13 pm

              I had trouble with Thou/thee when I read Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Difficult read.

              I just saw another moment in Proust when Albertine switches to tu. She wakes up and says tu whereas the long conversation a few pages before was on a voussoirs basis. When she’s spontaneous, she seems to slip to tu and sticks with vous when she controls her speech.


  10. leroyhunter
    January 23, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    By total coincidence, the picture you chose by Caillebotte is also the cover of my English translation of La Curee.

    I really liked this. Funny about the names – that completely passed me by. I thought that ultimately there was something a little pathetic about Mariolle’s predicament. So I saw his general views about women in light of that. It certainly makes a nice balance for Maupassant to have Mariolle face such tormenting comeuppance from one of the “furnishings” he seems to so disparage.


    • January 23, 2013 at 11:15 pm

      It’s a great read. I wonder why it’s not more famous.

      You need to be French to notice the names, it’s slang.


      • January 23, 2013 at 11:31 pm

        That kind of naming is quite common in 18th and early 19th Century fiction (though far from universal, I don’t even know if it’s more often than not, but it is common). As a modern reader I tend to find it very jarring, though there’s no real reason it should be.


        • January 23, 2013 at 11:34 pm

          I think it’s funny like the writer winking at the reader. Well it is funny when the writer doesn’t take himself too seriously. (which is the case here)


  1. December 27, 2013 at 12:07 am
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