Last year I read Maupassant’s Bel Ami: the story of a mediocre man who soars in Parisian society, establishing a stellar career as a journalist through a series of exploitive relationships with women. I loved the novel for its cynicism and for its hollow main character–an amoral man who very successfully sails through life without really ever having a clue about the sort of person he is or ever examining his complete lack of talent.
So this led me to Alien Hearts Maupassant’s last novel. When I read that New York Review Books intended to release a new translation by Richard Howard, well I knew I had to read it. I was curious to see how someone as cynical and world-weary as Maupassant dealt with the subject of love. I was not disappointed.
Alien Hearts was published in serial form in 1890, and it’s Maupassant’s last novel. After Alien Hearts, Maupassant wrote two more plays before dying of Syphilis in 1893 at the age of 43. Another great writing career cut short. Given the cynicism of Maupassant in his 30s & 40s, I can only speculate about the sort of books he would have written in the old age that was denied him….
Onto the novel: and what a splendid read this is. Alien Hearts presents one of literature’s strangest love affairs–an affair that takes place between Andre Mariolle and the beautiful widow, Madame de Burne. Given Maupassant’s presentation of the utilitarian basis of relationships, it makes perfect sense that this author’s version of a love affair would be out of the range of the usual love story theme. Alien Hearts is a psychologically complex anti-love story. It’s not an anti-love story in the sense that Maupassant says that there’s no such thing as love; that would be too simple for a mind like Maupassant’s. In Alien Hearts, Maupassant analyses the relationship and the love affair between Mariolle and Michele de Burne and strips it down to reveals its complications and its paradoxes.
Andre Mariolle is a wealthy man whose life, on the surface, would seem enviable, yet at the same time there’s an emptiness, a lack of purpose that makes him vulnerable to Madame de Burne:
“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. Had he been poor, he would doubtless have become remarkable, or at least famous; born to wealth, he endlessly reproached himself for turning into a nobody.”
Mariolle is a dabbler, a dilettante–never focusing on just one thing, he manages to achieve a decent level of talent in a number of skills. He’s published a few articles, dallies in sculpture, and it’s said that he’s an excellent horse rider and fencer, but Mariolle deliberately avoids the sort of company in which these skills would be put to the test. So while he appears to be a very well-rounded individual, he shows no great talent in any one thing:
His lofty air of reserve seemed to say, “I’m nothing because I chose not to do anything.” Consequently he moved in a tight little circle, scorning elegant flirtations and the grand salons where all eyes were on others who would have outshone him, casting him into the ranks of worldly supernumeraries. He made his appearances only in houses where his serious and undisclosed talents were sure to be acknowledged.
Mariolle is persuaded by one of his friends to attend an evening at the home of Madame Michele de Burne–a young, attractive widow whose brief marriage “to a well-bred monster” was so miserable that people speculate that her experience was so aversive, so repulsive, that she will never marry again. And indeed there seems little doubt that Madame de Burne is in her element as an attractive widow, hosting social evenings in which she gathers together various artists: musicians, novelists, philosophers, poets and wits. Madame de Burne’s father serves as a “formidable chaperon,” and his presence helps stave off some of the uglier gossip. Madame de Burne “indulged her mildly bohemian tendencies with an altogether bourgeois prudence,” so that society never has cause to suspect any hint of scandal taking place between the widow and her cultivated coterie of admirers.
Warned by a friend that Madame de Burne is a collector of men, Mariolle attends his first evening at Madame de Burne’s quite aware of the fact that she wants to add him to her circle. Some of her admirers are married–others are single, but there’s an evident pattern of behaviour at play. A newcomer is invited, and if he pleases or amuses Madame de Burne, then he becomes the new favourite and in time is added to the inner circle of discarded favourites. All of the men have tried to seduce the widow, but all have failed. Some men hang on in the “sect” like eunuchs in the widow’s harem, continuing to be besotted with their hostess and content to share the air she breathes, while other men drop out of the circle embittered and jealous. Gaston de Lamarthe, a friend of Mariolle and a “novelist by profession” finds the psychological aspects of Madame de Burne’s behaviour utterly fascinating. Indeed she provides the novelist with ample material for a novel about women who “never manage to reach the level of real desires.” At least as a writer Lamarthe has an outlet for his amorous disappointments.
Any man who enters Madame de Burne’s circle aware of the game plan has three options:
1) to be appalled and have nothing to do with her
2) to fall in love and become another helpless addition to the collection
3) to imagine, through an appeal to his ego, that he will be the One who will capture Madame de Burne’s heart and body.
Alien Hearts is the story of Mariolle’s relationship–his love affair–with Madame de Burne. Mariolle longs for grand passion, and he feels it, but his hunger and obsession is fed with disappointment, and he finds he’s “trying to kiss a mouthful of air.” As Maupassant tracks the affair he effectively strips away at the mystique of love, analysing it in the process: the torment, the esctacy, and the passion, and in its place what is left is a tepid affair that resembles a marriage in the dull inevitability of compromise and a polite glossing over of unacceptable behaviour for the sake of domestic harmony. The fascinating psychological aspects of Alien Hearts create numerous questions about the nature of love, the ability to love, the variable human need to love and to be loved, and the power struggle and inequities within all relationships.
Here’s one of my favourites quotes about Madame de Burne–a woman who’s every bit as hollow as Bel Ami (Georges Duroy):
she considered herself a creature virtually unique, a singular pearl cast in a mediocre world which struck her as somewhat barren and monotonous precisely because she was too good for it.
Never would she have suspected herself to be the unconscious cause of the continuous boredom she suffered from; she blamed others for it and held them responsible for her melancholy. If they could not manage to divert her sufficiently, to amuse and even to attract her, it was because they lacked talents, charm, authentic qualities.
On a final note, the introduction explains that Tolstoy disliked the novel:
“In this last novel the author does not know who is to be loved and who is to be hated, nor does the reader know it, consequently he does not believe in the events described and is not interested in them.”
Well there’s no accounting for taste and Tolstoy could be notoriously nasty when it came to other writers (Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, just to mention two names), and then Tolstoy’s relationship with Turgenev was hostile enough to lead to threats of a duel to the death. But it is worthwhile to note that while Tolstoy loathed Alien Hearts, he was reading Maupassant’s Un Vie when Tolstoy made that famous dash to the ‘last station’. Personally, I prefer Bel Ami and Alien Hearts to Un Vie….