Tag Archives: Love affairs

Like Death: Maupassant

“Daylight poured into the enormous studio through an open bay in the ceiling: this oblong of brilliant light–an immense perforation in the remote azure infinity–was ceaselessly crisscrossed by sudden flights of birds.”

Maupassant’s delicately sensitive novel, Like Death is an exploration of aging, love and to a lesser degree the hollowness of fame. Painter Olivier Bertin is at the pinnacle of his long successful career, and yet although he’s achieved fame and material success (unlike most artists) he’s not a happy man. But neither is he unhappy–rather, he is bored and discontent. Now Bertin is at an impasse in his career and he’s beginning to wonder if he’s lost his “inspiration.” Every idea he has seems stale.

Rich, famous, the recipient of many honors, he remains, toward the end of his life, a man unaware of the ideal he is pursuing.

His art follows the style worshiped by dictated tastes of the Academy: “great historical scenes” and “living men along classical lines.” But a successful artist does not work in a vacuum.

Perhaps, too, the world’s sudden infatuation for his work–always so elegant, so correct so distingué–has had a certain influence on his nature and kept him from being what he would in the course of things have become. Since the triumphs of his early work, a constant desire to please has unconsciously haunted him, secretly impeding his development and attenuating his convictions. his craving to please, moreover, had shown itself in a great variety of forms and contributed a good deal to his renown.

Countess Anne de Guilleroy, the wife of a conservative politician, has been Bertin’s mistress since posing for her portrait many years earlier. She’s promoted his work and encouraged him in “considerations of fashionable elegance,” so in other words, she’s helped his career and kept his art safely in the commercially successful category. Over the years, their relationship has waxed and waned; he’s had other mistresses but he always returns to her, and “her life [is] a constant combat of coquetry.” At this point in time, facing old age, Bertin’s regretting that he couldn’t marry her and that he is alone.

like death

Everything for Bertin and the Countess changes with the arrival in Paris of Annette, the Countess’s 18 year old daughter who’s there to be married off to a wealthy young man…..

An almost macabre dance between Bertin, the Countess and her daughter begins to take place. Bertin is awed by the young girl and considers her even more beautiful than her mother. Is she his next, most significant, muse? Meanwhile the Countess begins to wonder if her daughter is her fatal rival.

Like Death boldly confronts aging as Bertin feels jealous of the young girls fiance but sadder still is the fact that the Countess finds herself a poor rival against her daughter’s youth. So we see aging as the enemy of love: Bertin falls in love with a young girl who likes him but doesn’t conceive of him as a romantic suitor, and the Countess sees herself aging and is desperate to be attractive. There’s, of course, an immense sense of futility here as Bertin, thinking she’s his next muse, plies Annette with expensive gifts, and the Countess decides never to stand next to her daughter in bright light. In another writer’s hands, this could be a farce, but Maupassant grants both Bertin and the Countess dignity.

In one very poignant scene, the Countess prays for her beauty to remain, that she can stay attractive for just a few more years.

Then, having risen, she would sit before her dressing-table, and with a tension of thought as ardent as if in prayer, she would handle her powders, her cosmetics, her pencils, the puffs and brushes which gave her once more a beauty of plaster, daily and fragile.

While Like Death is not as perfect as Bel Ami, thanks to its subject matter, it’s relevant, and Maupassant shows incredible empathy as he gently explores the Countess’s fears and vanity.  As I read this I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, a novel in which a sculptor, in his search for the perfect woman, courts three generations from the same family.

Review copy

Translated by Richard Howard

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Two or Three Graces: Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley’s novella After the Fireworks concerns the love affair between a popular author and a young attractive female fan. Two or Three Graces, the second novella in this collection published by Harper Perennial also concerns love affairs–collectively these two novellas explore the nature and reality of love

The tale is told by Wilkes, a bachelor, and begins in Paris. I wasn’t sure where Huxley was leading as he describes two of Wilkes’s problematic relationships. One trying friendship is with the volatile, highly emotional writer Kingham and the second with former public schoolmate the plodding, boring Herbert Comfrey. Kingham, a man who “liked scenes” has an overreactive fit about Herbert and exits the frame, or so we think.

after-the-fireworks

Wilkes returns to England in the company of “passive vegetable clinger” Herbert and lo and behold who do they meet on the Dover quayside but Herbert’s even more boring brother-in-law, solicitor, John Peddley. This man is so boring that he actually haunts railway stations and docks waiting to pounce on a “victim,” some weary traveller who he can then pontificate to at length, while this poor lost soul, too tired to fight, puts up little resistance. Peddley, like a typical bore, just needs an audience; to other people’s “feelings and thoughts he was utterly insensitive. It was this insensitiveness, coupled with his passionate sociability, that gave him his power. He could hunt down his victims and torture them without remorse.”

Peddley was an active bore, the most active, I think, that I ever met; and indefatigable piercer, a relentless stuffer and crammer. He talked incessantly, and his knowledge of uninteresting subjects was really enormous. All that I know of the Swiss banking system, of artificial manures, of the law relating to insurance companies, of pig-breeding, of the ex-sultan of Turkey, of sugar rationing during the war, and a hundred other similar subject , is due to Peddley. He was appalling, really appalling; there is no other word. I know no human being with whom I would less willingly pass an hour.

And yet the man was extremely amiable and full of good qualities. he had a kind heart. He was energetic and efficient. He was even intelligent.

And it’s in a state of weariness that Wilkes succumbs to an invitation to Peddley’s home. Here he meets Peddley’s wife, Herbert’s sister, Grace. She’s a lot like Herbert, but whereas Herbert annoys Wilkes, he’s charmed by Grace. She’s a sort of helpless, vague woman, and Wilkes finds her “graceful ineptitude” quite “enchanting.” After spending some time with the Peddleys, Wilkes concludes that the marriage ‘works’ but that Grace tunes out of her life most of the time.

It’s through Wilkes that Grace is introduced to two successive lovers. Each love affair defines Grace in some way–hence the title. With one lover she becomes a bohemian, and with another, she’s a heartless vampire who sucks the life out of men. At one point, Wilkes even begins to imagine that he’s in love with Grace.

With each of these men, Grace, however, doesn’t fundamentally change. She might dress differently, and she might carry around a cigarette, but she’s still vague, fuzzy at the edges, Grace. The men in her life make her what they want her to be–hence the title. Huxley shows us two different Graces through her love affairs, but he’s not sure if there even is a third Grace. There’s a lot of sympathy for this character who married Peddley when she was too young to know better.

In spite of this novella’s slow start, I loved it. It’s a character study, and Huxley analyses his handful of subjects quite unmercifully, giving them nowhere to hide. But then even Wilkes, our narrator, is sliced up and his faux feelings examined. Also under scrutiny here is the subject of love. Huxley acknowledges its realities but also subtly analyzes its shifting properties.  There’s a definite feeling that Huxley is writing about real people disguised by fiction.

Uncle Spencer is the third, and weakest novella in the book. It’s basically the reminiscences of holidays spent with an idiosyncratic uncle who runs a sugar factory in Belgium. These holidays are interrupted by WWI, and Uncle Spencer’s arrest and imprisonment.

Review copy

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Five Days by Douglas Kennedy

“But the truth is, no matter how successful or happy you may consider yourself to be there is always a part of your life that is problematic, or deficient, or a letdown in some way.”

The blurb on the back cover of Five Days includes this:

Douglas Kennedy’s powerful new novel poignantly examines the death of hope, the limitless possibilities of love, and how the entire trajectory of a life can change through one brief encounter.

It’s interesting that the words ‘brief encounter’ appear as this is the film I thought of when I read Douglas Kennedy’s latest book, but while I’d class the 1945 film Brief Encounter as a romance, Five Days isn’t so easily pegged. Yes, there is romance in these pages, but primarily this is a story of how one very unhappy 41-year-old woman faces her unhappiness and decides to do something to change her life. five daysLaura is a married Radiology Technician who works at a hospital in Damariscotta, Maine, and here between the hours of 9-5, she performs scans on patients sent to her as part of the diagnostic  sequence. It’s my personal belief that you can’t work in this sort of job without it impacting your thoughts about life & death, and this is certainly true of Laura who sees people who are dying of cancer on a daily basis. Not that Laura is the one that breaks the news, of course, but she is, nonetheless part of the sequence of events. She’s always been able to handle her job, but lately the job has been getting to her, and she’s internalizing the results: euphoric when nothing is found, and tearful when the scans yield positive results. Peel back a few layers of Laura’s life, and it’s easy to see that her marriage is unhappy and unsatisfying. Add two troubled teenagers to the mix. Trouble then is on the horizon when Laura heads off solo to a conference in Boston where she meets Richard Copeland, a 50-something insurance salesman who is just as unhappy as she is…..

Five Days illustrates perfectly that affairs do not occur in the real world. They exist in a bubble–a very special, fabricated place that is not hampered by everyday concerns, and the novel does an excellent job of showing how very much easier it is for Laura to communicate with a brand-new person who shares a great deal of her interests instead of trying to discuss anything with Dan, her long-term unemployed, depressed husband of over 23 years.

So far so good.

As a protagonist, Laura is an irritating, insufferable human being–nothing wrong with reading about insufferable people, of course, as they can be a lot of fun (thinking Kingsley Amis here), but when they’re supposed to garner our sympathy and our subsequent interest in the character’s journey of self-discovery, it helps if that character is sympathetic, and if this transaction doesn’t occur, then something different happens.  The alarm bells initially went off for me with Laura’s character early in the novel when she described her competency at diagnosing cancers, and the alarms were loud and clear when she reveals the “shock” and “hurt” she feels after discovering that her now-deceased mother had an ectopic pregnancy years earlier. And this sums up in a nutshell Laura’s central issue as a character for this reader.; other people’s death sentences are her tragedy; her mother’s inability to have more children is somehow a personal betrayal. Laura is self-focused and egotistical even while she’s presented as suffering from a general lack of affection from an obtuse, depressive, dull and uninspiring spouse. Listening to Laura became a bit like listening to a work acquaintance complaining about her home life even as you, the audience, silently feel a bit sorry for the poor sod at home.

Laura is a RT but has long-buried dreams of being a doctor with long slow hints of why that didn’t happen. The first person narrative goes back and forth in time, and Laura’s story of just what went wrong with those dreams is gradually revealed. She ‘settled’ for Dan, and it seems that there’s no intellectual spark between them. No matter. When she meets Richard, the sparks fly in an egoistical word-play exchange. I’m not sure that people really talk like this, and if I’m wrong and then they do, they are obnoxious. Here’s Laura and Richard discovering their mutual love of synonyms

“He initially had a business partner–Jack Jones. A fellow Marine. Unlike my father, Jack actually liked people. Don’t know what he was doing in business with my father, as Jack was a genuinely happy-go-lucky guy and Dad was kind of dyspeptic about life.”

“I like that word: dyspeptic.”

” ‘Bilious’ would also be a good descriptive word as well. ‘Liverish’ might also fit the bill.”

“How about ‘disputative’?”

“A little too legal, I think. Dad was a misanthrope, but never litigious.”

I looked at him with a new interest. “You like words,” I said.

“You’re looking at the Kennebac County Spelling Bee champion of 1974, which is kind of Middle Ages now, right? But once you get hooked on words you don’t really ever lose the habit.”

This sort of thing goes on for a while–a sort of word-one-upmanship, and the mental/sexual sparks flying through the air which each new posturing.

“Okay, I give you that. How about ‘abrogatory’?”

“Now you’re getting too fancy. ‘Approbative.’ “

“That’s not fancy? Sounds downright florid to me.”

“Florid isn’t ‘aureate.’  “

“Or ‘Churrigueresque’? he asked.

Five Days certainly has its merits; it is a page turner and at its best when conveying the unreality of an affair when compared to the ever-present tensions of home and responsibility. Life can throw a lot of unexpected disasters at anyone, but two middle-aged people discussing their disappointments, loneliness, unfulfilled dreams of literary fame, and past glory of long-gone college days has never been exactly an up experience. Here it’s an angst-filled odyssey into some depressing territory. I’ve been meaning to read a Douglas Kennedy novel for some time as I have seen a few films based on his books: The Woman on the Fifth (disliked it), Welcome to Woop Woop (one of my favourite cult films), The Big Picture (excellent). Perhaps Five Days was the wrong place to start, and I may very well be the wrong reader for the book as my sob-o-meter isn’t exactly a sensitive instrument. So, if any Kennedy readers out there would like to recommend one of his titles, I’ll give it a go.

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Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval

Jacqueline Raoul-Duval’s remarkable novel, Kafka in Love, largely drawn from Kafka’s letters and diaries, bridges the lines between fiction and non-fiction in its pursuit of biography. The French title of the book is Kafka, L’éternel fiancé,  and what an excellent title that is, for in the book we see Kafka between the years 1912 until his death in 1924 through his rather odd relationships with four very different women. The shared ingredient of these relationships is that they were largely long-distance, and while Kafka appears to have primarily enjoyed the position of fiancé (no less than four times) in order to establish a prolific letter writing campaign, proximity–except perhaps for his last relationship with his intellectual equal, Dora, brought disaster.

indexKafka in Love begins by showing Franz Kafka as an energetic, intense, dapper young man. He met Max Brod “by chance” on November 23, 1903 in Prague at a talk in which Brod called Nietzsche a “charlatan.” Kafka publicly challenged Brod and thus began a lifelong friendship which lasted until Kafka’s death in 1924.

Max examined the young righter of wrongs, who was taller than he by a head. He noticed the young man’s elegance of dress, the tie and stand-up collar, the intensity of his gaze , his black eyes on fire. He was reminded of a Dostoevsky hero. The student’s high-cheekboned thinness and distinction made Max uncomfortable, and he regretted having overindulged in beer and fatty foods and neglected sports.

It’s at Max’s house that Kafka meets Felice Bauer, a relative of Max Brod’s “by marriage” on August 13, 1912. Felice, who lives in Berlin, is an unlikely candidate for Kafka’s interest. In spite of the fact that he doesn’t find her physically attractive (“no charm, no appeal“), a relationship begins which is maintained and fed by a torrent of letters and telegrams. Between October 23 (when Felice finally replies to Kafka’s increasingly insistent letters) until December 31st 1912, he writes and sends 100 letters to Felice “often two or three a day.” Kafka’s long-distance relationship with Felice appears to have satisfied a certain obsessive-compulsive component in Kafka’s nature, and it also allowed Kafka to write the most extraordinarily passionate letters (“Dearest, very dearest! Most cherished of my temptations,”), but, sadly, the passion failed to materialize when the couple finally met again in the flesh. Rather interestingly, neither Felice nor Kafka seemed particularly anxious to spend time together, and it’s almost as if they both sensed that this extraordinary on-and-off again relationship was superior on paper. They were annoyed by each other’s habits; Kafka was turned off by Felice’s teeth and eating of sugar cubes. Felice couldn’t stand Kafka’s eccentricities & asceticism. Kafka didn’t smoke, didn’t drink alcohol, tea or coffee and was a vegetarian. He “slept by an open window even in the heart of winter, [and] swam in icy rivers.” Perpetually late, he always set his watch one and a half hours ahead. All these habits grated on Felice’s nerves, and this didn’t bode well for any imagined future together. In one of his letters, he detailed more habits:

I eat three meals a day, but nothing between meals, literally nothing. In the morning stewed fruit, biscuits and milk. At 2:30, out of filial pity, the same as the others, a bit less than the others. Winter evenings at 9:30: yogurt, wholegrain bread, butter, walnuts and hazelnuts, chestnuts, dates, figs, raisins, almonds, pumpkin seeds, bananas, apples, pears, oranges, and I never get my fill of lemonade. 

We could perhaps chalk up Kafka’s misadventures with Felice as a youthful, impulsive mistake–a relationship that he dove into too quickly and then had difficulties in the retreat, but then when Felice recruited her best friend, Grete Bloch in the campaign to patch things up with Kafka, his enthusiastic letter-writing shifted gears to his fiancée’s best friend, and naturally this culminated in disaster. Then there are Kafka’s other relationships, and while his relationships with the sad milliner, Julie Wohryzek and the glorious Milena are both quite different, they are still maintained at a distance and plagued with a certain reluctance on Kafka’s part. Milena, who “enters” Kafka’s life “like a hurricane,” has a tumultuous past, peppered with scandal. Their relationship lasted approximately 8 months, and “about 150” letters survive as a testament to their mostly long-distance relationship–Kafka in Prague and Milena with her husband “the man with forty mistresses,” in Vienna. Their letter exchanges “reach a feverish pitch, telegrams fly back and forth at a rapid rate.”

The book smoothly integrates extracts from Kafka’s diaries and letters so seamlessly that we don’t particularly notice where they begin and end, and at times, the author interjects the occasional speculative and rhetorical comment in the midst of recounting Kafka’s actions as in one spot when Kafka acknowledges that he will never have children.  There’s an aside “was Felice troubled by this warning?”

It’s impossible to separate Kafka the lover from Kafka the author since the two aspects of his character appear to be so closely intertwined. While Kafka tries romance numerous times and endures the life of an aesthetic, his Diaries reveal no small amount of struggle from the man who wrote The Hunger Artist:

In his Diaries, he lets loose and confesses his hankerings, real and imaginary: “This craving that I almost always have, if ever I feel my stomach empty, to heap up in me images of terrible feats of eating. I especially satisfy this craving in front of pork butchers. If I see a sausage labeled as an old, hard farmhouse sausage, I bite into it in my imagination with my teeth and swallow quickly, regularly and mechanically. The despair that always follows this act, imaginary though it is, increases my haste. I shove long slabs of ribs into my mouth unchewed, then bring them out again the other end, pulling them through my stomach and intestines. I empty whole grocery stores, filthy ones, cram myself with herrings, pickles, and all the spicy, gamey unhealthy foods. Hard candies pour into my mouth like hail from the cast-iron pots.”

And while Kafka’s describes his first sexual experience to Milena, it’s in his diaries that he “confess[es] his taste for brothels,” along with the fact that “he is drawn to large and slightly older girls.”

While we see Kafka through four extraordinary relationships, the book Kafka in Love is ultimately a lot more than seeing Kafka through four strained engagements. We also see the process of Kafka maturing in an ever-increasing anti-Semitic society as he becomes interested in Zionism, learns Hebrew and returns to his Jewish roots–stirring once again, his father’s disapproval.  We also see Kafka in the contemporary cultural society of his times with Ernst Weiss and Franz Werfel as friends., and the touching details of how Kafka consoled a child who’d lost her doll. Haunted by the knowledge that he left so much work incomplete, Kafka despaired about this failure even as his life was cut tragically short by his excruciatingly cruel and painful death from Tuberculosis in 1924 at the Kierling Sanatorium.  At the end of the novel are notes explaining the fate of the letters written from Kafka–along with the fates of some of the significant people in his life., and a description of the battle over Kafka’s estate. The author, Jacqueline Raoul-Duval concludes this poignant, inspired and remarkable novel with an explanation of how she was drawn to her subject.

Translated by Willard Wood. Review copy.

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