“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.
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.
Translated by Richard Howard