"The Englishman of Etretat" by Guy de Maupassant (1873, translated 2012 by Elliot Lewis)
|Agitated Sea at Etretat, by Claude Monet from 1883, depicting the famous rocky archway through which Swinburne was swept out to sea in 1868.|
Guy de Maupassant (there is some background information on him in my prior posts) is pretty much the consensus second best short story writer of all time. Maupassant wrote a lot of short stories (pushing 400), my guess (backed up by Frank O'Connor) is that about ten of them are totally great world heritage stories, most of the rest are good stories however a lot of them were written fast by formula and some say they are sentimental to the point of mawkish.
"The Englishman of Etretat" can perhaps best be classified as a non-fiction story or a memoir. Told in the first person in the voice of the author, it is about the time he met the famous English poet Algernon Swinburne who had come to France to meet Victor Hugo. Here is a sample of this intriquing work
I believe it was in 1867, perhaps 1868; a young Englishman of unknown origin had bought a little thatched cottage under the trees in Étretat. There he cultivated an uncommon, even unusual existence, largely alone amidst a local population both sly and small-minded that granted him little beyond a customary distrust. We’re led to believe that this eccentric Englishman dieted exclusively upon monkey (whether, sautéed, roasted, boiled or preserved; no matter) and that he would talk aloud for hours, though quite alone. In fact there abounded a hundred such stories serving only to confirm in the minds of the neighbourhood gossips that this fellow was far from ordinary. Perhaps most remarked upon was his living on terms of intimacy with a large monkey: had it been a dog or a cat, surely nothing would have been said, but a pet ape? How awful! What savagery!
The very real fun in this work, maybe not accurate to call it a short story even though it reads just like one, is in Maupassant's reaction to the very strange Swinburne. Maupassant knew that he he met someone very special and quite out of the ordinary. He said of him.
possessed of an uncommon intellect, illuminated undoubtedly by the kinds of nocturnal reveries that inspired Edgar Poe. He had translated a volume of extraordinary Icelandic Legends of which I would most urgently welcome a French translation. Predisposed to the most intricate of spiritual distortions, he inclined instinctively towards the supernatural, the macabre, the profane, but nevertheless and with typically English phlegm, spoke utterly naturally of such unsettling subjects, his calm and quiet voice conferring thereupon a hallucinatory degree of normality.
I urge anyone interested in either Swinburne or Guy de Maupassant to take the time to read this work.
Julian Barnes fascinating essay is in part about the encounter of Swinburne and de Maupassant but a lot of it is devoted to explaining English tourism on the coast of France and the pilgrimages of literary English to Normandy. (I have posted on two of Barnes's novels and their is some background information on him in them.) British artists also began to come to Normandy shortly after the Napoleonic wars ended. Oscar Wilde came there as soon as he got out of jail. Swinburne nearly drowned there and on the day that happened de Maupassant was in close vicinity, maybe in a nearby fishing boat and he was invited to have lunch with Swinburne. The lunch was a truly bizarre event, in the eyes of de Maupassant it seems an English lunatic with a poetic genius has landed on Normandy and who may have served him monkey meat for lunch. The belief among the locals in Normandy was that Swinburne ate only monkey, he did have several monkeys in his house. Barnes does just a wonderful job describing the luncheon and there is a lot of fascinating quite new to me literary history in the essay. I cannot imagine anyone with an interest in either writer or English or French literary history not being delighted by the essay of Barnes.
This post is also part of my participation in Paris in July 2012 hosted by Book Bath and Thyme for Tea.