Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Pierre Et Jean" by Guy De Maupassant

Pierre Et Jean by Guy De Maupassant ( 1888, translated by Julie Mead with an introduction by Robert Lethbridge, 2001,  129 pages, Oxford World Classics)

Guy De Maupassant (1850 to 1893) was an very successful and highly productive writer.  He wrote six short novels, over 200 short stories and a vast amount of journalism.   He is often called a father of the modern short story.    He was a protege of Gustav Flaubert.   Guy De Maupassant made a very good amount of money from his writings.   He served in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.   For ten years after the war he was a civil service clerk.   Flaubert, who knew his mother, encouraged him to pursue his literary interests.   One of his first short stories, about a prostitute during the Franco-Prussian, war was proclaimed a masterpiece by Flaubert and was hugely popular.   From the success of this De Maupassant began a career as a professional writer.   Through Flaubert he became friends with Zola and Turgenev.   Henry James considered Pierre Et Jean a small masterpiece both for its style and for the great psychological depth shown in the work.

In both George Sand's Indiana and in Pierre Et Jean we can see the authors have given serious reflection on the methods of narrating a story.   I take this to be at least in part the result of the influence of Flaubert.    We can see Sand struggle with this issue in the first half of Indiana.   De Maupassant in his marvelous preface to Pierre Et Jean reflects on what he feels the role of the literary artist should be in the face of the demands of the reading public:

In short the reading public is made up of many groups crying out to us 'Console me',  'Amuse me', 'Make me sad', 'Make me dream', 'Make me laugh', 'Make me shudder', 'Make my cry', 'Make me think'.   Only a few minds ask the artist:  'create something beautiful in the form that best suits you and according to your own temperament'
Pierre Et Jean is considered the best of his six novels.    The plot is straightforward.   Pierre and Jean are two brothers, both in their twenties.    One has recently graduated from medical school and one from law school.  Their parents are of the middle class and are proud of both of  their sons, as who would not be.    It gives us one of  the best looks at sibling rivalry I have ever seen in a novel.    (In this it compares well to The Brothers Karamazov.)   The brothers have a cordial relationship but there are undercurrents of resentment based on perceptions on each of the brother's parts that their parents preferred the other.    One day the younger brother Jean, the attorney, inherits a fortune large enough to keep him in comfort for the rest of his life from an old family friend.    Pierre, the doctor,  had always thought that the family friend liked him just as much as he did Jean.   The friend was a single man the age of their parents with no children of his own.   Pierre is stunned by this and can at first see no reason for this preference.   He begins to obsessively think about why this happened as he is driven to know why the family friend ignored him.   We see growing feelings of resentment in Pierre and we see Jean, who was always somehow in the shadow of his older brother, begin to look down on those around him not in his economic class.   We also get a great look at relationships of the  parents to each other and to the brothers.   Pierre Et James provides us with a brilliant look at a family whose children are no longer children but still somehow less than full adults.   We also along the way see how the fishing industry in France worked and we enjoy the brothers'  love of sport fishing.  We go along as the older brother goes out on the town to places his parents would not care to know about.   One of the most interesting bits of knowledge conveyed in the books was an account of the economics of life as a cruise ship doctor in the 1880.   There is a beautiful (if there can be beauty is such a thing) description of the steerage area of the cruise ship that is as vivid as anything in Dickens.   In that short passage De Maupassant shows he need not take a lower berth to his friend Zola in depicting the life of the poor.

Pierre eventually discovers why his younger brother received the inheritance.  What he learns is crushing and has still the  power to shock us.    Pierre Et James is considered a kind of transitional work in late 19th century fiction.    I really enjoyed this book.   It is a near perfect example of the art of the short novel.

De Maupassant lead an interesting if short life (43 years).   One bit of trivia I found very interesting was the fact that he once saved the English poet Charles Swinburne from drowning.    You can see for sure the influence of Flaubert in this story in its minute observations and its efforts to particularize people and in the narrative mode.    The introduction to the book by Robert Lethbridge gives us useful cultural background on the novel.    The second half of the introduction does contain spoilers and I read it after I finished the book and suggest others do the same.    I think Oxford World Classic paper backs normally have very good introductions and the production quality is high and the print is not too small.   I have mentioned this before but I think anyone interested in the 19th century novel would enjoy Flaubert:  A Biography by Frederick Brown.  The prose in the translation is beautiful. 

I am including this book for these challenges.

New Authors Challenge (means new to you)
Mutual Reads (Victorian Era novels)
Themed Reading Challenge (my theme is Flaubert and Friends)
French Historicals Oh La la! Reading Challenge.

Mel u


Lucy said...

Excellent review- and not a particularly easy read, I believe. It seems that stories of siblings are similar no matter the era, or the place. Thanks for this review!

The Book Whisperer said...

I definitely want to read this now! I do like Maupassants work.