Review: Pierre et Jean – Guy de Maupassant

I have wanted to read more Guy de Maupassant for some time and my interest was confirmed by reading some of Guy Savage’s collection of de Maupassant articles on his blog.

I’d read quite a few of de Maupassant’s short stories of course, but not one of his novels, so Pierre et Jean seemed a good place to start, particularly as it is set in an area of France I visit frequently, the Normandy Coast from Dieppe to Caen.

I often mention the location of novels, because when they are set in real-life places, I enjoy plotting their course on Google Earth and this edition of Pierre et Jean does the work for me, by providing three maps: Normandy in general, a town plan of Le Havre, and a chart of the Seine estuary – all places my wife and I have recently visited.

The novel is set in Le Havre, but a Le Havre which would be totally unrecognisable to us, due to the destruction of the town in the Second World War and its subsequent rebuilding ( largely in concrete!).  However, many locations are only a little changed since de Maupassant’s day and I’m sure a walk on the sands today at Trouville would be not be very different to the walk taken by the Roland family on their excursion to celebrate a remarkable inheritance.   Many of the little towns of Normandy still maintain their antiquated atmosphere and its easy to imagine the Rolands walking by the water at Honfleur or Quillebeouf sur Seine.

Anyway, to get to the story, Pierre and Jean are two brothers, five years apart in age, but both living at home and about to start their careers.  The family return home one evening to hear that their lawyer had called and wants to see them on a matter of urgency.  The next day they find out that the younger brother Jean, has become the sole beneficiary of a will left by an old friend of the family from their days in Paris, and can now look forward to an income of 20,000 francs a year.

In the general rejoicing that this event provokes, the family seem to forget about the plight of the older brother Pierre.  He is newly qualified as a doctor, so maybe they feel that he will become prosperous anyway.  Pierre tries to be as big-hearted about his brother’s inheritance as he can, but he struggles when his mother returns home with the news that she has rented the very apartment for Jean that Pierre was trying to raise the deposit on for himself.  This is the first of several humiliations for Pierre, and he begins to be beset by dark thoughts about the reasons for his brother’s incredible good fortune.

Quillebeouf sur Seine

Before long, the poison of resentment and blame begin to work their way through the family and the rejoicing of at least one member of the family turns to sorrow and humiliation.  Pierre is eaten up by terrible thoughts and ultimately has to depart on his travels to find his own resolution.

It goes without saying that this is a well-crafted story.  The characters are well-drawn, and the book is humerous at times, while dealing well with the complex family relationships that change dramatically with their new circumstances.  There are many memorable scenes; the fishing expedition from Le Havre on a small boat, the visit to Trouville, a marriage proposal on a beach.

The book held my interest throughout.  On reflection afterwards however, I am very aware that despite its length as a “novella”  (130 pages), Pierre et Jean is very much a short story.  It deals with one event over a relatively short period and follows a straightforward course from beginning to end with little in the way of unexpected deviation or tangential development.  There are no great surprises in the book, and there is no real resolution of the family conflict generated by the inheritance.  I am not sure that it was enough for Pierre to leave his family in order to get out of his unbearable conflict.  I wonder if some other resolution was possible, or whether there could have been some twist at the end which showed the readers that they were barking up the wrong tree all along?

The strength of the book is its charm.  The characters are well drawn, the the description of middle class life in a provincial town is as much social history as fiction.  Altogether a satisfying if rather slight read but definitely a good introduction to de Maupassant’s longer works.

The production of the novel by Oxford University Press is excellent with copious notes, bibliographies, chronologies (and the excellent maps!).  I am not qualified to comment on the accuracy of the translation but the novel reads naturally and flows well.


Title:  Pierre Et Jean
Author:   Guy de Maupassant
Translator:  Julie Mead
Publication:   Oxford World’s Classics  (2009), Paperback, 208 pages
ISBN: 9780199554034

Book blogger reviews:

His Futile Preoccupations

9 comments to Review: Pierre et Jean – Guy de Maupassant

  • I just finished Balzac’s The Black Sheep–another marvellous novel if you are interested, and it too deals with an inheritance. It’s another look at how an inheritance alters relationships.

    Glad you enjoyed the novel. I’m curious to see which Maupassant becomes your favourite.

  • Tom

    Thanks for visiting Guy. I’m going to have to look more closely at de Maupassant’s work I think. I’ve never heard of the Black Sheep – sounds interesting.

  • I’ve not read any of his novels either … have never really seen them around the shops either … but it’s something I’d like to rectify AND a novella size is something one can contemplate squeezing in between the other “musts”!

  • Nice to see the note on the translation there. That wasn’t the end you were giving away though was it Tom?

    I’m interested in Maupassant too, in part also due to Guy’s reviews. I plan to read Bel Ami next, but I’ll keep this one in mind also. Frankly, I like having well written novellas around for relief in between lengthier works or when busy at work so it’s good to know of another.

    The Googleearth thing is interesting. Do you ever find the journeys in the book are impossible or don’t make sense?

  • Tom

    Hi Max – Well, I hope I didn’t give away the end any more than the publisher’s blurb does. I think Bel Ami is one I must read soon, but I’m starting on Balzac now. Google Earth? Oh yes, there aren’t many books which work well with it – authors do tend to chop and change real-life locations, but in the case of Pierre et Jean it works really well

  • On the geographical front, I am now quite tempted to visit Combray (it’s not called that in real life, but it is apparently mostly a real place). I forget the real name right now, but it’s well known and easily found.

  • Tom

    Wikipedia says – Proust spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with recollections of his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil, became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost Time take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.)

    I am now trying to think of British towns which might like to rename themselves in honour of a writer’s fictional location

  • Barry

    What is it about late 19th century France that made ambition futile? Emulating greatness or position was just ‘not on’.

    Did thinkers believe that a lot of what people thought of as ‘important’ was just illusory -the Panama Canal debacle precipiated a financial crash in France (1888/9).

    French Romantic / classicist artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau was ridiculed by the Avant Garde, especially by Edgar Degas. Was this beacuse Bouguereau was a (petit)bourgeois painter from the west of France (and not a haut bourgeois Parisien) who aspired to the emulate of Raphael?

  • Tom

    Barry – thanks for visiting and leaving such an interesting comment with links

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