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.
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
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