Monday, 9 November 2020

Book review: Guy de Maupassant, Christopher Lloyd (2020)

I bought this book for the RRP at Gleebooks when I was on the hunt for things to read during a period of uncertainty as I swapped homes.

The main reason for my choice was because I’d started – for the first time in about 35 years – to listen to Wagner and, as readers of this blog should not be surprised to learn, was for the first time blown away by the richness and variety of the artistic vision I found in his work. I’d recently bought albums with, on them, the music of other late-19th century composers – for example, Janacek, Bruckner, Rachmaninov, and Liszt – and while these functioned well enough as pastimes nothing equalled in my mind Wagner’s accomplishment with his magnum opus, the ‘Ring’ cycle. Fantastic tunes, fast pacing (interest never flags), extraordinary variety, a wall-of-sound technique in the days before electric music arrived, and an awe-inspiring ambition to transcend the mundane and to reach millennial heights.

This illustrated Reaktion Books ”critical lives” series biography of the famous French writer is brief and the subject was no saint but it serves to give you some idea of the nature of the times de Maupassant lived in, years when Wagner, also, was active, but across a contested border, producing work. 

Maupassant started out as a journalist writing occasional pieces and gravitated toward short fiction, and then to novels. His trajectory was steep but, according to Lloyd, he worked very hard to achieve a goal: to live by his writing. Initially employed as a state functionary, he aspired to something more meaningful. According to his biographer, Maupassant is still voluntarily read today, especially by young people (though I don’t have the figures on-hand and they are anyway hard to find because the author’s copyright has expired). The creative genius employed in drudge-work is a common theme in the annals of history: viz Pessoa and Kafka, among others.

Dying from disease contracted as a result of a louche lifestyle, Maupassant literally fucked up his body. Aside from this objection to his character and a dismaying degree of anti-Semitism, Lloyd’s de Maupassant raises many ideas that are still relevant today, especially relating to the place of the individual in art and, hence, in society. Maupassant belonged to the post-Romantic era when Modernism was emerging along with working-class consciousness and industrial technology. Other major shifts in the late 19th century involved humanity’s idea of itself, especially as this was affected by the writings of Charles Darwin. Following on from the advances forged by the generation of Jane Austen and William Wordsworth, Maupassant’s coevals, and the writer himself, tried to come to grips with a new type of reality. 

Today we are also faced with an almost insupportable degree of social and technological change so Lloyd’s effort has to be of interest to a general reader. Striking for me is Maupassant’s focus on the human, and on manners and sentiment as it was expressed by ordinary people, though sometimes, in his stories, the circumstances they find themselves in are anything but ordinary. Maupassant is not only known for his portraits of mid-19th-century society but also for his speculative fiction.

In a book like this you have to survey what other people have written about the author in question, and Lloyd does this but he also inserts his own views about his subject, who was only active for a period of about 20 years though he published hundreds of short stories, a handful of (admittedly short) novels, as well as novellas, plays, poetry and journalism. Illness cut short his productive years.

Maupassant was both a man of affairs – a successful writer able to afford luxuries – and a man of letters. In this book the age-old rivalry between France and Germany enters into the frame as a result of war, and certainly it’s possible to also view Wagner’s efforts in the context of a cultural divide that was at least 2000 years old by the time he sat down for the first time to mark his scores and to write his libretti.

Expect more reviews of the same type as this as I try to come to terms with Wagner. As succinctly put by Peter Nicholson, an Australian poet and acquaintance, in commenting on Facebook in response to a post I made about this book (before I’d started reading it): the ”Wagner meme” is evidence of the way the composer enticed many other artists to copy and pillage his work. 

It is capacious, transcendent, enigmatic. Yes, he had difficulties, but are we likely to leave a Tristan as our calling card to humanity? 

I couldn’t agree more. Janacek and Bruckner are mere shadows, though contemporary with Wagner, and while Liszt and Rachmaninov entertain, once you have sampled the ‘Ring’ you may find it hard to go elsewhere.

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