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A pleasure incapable of repetition

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Henry James' The Aspern Papers made me giddy, the way children are delighted when a beloved uncle plays a trick on them. 

By this admission, I don't mean any backhanded compliment.  The Aspern Papers isn't in any respect cheap, superficial or manipulative.  Nor, on reflection, do I think it really has a trick ending - not in the sense of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," or O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."

But James' rendering of Juliana Bordereau, the elderly ci-devant lover of (fictional) poet Jeffrey Aspern, is so compelling that it utterly blinded me to where James was heading with the plot.  (Warning: I am about to mention some plot spoilers.)  When Juliana catches the narrator opening her secretary cupboard, and he sees "for the first, the last, the only time . . . her extraordinary eyes" (p. 112), the confrontation was so electric that I could only feel, upon learning four pages later that Juliana had died, that James had lost his way in the plot.  Surely, I thought, the story hinges on the narrator's conflict with this indomitable, controlling, ancient woman - a woman so crushing and incomprehensible that she seemed a pagan god?

But, no, Juliana was an elaborate distraction in a story more directly about innocence than about conniving. 

On my second go-round through the story, I noted Juliana's emphasis on pushing the narrator into relations with her middle-aged spinster niece, Miss Tita.  I had registered the references before, but they hadn't clued me into the endgame of Miss Tita's marriage proposal, partly because I couldn't ever decide whether Juliana's relationship to Miss Tita was supportive or destructive.  Juliana's desire that the narrator spend time with Miss Tita seemed more likely to be a ploy to embarrass and control them both, or to get them out of the house in order that Juliana might burn the Aspern papers; a shidduch for Miss Tita's benefit and pleasure didn't seem an obvious option.  That Juliana's relationship to her niece turned out to be both supportive and destructive only deepens the realism and resonance of the story.

Seeing and analyzing the mechanism that tricked me, I feel admiration . . . and also a little disappointment.  Now that I know the trick, it won't work on me again: I'll never be able to feel the same giddiness at the conclusion of The Aspern Papers.  All the more reason to savor its memory.   

(Image of Henry James from The Guardian)

Prostitutes' paradoxes

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I don't know if Karen Blixen ever read Guy de Maupassant's story, "Boule de suif" - probably she did.  She'd lived in Paris as a student and spoke French.  Maupassant was (and still is) a writer who enjoyed wide popular acclaim; his work would likely have been unavoidable for young Blixen.

The question arose because my first thought on reading "Boule de suif" was its remarkable parallels with a (much later written) story by Karen Blixen, "The Heroine," which appeared in her second collection, Winter's Tales.

Both stories take place during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71.  In both stories, a band of French travelers are stopped by Germans.  A German officer in both stories demands sexual favors from one of the French women.  In both stories, the woman works in the sex trade.  And in both stories, the woman's companions - who, in both stories, include a pair of nuns - are instrumental in the outcome.  Yet the two stories are totally different.

In "Boule de suif," the woman, Elisabeth Rousett (known as "Boule de suif" or "suet dumpling") is a prostitute.  Her companions in her traveling coach initially snub her, but they welcome her into their society after she shares her food with them.  When the German officer arrests the progress of their party, however, Boule de suif's companions pressure her until she relents and complies with his demands.  The German officer allows their party to proceed, and the companions regress into their haughty exclusion of Boule de suif.  The story ends with everyone in the coach refusing to share their food with her, while she cries, and one of the men hums "The Marseillaise."

In "The Heroine," the woman, Heloise, appears to be a lady of some distinction.  She and her companions at an inn are trying to cross from Germany into Luxembourg.  A German officer tells Heloise that he will grant the laissez-passer if she comes to him naked.  She demands that the officer present the request to her companions.  Led by an elderly priest, who weakly waves his arms, they all give some sign of refusal, and the party is sent outside.  They fear they will be shot.  But a German officer comes with the laissez-passer and a bouquet of flowers, which he presents to Heloise, "to a heroine." 

After the war, one of the men who'd been with Heloise that night, a scholar named Frederick, goes to a nightclub in Paris where he sees Heloise - far from being a woman of distinction - performing naked in a titillating show called "Diana's revenge."  After the show, Heloise has a drink with him, during which she muses that, during their showdown with the German officer, their companions were running a worse risk than being shot.  Had they made her do what the German had demanded,

[t]hey would have repented it all their lives, and have held themselves to be great sinners. . . . for those people it would have been better to be shot than to live on with a bad conscience.
(p. 86).  When Frederick asks her why she is sure of this conclusion, she replied, "Oh, I know that kind of people well . . . . I was brought up amongst poor, honest people myself."  (Id.)   

This comparison between Maupassant's "Boule de suif" and Blixen's "The Heroine" brings Blixen's romanticism into sharp relief . . . and possibly some ridicule.  Romanticism in and of itself doesn't deprive a work of its plausibility - people behave romantically often enough - but as the side-by-side with "Boule de suif" clarifies, Blixen's romanticism was normative, not descriptive.  She wrote about how people should be, not about how they are.  And how Blixen thought people should be can seem a bit ridiculous today.

In Maupassant's hands, the social pressure exerted on Boule de suif to force her to comply with the German officer's request that she perform exactly what she would do for her job seems dehumanizing and cruel.  In Blixen's telling, Heloise's refusal to ensure the safe passage of herself and her companions by doing exactly what she does for her job seems foolishly proud; and Heloise's insistence that her companions would have been better off being shot, than having supported her in her honor, seems naive, if not offensive.

At the end of the stories, it is Maupassant, not Blixen, who has made me feel empathy for the prostitute, who has inspired me to insist on her dignity, on her human entitlement not to be sexually degraded, whatever she does to earn a living.  Who, then, is the romantic?  Maupassant, who lays the groundwork for realization of an ideal by showing us reality; or Blixen, who shows us a peculiar ideal, the realization of which seems not merely impossible, but ill-advised?

If Karen Blixen did read "Boule de suif" before writing "The Heroine," she didn't appear to take from it its most salient lessons.   

(Image of Guy de Maupassant from Narrative Magazine)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Maupassant, Guy de category.

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