ƒMaupassant likes his stories spiked with brutality. The domestic violence of “Le Noyé” gets gratuitous. So it does in “Histoire d’une fille de ferme,” which culminates with the farmer brutalizing Rose, the farmhand, because she won’t get pregnant. (“All boys are thus,” London writes in the Priestly Prerogative.”) That’s after he invites himself to her bed and essentially rapes her to take possession of her. Six years before Rose had a fling with another farmhand and got pregnant. She went away to be with her dying mother at the convenient time when she gave birth far from her village, so she could leave her son with others to raise and return to the farm, where she becomes very skilled at making money for her farmer in hopes of getting a raise. She doesn’t get a raise, but a marriage proposal from the farmer, which she rebuffs, because of her unspoken son, until he takes her. It goes well at first, then sours. He beats her up. She finally tells him why she’s not having another child, since she has one already (it’s a flaw in the story: what would keep her from getting pregnant again, since she’s obviously fertile?) The farmer becomes all soft and happy to adopt her son. And so it’s a happy ending.
As always in Maupassant stories, there are genial asides, like this: “Au milieu d’elles, le coq, superbe, se dressait. À chaque instant il en choisissait une et tournait autour avec un petit gloussement d’appel. La poule se levait nonchalamment et le recevait d’un air tranquille, pliant les pattes et le supportant sur ses ailes ; puis elle secouait ses plumes d’où sortait de la poussière et s’étendait de nouveau sur le fumier, tandis que lui chantait, comptant ses triomphes ; et dans toutes les cours tous les coqs lui répondaient, comme si, d’une ferme à l’autre, ils se fussent envoyé des défis amoureux.”
But there are also awfully prejudiced lines that accent Maupassant’s limitations: “Elle ne consentait pas, pour sûr, mais elle résistaitnonchalamment, luttant elle-même contre l’instinct toujours plus puissant chez les natures simples, et mal protégée par la volonté indécise de ces races inertes et molles.” The story’s shallow presumptions about Rose frame its soft-porn paternalism, the paternalism only amplified by the happy ending, which does not resolve the hell Rose had to go through, hiding, pretending, denying, and submitting to such denigration and violence before the farmer’s epiphany–not for Rose’s sake, but because he finally could have a son he could adopt and call his own. Rose remains a vessel, abused and stepped on, to the end.
Think of Nicholson Baker’s “Mezzanine” but in 10 pages, and the elevator replaced by many flights of stairs Ruby, a 34-year-old pregnant with complaints, is struggling to climb. She’s tired, she must rest, she speaks with tenants along the way, she fantasizes about moving elsewhere, she complains about her brother, gone to the army two years and back, unchanged–she complains about everyone–and she denies to herself that she could possibly be pregnant (“Bill Hill’s been taking care of that for five years,” she says of her husband’s presumed condoms), though her fortune teller recently told her that she would have a stroke of good fortune. She thinks it’s the chance to move. It’s really her pregnancy. She doesn’t want babies. “And there her two sisters were, both married four years with two children apiece. She didn’t see how they stood it, always going to the doctor to be jabbed at with instruments.” But her specialty is the put-down of everyone but herself. There’s humor along the way, but not enough to let the story take flight as “The Mezzanine” does: it takes itself more seriously than it pretends not to.
The photograph, by Nina Lean of Time Life Pictures, appears in the online edition of the New Yorker’s version of the story. It did not appear when the story was originally published.
Some of the reasons this story, if it is a story (Kincaid’s early writings were autobiographical visas out of her former like in Jamaica), is so captivating: the mixture of humor and cruelty; the revelations, one after the other, about the girl and whoever happens to be giving her alleged life lessons, presumably her mother; the revelations about the family life the girl leads, comfortable enough to serve tea and have three meals a day at table but not so luxurious as to not have to plant okra a distance from the house; the recurring hammering about her becoming a slut: “try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” “and so prevent yourself from looking like the slut you know you are bent on becoming,” behave this way and that “this way [men] won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming”; the contrast, as in a piece of music when brass and winds clash, or when the percussion section suddenly blasts its awareness, between the mundane and the catastrophic (“this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child even before it becomes a child”); the use of allusive language in an environment where allusions appear to be always better than directness, except when preaching advice or directives, where it is important to learn how to smile to people you like only so much, or not at all, where it is important to learn how to lie, but also how to have the kind of fun that would have you spit in the air and move just enough to avoid it hitting you in the face; the way we have the entire biography of a girl coming of age, of her parent’s abrasive rearing, of a family where the girl’s role has been turned over to a form of servitude; the way semi-colons are the only dividers between a life of impositions, expectations, derision and occasional fun for appearance’s sake; the way Kinaid has invented an entirely new way to tell a story, long enough for two pages, long enough to die and never be done again: a one hit wonder of its kind; even the way it ends, with a hilarious and sad kicker that makes you want to squeeze every loaf of bread you see from now on.
The story was titled “Cold House” when it ran in The New Yorker, which summarized it this way: “Mrs. Carnavon drove several miles to visit her summer home in the middle of the winter. When she arrived she didn’t know why she had come. She climbed the stairs to her son’s room; she had thought of leaving that room the way it was. Looking at the objects that had belonged to her son; a diamond-shaped plaque, with the clasped hands and the Greek letters; a photograph of a baseball team, a magazine that he may have read, she realized how little she had known her son and that by keeping his things, she would end by hating a memory that she only knew how to love.”
We don’t know how he died. He was 24. Nor do we know how her husband died, though her husband died a long time before. The war seems too long ago or not yet (there’s an allusion to fascism in Europe). Maybe he died in Spain.
American Writer. Ernest Hemingway With His First Wife Hadley Richardson And Their Son John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway (Jack) In Schuns, Austria, 1926. (Credit unclear. Found on “Posterazzi,” on Amazon.)
There’s always been various connections between Hemingway and cats, even in passing. This is one of them. Carlene Brennen in Hemingway’s Cats (2000) describes Hemingway’s young marriage to Hadley Richardson when she wanted a child and a cat. A child was out of the question: he was writing. She was lonely. At the time Hemingway was a reporter for the Toronto Star, writing from Europe. She had nothing to do. They both loved cats but he told her they were too poor to own one. They lived in a shabby rented room with beautiful views of Paris rooftops. Hemingway thought the room had belonged to Verlaine, where Verlaine had died. He worked. She paced. She got pregnant, unexpectedly. “The story was a tribute to Hadley, who was dealing with her first year of marriage, the loneliness it entailed, and her deep desire for motherhood,” Brennen writes. Brennen then cites Gioia Diliberto’s biography, Hadley, that found Hemingway basing the story on an incident in Rapallo in 1923, the little Mediterranean town near Genoa, where the couple spent some time when Hadley was two months pregnant. She saw a kitten hiding under a table, just as in the story. “I want a cat,” she is reported to have said in the biography, or in the story: Brennen doesn’t make a distinction. “I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun I can have a cat.” Ernest actually gave her a small dog in her last month of pregnancy, and they both took to it. “Cat in the Rain” was part of the In Our Time collection published in 1924.
As in “The Quay at Smyrna,” most of the story is in what’s not told, though in this case, between the affected prose and the Hemingway anchor attached to the story, it leaves a lot of room for wild interpretations. The biographical context of the story doesn’t help, except to shed some of the pretentious assumptions a critical reading of the story risks producing. To me, a little too obviously, the protectiveness for the cat is the basic maternal instinct, the more so since Hadley was gestating child and instinct. The opening scene-setting seems superfluous: the war monument, the palms, the Italians who come “from a long way off” to look at the monument, even Italy: they could have been on a hot tin roof for all we care, the story could have still been pulled off the same way but for Hemingway’s affectations and his desire to advertise that he’s ben to an Italian seaside town with a war monument. The insistent rain is necessary to ensure that the cat needs to be sheltered from it, though wind, cold, sleet or afternoon heat might’ve had the same effect on most cats. Why the woman is referred to, twice, as a “girl” is unclear. Maybe that’s how Italians saw Americans. Why she can’t have long hair even more so: in the mid-20s? In Europe? Finally, the cat presented to her by the Italian maid may not be the one she’d seen, though given the incessant rain, it seems a quick check of her fur would reveal whether she’d been outside or not. The ambiguity seems more literary than meaningful, although isn’t it so with child: you never know what you’re going to get until it’s delivered. Or didn’t, anyway, back then, before the era of grotesque-dimensional ultrasounds.
This is too much: “Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the café a waiter stood looking out at the empty square.” This is the sort of paragraph that makes Hemingway disciples swoon. This is the sort of paragraph that does not make me swoon. It just makes it clear how much of a one-trick wonder Hemingway was, and how much he demolished generations of writers who tried to be the next Hemingway. At least Camus had something to say in his minimalism. With Hemingway, the iceberg below the surface is hollow.
La comtesse de Mascaret, hautaine, dédaigneuse de son jaloux mari, qui s’impose pour l’accompagner au bois.
I like this description: “Ils montaient maintenant les Champs-Élysées, vers l’Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. L’immense monument, au bout de la longue avenue, ouvrait dans un ciel rouge son arche colossale. Le soleil semblait descendre sur lui en semant par l’horizon une poussière de feu. Et le fleuve des voitures, éclaboussées de reflets sur les cuivres, sur les argentures et les cristaux des harnais et des lanternes, laissait couler un double courant vers le bois et vers la ville.”
He is a brute. She was forced to marry him by her parents, for his money. She’s never liked him, let alone loved him. “Vous m’avez donc achetee.” She tells him she’ll confess her feelings. Her name is Gabrielle. She is three months out from her last child. Her seventh. Three boys, four girls, the oldest is 10. He wants yet another. She is married 11 years, she’s 30. She, like a Wharton heroine, “ne veux plus être la victime de l’odieux supplice de maternité que vous m’imposez depuis onze ans ! je veux vivre enfin en femme du monde, comme j’en ai le droit, comme toutes les femmes en ont le droit.” Because as soon as she began to be devoted to him, to play the part of the loving wife, “vous êtes devenu jaloux, vous, comme aucun homme ne l’a jamais été, d’une jalousie d’espion, basse, ignoble, dégradante pour vous, insultante pour moi.” Impregnating her was his way of keeping her from other men. She didn’t realize it at first, “puis j’ai deviné. Vous vous en êtes vanté même à votre sœur, qui me l’a dit, car elle m’aime et elle a été révoltée de votre grossièreté de rustre.” [How repulsive: she’s right to rebel.]
And this devastating passage: “Ah ! rappelez-vous nos luttes, les portes brisées, les serrures forcées ! À quelle existence vous m’avez condamnée depuis onze ans, une existence de jument poulinière enfermée dans un haras. Puis, dès que j’étais grosse, vous vous dégoûtiez aussi de moi, vous, et je ne vous voyais plus durant des mois. On m’envoyait à la campagne, dans le château de la famille, au vert, au pré, faire mon petit. Et quand je reparaissais, fraîche et belle, indestructible, toujours séduisante et toujours entourée d’hommages, espérant enfin que j’allais vivre un peu comme une jeune femme riche qui appartient au monde, la jalousie vous reprenait, et vous recommenciez à me poursuivre de l’infâme et haineux désir dont vous souffrez en ce moment, à mon côté. Et ce n’est pas le désir de me posséder – je ne me serais jamais refusée à vous – c’est le désir de me déformer.”
He reasserts himself physically as the carriage takes them to the park, forcibly, telling her he’s the master and the law is on his side. It’s domestic violence, pure and simple: “Vous voyez bien que je suis le maître, dit-il, et le plus fort.”
He agrees to her proposition to go to a church. They turn around. And then she tells him: one of the seven children is not his. It was her “unique vengeance” against him, “contre votre abominable tyrannie de mâle, contre ces travaux forcés de l’engendrement auxquels vous m’avez condamnée. Qui fut mon amant ? Vous ne le saurez jamais ! Vous soupçonnerez tout le monde. Vous ne le découvrirez point. Je me suis donnée à lui sans amour et sans plaisir, uniquement pour vous tromper. Et il m’a rendue mère aussi, lui. Qui est son enfant ? Vous ne le saurez jamais. J’en ai sept, cherchez ! Cela, je comptais vous le dire plus tard, bien plus tard, car on ne s’est vengé d’un homme, en le trompant, que lorsqu’il le sait. Vous m’avez forcée à vous le confesser aujourd’hui, j’ai fini.”
He spares her the beating she expected. Dinner. He examines his children “avec des yeux incertains qui allaient d’une tête à l’autre, troublés d’angoisses.” She swears the truth of what she said. In bed later, knowing he’s coming, she hides a gun. “Elle attendait, énergique et nerveuse, sans peur de lui maintenant, prête à tout et presque triomphante, car elle avait trouvé pour lui un supplice de tous les instants et de toute la vie.” But he doesn’t show. He tells her by letter he’s going on a long trip.
Suddenly, we get part III.
I love it. But it breaks the dramatic flow of the story entirely. It’s a socio-philosophical disquisition between two men. (Men, of course: the irony.) It’s a great exchange, but does it belong in such a raw form?
At the opera, a few years later (actually, six) two men gossip about the couple, seeing her radiant, having seen Mascaret worried, getting old. The men are Bernard Grandin and Salinas. But one of the men, Salins, has a social conscience, pitying woman. Why? “Pourquoi ? Ah ! mon cher, songe donc ! Onze ans de grossesses pour une femme comme ça ! quel enfer ! C’est toute la jeunesse, toute la beauté, toute l’espérance de succès, tout l’idéal poétique de vie brillante, qu’un sacrifice à cette abominable loi de la reproduction qui fait de la femme normale une simple machine à pondre des êtres.” The other guy says it’s “la nature.” But the conscious one persist: “Oui, mais je dis que la nature est notre ennemie, qu’il faut toujours lutter contre la nature, car elle nous ramène sans cesse à l’animal.” It’s a humanist speech, rejecting god and honoring mankind.
Back to the couple, as they return home from the opera (just as in all TV shows: the conversation in the car), but there’s nothing humanistic about Mascaret’s begging of his wife to reveal who the odd child is. He says he’s been going crazy all these years trying to figure it out. “Est-ce que j’aurais accepté, sans cela, l’horreur de vivre à votre côté, et l’horreur, plus grande encore, de sentir, de savoir parmi eux qu’il y en a un, que je ne puis connaître, et qui m’empêche d’aimer les autres.” But isn’t that cruel? How is the fact that he’s not the biological father stopping him from being a father? The limits of enlightened thinking, even by Maupassant.
Even worse: he tells her he didn’t kill her six years before not because it’s morally wrong, because it would orphan the children, but because he would have never found out who his non-biological child is. This is awful. So is this: “J’ai attendu, mais j’ai souffert plus que vous ne sauriez croire, car je n’ose plus les aimer, sauf les deux aînés peut-être ; je n’ose plus les regarder, les appeler, les embrasser, je ne peux plus en prendre un sur mes genoux sans me demander : « N’est-ce pas celui-là ? »”
Then she doubles down with their awfulness, telling him she never lied, she never cheated on him, they’re all his. And he triples down: how is he going to trust her at all, from now on? How can he not continue to doubt? She tells him had she not lied she’d have continued to make babies, but, she says, triumphantly, “Je suis, nous sommes des femmes du monde civilisé, monsieur. Nous ne sommes plus et nous refusons d’être de simples femelles qui repeuplent la terre.” [This is a fantastic story for Alabama legislators]
Then Maupassant gives Mascaret this epiphany, as he finally believes his wife: “Alors, il sentit soudain, il sentit par une sorte d’intuition que cet être-là n’était plus seulement une femme destinée à perpétuer sa race, mais le produit bizarre et mystérieux de tous nos désirs compliqués, amassés en nous par les siècles, détournés de leur but primitif et divin, errant vers une beauté mystique, entrevue et insaisissable. Elles sont ainsi quelques-unes qui fleurissent uniquement pour nos rêves, parées de tout ce que la civilisation a mis de poésie, de luxe idéal, de coquetterie et de charme esthétique autour de la femme, cette statue de chair qui avive, autant que les fièvres sensuelles, d’immatériels appétits.
L’époux demeurait debout devant elle, stupéfait de cette tardive et obscure découverte, touchant confusément la cause de jalousie ancienne, et comprenant mal tout cela.”