Tag: suicide

Maupassant, “Sur l’eau” (1876)

Monet, de la serie de "La Seine a Giverny."  maupassant

Monet, de la serie de “La Seine a Giverny.”

Part of Maupassant’s fixation on canotage, the story was first titled “En canot,” and is the first of two by that title (“Sur l’eau”): he wrote another one in the form of a diary in 1888. A solitary canotier is sliding on the Seine, stops to have a pipe, and feels something shivery graze the boat just as he’d been reflecting superbly about rivers: “c’est en effet le plus sinistre des cimetières, celui où l’on n’a point de tombeau. La terre est bornée pour le pêcheur, et dans l’ombre, quand il n’y a pas de lune, la rivière est illimitée. Un marin n’éprouve point la même chose pour la mer. Elle est souvent dure et méchante c’est vrai, mais elle crie, elle hurle, elle est loyale, la grande mer ; tandis que la rivière est silencieuse et perfide. Elle ne gronde pas, elle coule toujours sans bruit, et ce mouvement éternel de l’eau qui coule est plus effrayant pour moi que les hautes vagues de l’Océan.”

His boat is stuck. The anchor won’t give. The next several pages paint the portrait of a frightened man in the thick mists of the Seine, immobilized as much physically as mentally by the imagined frights of his situation: “J’essayai de me raisonner. Je me sentais la volonté bien ferme de ne point avoir peur, mais il y avait en moi autre chose que ma volonté, et cette autre chose avait peur. Je me demandai ce que je pouvais redouter ; mon moi brave railla mon moi poltron, et jamais aussi bien que ce jour-là je ne saisis l’opposition des deux êtres qui sont en nous, l’un voulant, l’autre résistant, et chacun l’emportant tour à tour.” Finally, another canotier passes by and helps him unhook the anchor, or at least loosen it enough to bring the weight that had been clamping it down to the surface. It’s the cadaver of an old woman “avec une grosse pierre au cou.” So the misty uncertainty outlasts the story: suicide? Murder? We won’t know.

Le Bulletin français, 10 mars 1876

Maupassant, “Le champ d’oliviers” (1890)

maupassant champ d'oliviers

L’abbé Vilbois, curé de Garandou, près de Toulon, “…fait pour les aventures plus que pour dire la messe,” “l’homme le mieux musclé du pays,” “il renonça à des projets de carrière quelconque pour se contenter de vivre en homme riche.” He’d been in love with a woman who cheated on him, but was pregnant. And so, “un descendant de lui était là, dans cette chair souillée, dans ce corps vil, dans cette créature immonde, un enfant de lui.” But she tells him, as he gets ready to kill her, that the baby is not his. He’s convinced that it isn’t, and let’s her go. He despairs. “La religion qui lui était apparue autrefois comme un refuge contre la vie inconnue, lui apparaissait maintenant comme un refuge contre la vie trompeuse et torturante.” He becomes a priest in a small coastal town. “Il fut un prêtre à vues étroites, mais bon, une sorte de guide religieux à tempérament de soldat, un guide de l’Église qui conduisait par force dans le droit chemin l’humanité errante, aveugle, perdue en cette forêt de la vie où tous nos instincts, nos goûts, nos désirs, sont des sentiers qui égarent. Mais beaucoup de l’homme d’autrefois restait toujours vivant en lui. Il ne cessa pas d’aimer les exercices violents, les nobles sports, les armes, et il détestait les femmes, toutes, avec une peur d’enfant devant un mystérieux danger.”

His always-suspicious and paranoid servant Marguerite tells him someone was over to see him. Of course it’s his son, bearing an image of himself when he was younger, when he was with his mistress, and when he looked exactly as his son does now. “C’était pour sauver sa vie, menacée par l’homme outragé, que la femme, la trompeuse et perfide femelle lui avait jeté ce mensonge. Et le mensonge avait réussi. Et un fils de lui était né, avait grandi, était devenu ce sordide coureur de routes, qui sentait le vice comme un bouc sent la bete.” The boy passed for his mother’s other lover’s son until he was 15, when the resemblance to the priest became too obvious. The man, a senator, rejected him. Now, he’s a vagabond, has “la figure de crapule.”

“Entre cet homme et lui, entre son fils et lui, il commençait à sentir à présent ce cloaque des saletés morales qui sont, pour certaines âmes, de mortels poisons.” What frightens the priest is his son as mirror: he is “ surpris et désolé de tout ce qu’il découvrait de bas sur cette figure qui lui ressemblait tant.” The boy tells his life story, how his mother kicked him out, how he stumbled into a life of crime out kept a prank tha5 resulted in multiple drownings. On her deathbed, his mother tells him who his father was. She dies. He takes his revenge on her lover, torturing him, marking him with a fire iron as if he were a convict, robb8ng him of 12,000 francs. He calls it aveng8ng his biological father. But the priest is disgusted with it all and banishes his son, granting him a small pension as long as he doesn’t leave his assigned place of exile. Of course the son, Philippe-Auguste, refuses. They brawl.

The servant finds them, panics, brings a posse from town: the priest’s throat is cut. The other is out cold, drunk. Everyone assumes he killed the priest. Maupassant creates more ambiguity: “ l’idée ne serait venue à personne que l’abbé Vilbois, peutêtre, avait pu se donner la mort.”

A little simplistic, a facile ending, not entirely satisfying: why would the priest kill himself? Because he sees his own brutality in his son? Why would his son kill his only means of survival? There’s more contrivance than psychology.

Le Figaro du 19 au 23 février 1890, puis dans le recueil L’Inutile Beauté.

Hemingway, “Indian Camp” (1924)

Hemingway’s passport photo, a year before the publication of ‘Indian Camp.’ (Wikimedia Commons)

In “The Hartleys” and “River” tradition of shocking endings, the dead one in this case not being a child, but the father of a child being born: a very small difference, as the man’s suicide, so willfully orphaning the child, is a form of murder.

Nick and his father board a boat that an Indian rows to an Indian camp, with Nick’s Uncle George on board as well. A woman is in a difficult labor. Nick’s father will perform a cesarean. On the way to camp, Nick’s father has his arm around the boy. Nick admires his father, deifies him, though his father will shatter his ability to withstand so much admiration when the gore of the operation overtakes the scene. The father of the baby is in a bunk above the scene, turning to face the wall. The woman has been screaming. His quiet is telling. The doctor celebrates the birth:

As they row out, Nick asks his daddy if dying is hard. “”No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” And that final, searingly beautiful image in spite and still: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” The arm stretched around him at the beginning of the story.

The Indian’s terror may have been Hemingway’s: his wife Hadley went into labor with their first child while he was away. He was terrorized at the thought of anything going wrong and of getting there too late. He transferred the fear, and took it beyond its human limits: a literary leap that serves other purposes in the story but that still seems, in and of itself, a touch gratuitous. But then, in light of Hemingway’s suicide, was it not merely premature projection? “He couldn’t stand things, I guess.” The woman meanwhile has no name, no face, no presence but those screams.