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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

A Woman's Life by Guy de Maupassant

A photograph of French author Guy de Maupassant.

Book Review
A Woman's Life
by Guy de Maupassant
Penguin Classics
p. 1883

  To read classic literature is to remind oneself, constantly, that human capacity for self inflicted misery is infinite. While the "happy ending" is not unknown in the realm of the 19th century fiction, it does seem like a disproptionate number of late 19th century Novels deal with misery and failure.  Here, we have another example: Guy de Maupassant's, A Woman's Life, about a convent educated French noblewoman who marries poorly, raises a terrible, terrible son and ends up miserable and alone.

  I believe this is the third de Maupassant novel I've read (Pierre and Jean and Bel Ami are the other two.)  However both of those books were read on my Kindle so is Penguin Classics edition was the first time I'd read a biography of Guy de Maupassant.  Turns out his Mom was chummy with Flaubert, and it is now clear why his work reminds me so much of Flaubert.  De Maupassant was tremendously prolific, though mostly in the realm of the short-story.  His most well known novels- the three mentioned here- share common traits of deep pessimism about human nature coupled with a constant attention to the details of prose fiction...much like Flaubert.

 All three of the included Maupassant novels are short.  You could read A Woman's Life, Bel Ami and Pierre and Jean in an afternoon.  I believe A Woman's Life is the longest of the three and it still checks in at 199 pages. The combination of a well defined prose style with a deeply pessimistic outlook about human existence is a combination that would find great favor with the modernists, so it's no surprise that Maupassant has maintained his status as a classic author.

  His small details of human misery stick with you.  In the last few months I've often found myself contemplating scenes from Bel Ami, and I don't doubt that the same will be true of A Woman's Life.  It's amazing the sheer variety of ways that human beings can make themselves unhappy, but the lesson of A Woman's Life is that if you are convent educated, do not marry literally the first guy you meet after you get out of the convent.

  It is easy to recommend the novels of Maupassant because they are so easy to read, so brief and so universal in their themes of human relationships unraveled.

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