Keen as I am on electronic reading, I do have faint reservations about this latest iteration. I downloaded the Eucalyptus app to my iPhone, then downloaded a couple of short Conrad novels that a friend had recommended. From there I realized that I could probably find work by his contemporary Guy de Maupassant, so I downloaded Strong as Death. (Free, all free!) And much as the Conrad titles appealed to me, I couldn’t pass on this. After all, Conrad wasn’t writing about a Parisian society portraitist who falls in love with the daughter of his mistress.
The reservation is this: even though I’ve read happily on my phone from the Kindle app, it feels peculiar to have a novel stored only on my phone. It’s just too… wee. Not the type: the gizmo in my hand. At least when you read on the Kindle app, you know that there’s a bigger device somewhere, a more book-sized object. And even though Eucalyptus has a nifty “page-turning” effect (as opposed to the Kindle app’s page-slide) I had a little trouble feeling that, to use academic-speak, the delivery method was transparent to the narrative. It was unsettling. Especially reading in bed. On my phone.
All that being said, Strong as Death is great fun. Olivier Bertin is the society painter, the Comtesse de Guilleroy is his mistress. They have been together for years, and their relationship is still strong, though nostalgia plays a part in it. Bertin is beginning to feel his age and to feel the loneliness of the elderly bachelor. Then young Annette de Guilleroy is brought to Paris from the country where she has largely been raised. It is time for her to marry and a match has been cooked up with a handsome boneheaded Marquis. Annette is virtually the double of her mother, and Olivier falls hard for her.
There is some subtlety here: Maupassant understands the mixed emotions of his protagonists. Not much subtlety in the writing, though: for instance, near the end we get a scene where Bertin walks through Paris on a carpet of, gosh, yes, fallen leaves. And the long set-piece at the opera includes a performance of, naturally, Faust. However, I’d back Maupassant against anybody — Balzac, Edith Wharton, even Henry James — on the minutiae of social behavior. How does he signal that we’re supposed to hate the Marquis de Farandal? By telling us that when Farandal enters a ballroom he screws his monocle into his eye the better to see the crowd, then with an imperceptible motion of the muscles of his cheek, lets it drop. I’ve always wanted to see someone do that!