This is the last novel Maupassant published before his death of syphilis in 1893, at the age of 40. New York Review Books has given us a gorgeous little volume with a period photo of a Rodin clay maquette. Color scheme: pink, maroon, beige. Oh, say it then: flesh tones.
I’m probably reading into it, but there did seem to be a jaded, valedictory tone to Alien Hearts. (Curious translation of the French, Notre Coeur, which I think could be taken as appropriately irony-drenched.) All in all, I read this as a critique of that popular French theme, the One Great Love. Maupassant explored this himself and I read it most recently in Strong as Death. But comparison to Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais is more instructive. Basically, an unregenerate flirt (in the Maupassant tale, Michèle de Burne) captivates a vulnerable man (the dilettante André Mariolle), but his love is too much for her. In the Balzac book, the heartless woman, married and respectable, is terrified by what she’s started and flees to a convent. It (and the 2007 movie , with Guillaume Depardieu limping around in suitably haggard fashion) focuses on the destruction unleashed by the Grand Passion, which Balzac doesn’t question as a legitimate experience.
In Alien Hearts, though, Maupassant turns his attention to the egotism and inevitable frustration at the core of such a passion. Mariolle sizes up Madame de Burne (a widow, and thus theoretically available) as a coquette who thrives on attracting men without ever returning their affections. He takes to writing love letters to her every night: “Blowing thus on the embers in his heart, he ignited them, for truly passionate love letters are often more dangerous for the writer than for their recipient.” She is won over, but Maupassant makes it plain that her emotional and sexual temperature is much cooler than Mariolle’s: “Wasn’t love itself a kind of legend of the soul in which some people believed instinctively, and in which others, simply by dwelling on it, ultimately managed to believe as well?” Finally, lest the reader miss the point, Maupassant has Mariolle set up a love nest for his mistress and in the hours just before she arrives for their first assignation, he paces around in anticipation “where he awaited the greatest happiness he had ever hoped for, he savored, alone with his dream,… the truest pleasure in love he was ever to know.”
Well, the writing’s on the wall. Eventually the two split up, Mariolle flees to the country and finds himself another woman who provides him with the worship and the sexual response he craves. Then Mme de Burne comes back to him, confidently fetching him from his country cottage. As the novel ends, Mariolle is about to leave for Paris to rejoin his mistress with his…. secondary mistress in tow. This one, unnerved, asks him, “‘Truly, you’ll love me … like here?’ He answered confidently, ‘I’ll love you like here.'”
Okay, then, I guess. We don’t get to see how it works out and I for one was grateful. But I admired Maupassant’s steeliness in letting Mariolle be a total jerk and not commenting on it. And couldn’t the French title, Notre Coeur, be an allusion to this masculine heart that is now shared by two women?
Another entry in the NYRB Reading Week co-hosted by Mrs. B of The Literary Stew and Honey of Coffeespoons. (Slight cheat: you’ll notice that the date is March 2010. But I thought I’d tuck it in anyway!)