I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss. This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.
Olivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society. He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring. At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait. As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.
Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship. Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her. When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter. But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.
Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality. Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.
There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts. Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count. Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships. In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:
Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin. For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.
The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter. Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter. He uses the seasons as a backdrop which mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter. For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom. The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.
At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair. But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé. Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter. At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne. At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.
Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society. Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her. And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age. Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room. Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance. His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized. When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years. Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering. The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.