“Es gab also nichts mehr zu tun, weder heute noch morgen, noch sonst jemals. All das merkte sie nun deutlich an einer gewissen Desillusionierung, einem Verlöschen ihrer Träume.”

(So there was nothing left to do, today, tomorrow, or ever. She now clearly noticed all of this in a certain disillusionment, a fading of her dreams.)

Ein Leben, p. 103, my translation

I picked up this book in the local bookshop in Hilchenbach, Germany, simply because the edition by Mare Verlag is too gorgeous to pass. The slipcase and linen cover feel luxurious, the paper quality is outstanding and a joy to touch. This edition is a new translation by Cornelia Hasting of Une Vie (L’humble vérité), the first novel by French writer Guy de Maupassant, first published in 1883.

Despite the beautiful edition and the impeccable prose, it is an odd book to read in 2021/22. It is at once a timeless classic and part of its time. The plot could be a miniseries, the kind of prestigious look at suffering-beautiful aristocratic lives that inexplicably wows critics and audiences alike.

De Maupassant succeeds in uncovering the misogynist constraints in which French women found themselves in the 19th century. I’m just not so sure if that’s on purpose. But, and this connects the naturalist from 140 years ago with today’s satire about influencers, he often succeeds in doing this while at the same time reproducing that sexism. Jeanne, the main character in the novel whose life is told “from the awakening of her heart to her death”, is not a feminist heroine. She is a naive romantic, with the emphasis on naive. The portrayal of how much she takes refuge in motherhood as salvation and how much her excessive motherly love contributes to the failure of her son is rather problematic from today’s perspective.

But, and this actually becomes clear quite late in the book, the book and the criticism are directed not so much at gender but rather at class aspects. Jeanne and her life, her loved ones and those around her show the uselessness of the nobility. Their privilege to just live and the nothingness they make of it. That is the crux of the book – and the most exciting part of an interesting, if dated, novel.

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