"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 26, 2012

"A Country Excursion" by Guy de Maupassant (Book Reviews)

A Country Excursion by Guy de Maupassant (1881) tells how a Parisien shop-owner takes his family consisting of his aged mother, his wife, their daughter and the shop assistant who is engaged to his daughter, for a day of relaxation to the countryside. They stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant along the Seine, where they meet two young men who take an interest in the mother and the daughter and scheme to get the two women off alone with them. They offer to row them along the river in their skiffs, while they divert the shop keeper and his shop assistant, who are anyway sleepy after a copious lunch, by lending them fishing poles.

The young man (Henri) who is with the daughter (Henriette) rows to a secluded spot on an island in the river which he refers to as his "private office". Henriette wants to hear a nightingale, and sits listening in rapt romantic attention. She allows Henri to touch her a bit, but when he gets serious and kisses her, she refuses and immediately returns to the skiff. At the same time, she hears her mother laughing - apparently she is enjoying herself. Both ladies are rowed back and the company parts to return to Paris.

Two months later, Henri happens to visit the shop in Paris. He learns with some regret that Henriette has already married the assistant shopkeeper. The wife asks how his friend is - she would like to meet him again as they had such a good time. Later again, Henri visits his "private office" on the small island in the river and is surprised to find Henriette and her husband there. Henriette looks rather sad and tells him the spot is a special memory for her. Then her rather brutish husband wakes up and they leave.

There the story ends. What is left unsaid is, that both woman are trapped in loveless marriages. The mother (who is only thirty-six) has accepted this state of affairs but takes her pleasure when chance offers it - she obviously allowed her young man to make love to her on the island. At that time the daughter was not yet married and still harbored romantic notions. But one year into her marriage with a man she did not choose herself, she has already lost her ideals and thinks with sadness about a missed chance - she might have been happier married to Henri. A beautiful, whimsical story.

Tolstoy, in his essay The Works of Guy de Maupassant, has trashed the French author in general for lacking "a correct, that is, a moral relation to the subject" and he has singled out A Country Excursion for special bile:
"Particularly striking was that lack of distinction between bad and good in the story Une Partie de Campagne, in which, in the form of a most clever and amusing jest, he gives a detailed account of how two gentlemen with bared arms, rowing in a boat, simultaneously tempted, the one an old mother, and the other a young maiden, her daughter. The author's sympathy is during the whole time obviously to such an extent on the side of the two rascals, that he ignores, or, rather, does not see what the tempted mother, the girl, the father, and the young man, evidently the fiance of the daughter, must have suffered, and so we not only get a shocking description of a disgusting crime in the form of an amusing jest, but the event itself is described falsely, because only the most insignificant side of the subject, the pleasure afforded to the rascals, is described."
Supermoralist Tolstoy (who in later life became a religious nutcase) has completely misunderstood De Maupassant, or he willfully falsifies the story! In the first place, the author's sympathy is wholly with the women and in the second place, no "crime" takes place: the mother (young, and not old as Tolstoy wants) enjoys her fling with a muscled younger man and the daughter later regrets a missed chance... Of course, adultery was considered very scandalous in the 19th c., but De Maupassant is no moralist and he describes life as it was, not how it should be. He does not kill off his protagonists for adultery, as Tolstoy did with Anna Karenina.

The story was filmed in 1936 by famous director Jean Renoir as a 40 minute featurette called Partie de campagne (English title: "A Day in the Country"). It is one of the best lyrical movies ever made, where the countryside is presented as both idyllic and sensuous, and which is full of regrets and happy memories of a beautiful picnic day. Interestingly, Guy de Maupassant had been a friend of Renoir's father, the renowned painter Auguste Renoir.

Maupassantiana (French)
De Maupassant at IntraTextWorks (French)