Thursday, July 24, 2008

When you know.

By Charlie Kondek

Often, as I encounter writers whose work is new to me, there's a moment when I know, based on the prose, that this is a writer I want to spend more time with. Sometimes I'm fooled by a novel's opening paragraphs into investing more of my attention into something that, ultimately, does not please me. But more often, as I have sometimes noted in this very blog, there are little "Aha!" moments of prose where I feel I realize, significantly, "This is the beginning of a relationship, a relationship between me and your words."

Such as been the case, for me, with Guy de Maupassant, whom I am discovering through a tattered Bantam Classic paperback of selected stories, Pierre and Jean (and others). I folded the corner on one passage that arrested my attention with the express intention of writing it down in this blog. This is from the delightful short story "Mouche."

Then one Saturday evening N'a-qu'un-Oeil brought us a thin, lively, vivacious little creature. She was always joking, and she had the comical nature that takes the place of wit in those who grow up in the streets of Paris. She was sweet, not pretty, a sketch of a woman in which there was a little of everything, one of those silhouettes that an artist draws on the tablecloth after dinner, between a glass of brandy and a cigarette. Nature sometimes makes them like that.

That last part, that "nature sometimes makes them like that" is, for me, like the little extra howl that Marvin Gaye puts into a lyric, that something that just sinks it. Another, from "Marroca."

Her mind was as simple as two and two make four, and her loud laugh took the place of thought.

Instinctively proud of her beauty, she had a strong aversion to covering her body with even the thinnest veil; she walked, ran and frolicked in my house with bold, unconscious immodesty. When she was finally sated with love, exhausted from frenzied cries and movement, she would sleep placidly in my arms while the overpowering heat covered her sun-darkened skin with little beads of sweat and brought forth, from under her upraised arms and from all her secret recesses, that musky smell which pleases the male.

"That musky smell which pleases the male," that's a detail, a something special, a something specific, that weights an already finely-balanced sword of a sentence with a penetrating point. It's written with inside knowledge but also authority, and it's pretty, and truthful.

If I have any complaints about de Maupassant at all, at this point, it's that the stories I've encountered so far are mostly fixated on the frenzied sex lives of the 19th-century French sophistes which, in repetition, comes to sound like a literary excuse for telling a dirty joke, a dressed up version of "did you hear the one about the traveling salesman who spent the night in the farmer's barn?" But that's a minor quibble, and the point is, I know. I know I'll be spending more time with Guy de Maupassant and his vivacious creations.

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