Guy De Maupassant (Giui de Mopassan) by Isaak Babel, 1932

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GUY DE MAUPASSANT (Giui de Mopassan)
by Isaak Babel, 1932

After the mid-1920s Isaak Babel published relatively little, but several of his later pieces, including "Guy de Maupassant" ("Giui de Mopassan"), are regarded as among his finest. Although he dated the manuscript of the story "1920-1922," it first appeared in 1932, and critics have discussed it more often than his other late works. If for no other reason, the story would be notable for a pair of pithy remarks about style, which seem to summarize Babel's view on the subject. But it is also one of the stories in which Babel is concerned most pointedly with the role of the artist; the encounter between art and reality is presented with a vibrancy, humor, and, ultimately, pathos that make the work memorable.

Babel takes on the role of first-person narrator and protagonist; as in the story, he was in fact in St. Petersburg in 1916, a would-be writer with virtually no income. He describes being taken in by Alexei Kazantsev, a teacher of literature who supplements his meager income by translating the Spanish novels of Blasco Ibáñez. Through Kazantsev he gets a job: the lawyer Benderskii owns a publishing house, and his wife, Raisa, has been attempting to translate the works of Maupassant for a projected Russian edition. Her efforts have not been successful, and so the young Babel is hired to help out. He works closely with Raisa and one evening, when the two get drunk while working on a translation, apparently seduces her. Babel returns home and reads a biography of Maupassant, in which he learns of the French writer's struggle to write while coping with the ravages of congenital syphilis. After noting Maupassant's descent into madness and his death at the age of 42, the narrator concludes by describing how the presentiment of some truth touched him.

As always, Babel has a wonderful eye for detail, in particular for the sensual. He sees in Raisa one of those women who have transformed their husband's money "into a pink layer of fat on the belly, the back of the neck, and the well-rounded shoulders." The colors pink and red surround her; she lives in a house with pink columns and a red carpet, and she has pink eyes and reddish eyelashes. The narrator seems constantly aware of her flesh, which he describes in terms of barely adequate restraints; thus, he refers to her efforts to control the swaying of her hips and to her legs swathed in stockings, her constrained breasts, her half-opened lips. There is, though, no small measure of self-irony in the way that Babel's narrator, who is clearly revealing his own sexual longings, describes women. Raisa's maid, with her gray eyes and haughty manner, would seem to be a quite different type, but the narrator sees lewdness in her eyes and imagines what she must be like as a lover. Later, after he receives an advance from the Benderskiis, he throws a party for those in his apartment. He gets drunk and dreams that he is passionately kissing Katia, a 40-year-old laundress who lives below. The next morning he goes down to get a good look at this person whom he has barely seen, and he finds a worn-out, gray-haired woman.

The narrator's fascination with Raisa is not purely sexual. She and her husband represent the wealthy, assimilated Jews who have succeeded among the Russians; it is a world as alien to Babel's own Jewishness as that of the impoverished Polish Jews whom he describes in his Red Cavalry (Konarmiig stories. The Benderskiis have all the trappings of wealth, and art serves as just another decoration—it is no coincidence that the husband is dabbling in publishing, that icons and paintings decorate their home, and that Raisa says that Maupassant is the one passion of her life.

But pretense is not culture. Their spiritual poverty is symbolized by the flatness of Raisa's translations. And it is in this regard that Babel makes his pronouncements about style. He says that a sentence at its birth is simultaneously good and bad; the secret is in a scarcely perceptible twist, and the lever that performs this trick must be turned once, not twice. Later, when Raisa asks him how he managed to transform the stories, he uses a military metaphor, talking of armies of words and of the various weapons at their disposal. No iron, he says, can so pierce the heart as a period placed at the right moment. Art, in other words, involves intuition and talent, two qualities lacking in the Benderskiis' bourgeois household.

The narrator's wildly comic seduction of Raisa comprises the brief story's major scene. He comes to see her with a translation of Maupassant's "L'Aveu" just as she is having a boisterous dinner party with her sisters and their husbands. Everyone else leaves for the theater, but Raisa, somewhat the worse for drink, wants to get to work on Maupassant. She opens a bottle of 1883 Muscatel, and the unthinking narrator quickly downs three glasses of the precious liquid. They go over the story, which tells how the coachman Polyte constantly propositions Céleste, who twice a week takes his carriage to town. (In this outline Babel shifts the focus of Maupassant's story and adds a few details, such as the "pink lips" of Polyte's horse, to make the imagery parallel his own.) Céleste routinely rebuffs the driver, but one day, after two years, she gives in. At this point in the retelling, the narrator turns to Raisa, using the same words as Polyte. She at first fends him off, and then, half-drunk, he leaps out of his chair, knocking all 29 volumes of the Maupassant collection off the shelf. Art and reality merge.

Or do they? The story implies that such a merger is always more apparent than real. Through his love of Spain, Kazantsev knows every physical feature of that country, even though he had never been there. Yet his wretched surroundings serve as a reminder of his ordinary life. The narrator's passionate dreams of Katia are deflated by reality, and his brief fling with Raisa is dispelled by his reading of Maupassant's biography. The actual point of the story appears here. At the beginning of the story Babel talks of turning down a good office job that would have exempted him from military service; instead, he chooses to dedicate himself to his writing. True art, he seems to be saying, requires the kind of risk that he himself has taken as well as the courage that Maupassant showed in battling his illness. Art may indeed influence others—it inspires Kazantsev and for that matter Raisa—but talent is a calling and a challenge; it remains apart from and in defiance of ordinary life.

—Barry P. Scherr