Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mont Oriol, Part II: the perils of mésalliance

Maupassant kind of redeemed himself, maybe. I ended up really getting into the novel, which given the vaguely nauseating scanned computer-screen format is saying something. I found, though, that if I switched between the novel and Facebook on occasion, I started blurring the two somewhat, imagining that among my friend-list were decadent aristocrats, lovesick peasant girls, and so forth. Then I went and interspersed the novel my husband just got me, The Middlesteins, and... here it was less confusion than something else. It's weird to go from a story about a Jewish family, one with really impeccable character development, to one where there's The Jew, whose function is basically to only care about money. In any case, make that two more novels read in 2012, although I long ago gave up on the idea of counting this.

Reading Mont Oriol for the Jewish angle (which I effectively had to stop doing to get any enjoyment out of it, but I noted the relevant pages enough to do what must be done), I ended up finding the novel not so much virulently anti-Semitic as 1886-ish-ly un-PC. As in, if one was going to have a money-hungry, Parisian yet vaguely foreign financier, one would, by convention, make this character a Jew. One doesn't get the sense that Maupassant was preoccupied with the so-called Jewish Question, only that he wanted to represent this type for various other plot points to fall into place. It needs to be that Christiane can have an affair without cheating on a husband we sympathize with. And if we don't sympathize with William Andermatt, it's less because he's so preoccupied with business, and more because he's the husband in an arranged, loveless marriage.

The cruelty of the portrait, then, comes primarily from the sense one gets that Maupassant was able to imagine the inner life of all the main characters - male and female, rich and poor, young and old, rural and urban - with the exception of this Andermatt. Andermatt doesn't come across as shadier than the other characters - think decadent aristocrats crossed with 1980s-movie cads - just as less present. The Other, I believe, is the technical term for this. He's just this utter non-entity. What would he think if he realized his wife was having an affair? It's alluded to that he must not find out, but it's also kind of unclear that he would even care, presuming it didn't impact his finances.

What's interesting for my dissertation, at any rate, is that Christiane gives birth to a daughter whose biological father is a new-money but Catholic playboy, but whose presumed, legal father is Andermatt, Christiane's husband. On the one hand, we're meant to believe that a Christian(e) and a Jew are of practically different species and thus cannot conceive, or perhaps that Jewish men are infertile, although the latter seems dubious given the popular stereotypes about Jews being too fertile. On the other, Jewish difference is not presented as visible, such that it would be obvious upon seeing a child if it was or was not half-Jewish. For all the ambient racial anti-Semitism in 1886 France, a Jew was still white.

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