Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 18, 2020

Heller, Vonnegut, Melville, Twain, Maugham, and Guy de Maupassant

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:05 pm



  1. Had a great early education. Young white Doninican nuns (am still in touch with one (97 years old) come South to teach young, mainly poor, black kids. A dangerous venture. One of my favorite stories from that time was Du Maupassant’s “A Piece of String” which was a story about prejudice and our perceptions being colored by it. Centering around a most unsympathetic character, a ‘Shylock’ really, it tells of the lead personage bending down to pick up something. Something that others, because of the his image, take as being of significance. Can’t remember much more of the story but this character was adjudged guilty based upon the flimsiest (pun intended) evidence: a piece of string.

    Comment by John A — October 18, 2020 @ 6:27 pm

  2. Thank you, Louis. “A Piece of String” is on of de Maupassant’s little masterpieces. He wrote upwards of 280 stories (under 300)! “A Piece of String” is about avarice, jealousy (between competitive trades people), prejudice, and also provincially about the hard headedness and hard heartedness of the 19th (and still?) peasants of Normandy, de Maupassant’s home province (as it was Flaubert’s). The best collection of de Maupassant stories I have found so far (I have 3) is:

    Guy de Maupassant, Selected Short Stories,
    translated and introduced by Roger Colet
    Penguin Books,1971
    (and reprinted many times, my copy being from 1986).

    One advantage of Roger Colet’s edition is that his translations are a straightforward as de Maupassant’s original French prose. While no “modern” version is ‘inaccurate’, the Modern Library edition from 1945 that I have is a bit more prissy, and its titling of the stories sometimes a more plot-spoiling. In the introduction to the Modern Library edition, the editor could not bring himself to say that de Maupassant died, insane, of fatally advanced syphilis. That introduction was otherwise informative, in the usual way of ‘English professors’ writings.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — October 18, 2020 @ 6:51 pm

  3. Actually, I have 4 collections of Guy de Maupassant stories. But, there are many repeats between them as the editors each want to have some of the “gems” in “their” version.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — October 19, 2020 @ 5:47 am

  4. Manuel’s take on these writers is fresh, genuine, and stimulating. But I wish he would have left Maugham out. I know, I know, I’m always the first to insist that a writer’s personal failings shouldn’t enter into our estimate of his art. This works for me with people like Louis-Ferdinand Céline who changed the whole tone and direction of the French novel while developing into a deadly anti-Semitic nihilist. It works as well for me with V.S. Naipaul whose books had a classic power despite their racism around the edges and his Eurocentric and anti-Muslim obsessions. But Maugham, no. I can set aside his spiteful view of women and the fact that he ridiculed homosexuals in his books while leading a gay life himself. I can even pass over his efforts for British Intelligence in Russia in 1917, endeavoring to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war. What I can’t take—and I know I’m being inconsistent, but I was a struggling student at the time— is what he wrote in the London Sunday Times, Dec.25, 1955:

    “I am told that today rather more than 60 per cent of the men who go to university go on a Government grant. This is a new class that has entered upon the scene. It is the white-collar proletariat. They do not go to university to acquire culture but to get a job, and when they have got one, scamp it. They have no manners and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament. Their idea of a celebration is to go to a public house and drink six beers. They are mean, malicious and envious . […]. They are scum.”

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 19, 2020 @ 3:38 pm

  5. Every time I read something by Peter Byrne it is a learning experience. So it is here. So, I can see that Maugham was a rich British classist (a wealthy Tory snob), and I guess that fits in with my instinctive prejudice about the British (my PBS ‘Masterpiece Theater’ Upstairs-Downstairs
    Rolling Stones – who like James Bond are quintessential Tories – stereotype). The reasons I liked Maugham so much were: “The Moon and Sixpence,” “The Razor’s Edge,” a number of his short stories, and his acidity about women which suited my mood after my divorce and during the years of trauma leading up to it. Since then, I have enjoyed aiming that sort of acidity at the many bovine ‘Karens’ I have had to deal with and try avoiding. But, Peter’s corrective is excellent; beyond doubt Guy de Maupassant is superior as regards both art and attitude than Maugham, his English semi-counterpart/imitator. I had not really noticed Maugham ridiculing homosexuals in his novels, but certainly his character Elliot Templeton, in The Razor’s Edge, is both a flaming homosexual and a memorable caricature of a wannabe social celebrity (think of a culturally sophisticated Kardashian). Clifton Webb, who played Elliot Templeton in the 1946 Hollywood movie of The Razor’s Edge (an excellent film, the best on that novel), did a superb job of bringing that caricature to life. I certainly don’t abide any prejudice or abuse of homosexuals or anybody because of their sexual orientation (excepting child abuse and other forms of cruelty), but I have to admit that some of Maugham’s characterizations of the Elliot Templetons of the world amuse me because I was a bit pissed off in my teens and 20s (during the 1960s) because I was too often importuned by gay men who lusted for my thick lips (I was once seen as the prize in a “Boys In The Band” type of scene), and I had to drop out of some otherwise enjoyable social circles (like for classical music concerts) to get away from the hassles. Made me understand the problem faced by women. At 14 at a summer camp, I had to push a Catholic Brother – who flopped me onto a bed – off once; since I was fit and strong and he was fat and weak, he didn’t bother me again. So I developed kind of a hard attitude to men who felt sweet on boys and young men; and I’ve tried then and now to keep my perspective on the matter so as not to drift into homophobia. I guess that attitude is: kick the annoying mashers in the balls and don’t make unfair hasty generalizations about everybody else. This does not excuse Maugham, and it certainly is no justification for me to take on any anti-gay prejudice (which I’ll never do). The other thing I like about Maugham is his craftsmanship, he did a very good job in constructing stories, long or short, and they are good examples to learn from. The conflict between ‘art’ and ‘personal feelings’ that Peter describes here is one I have with Richard Wagner. I detested his antisemitism, but couldn’t help being drawn to his non-bombastic music, like the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, and his Seigfried Idyll. So, I very very rarely listened to Wagner music as a result. Another luminary bastard was Isaac Newton: his mechanics (physics) was superb, fundamental, elegant; but his personality and ethics were putrid. So, I used the science (my profession) and forgot about the man. I guess that’s the general template for filtration: take the worthy, and don’t fall in with the despicable.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — October 19, 2020 @ 11:17 pm

  6. Also: Peter Byrne is the best.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — October 19, 2020 @ 11:23 pm

  7. Too kind, Manuel. The paragraph is from Maugham’s review of Kingsley Amis’ 1954 novel, ‘Lucky Jim’. Like John Osborne’s play, ‘Look Back in Anger,’ 1956, (film in 1958), it became a landmark in British cultural history. The breakthrough of the 1945 shift to the left had finally shown itself in the arts. The pre-war elite’s domination had been challenged. Provincial accents of the state-educated were no longer held in contempt. Petrified institutions were under fire. It was a great time to be in London where I was knocking about without the price of the five beers Maugham mentions. Both Amis and Osborne were from humble backgrounds. Money and success worked their magic and the fairytale ended in a grotesque horror story. Amis lurched to the far right and crusaded for the war in Vietnam. Osborne set up as a horse-fancying country squire with all the gear, someone that Maugham would have found quite acceptable to drink malt whiskey with and talk about fox hunting. So it goes, as Vonnegut liked to say.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 21, 2020 @ 6:43 pm

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