Afloat

Julian Barnes writes:

Afloat, one of two less-known Maupassant works recently reissued with new translations, is one of the most personally revealing of his texts. It purports to be a simple, guileless account of a nine-day cruise along the Riviera coast between Saint-Tropez and Monaco. While the two-man crew of the Bel-Ami dealt with the rigging and the cooking, Maupassant steered and ‘every day … jotted down things I’d seen and thought. In fact what I saw was water, sun, cloud and rocks and that’s all. I had only simple thoughts, the kind you have when you’re being carried drowsily along on the cradle of the waves.’ This is true to some extent; and it’s easy to read the book innocently, trusting the narrator, believing his account of things, and letting yourself be carried along as by an unthreatening breeze. Maupassant is often called ‘a natural storyteller’: that’s to say, a professional, practised, unnatural storyteller. Such is invariably the case, with both the paid and the unpaid variety (think of the best anecdotalists you know in life: their effect of spontaneity is always based on adjustable tropes, prepared impromptus and trusty set-pieces). Here, you are the fourth person aboard the Bel-Ami, merely required to pay attention as the skipper points out the characteristics of wind and wave, the beauties of the shoreline and the secret history of islands and reefs.

(LRB 5 November 2009)

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