Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Sur l'eau" by Guy de Maupassant

Paul Signac at the helm of the Olympia
Theo Van Rysselberghe ( 1896 )

de Maupassant's book "Sur l'eau" (afloat) is presented as a journal of the author's eight day cruise along the French Cote d' Azur. Each chapter is dated, more than a few even mention a location; Nice, Cannes, Agay, Saint-Raphaël, Saint-Tropez...

Most of the pages however are covered by de Maupassant's musings on war, society, women, humanity's ordeal and quite a few outburst of his Spleen. The pages relating to the actual sailing are very sparesely distributed through the book.

Belying its structure, the book is not a journal of a sailing expedition. The volume is actually a collection of earlier writings, articles, essais and monographs, brought together and structurally organised over a narrative framework of a sailing trip. Each separate piece pops up as an impression, a flow of thought that is loosely triggered by an event of the trip.

Despite the beautiful writing ( was Maupassant not Flaubert's protégé ? ) and an amusing chauvinistic resume of French history in a few "bons mots", Maupassant's ramblings will hardly capture the imagination today. Wrestling with his narcisistic Spleen and "dégout" of the Modern world, his opinions, however true, have acquired a naive gloss. Maupassant lived after all a 150 years ago. His disgust for instance with the French politics that lead to the war of 1870 bleakens with what we know has yet to come in the next century.

Still the few pages that do relate about the sailing are exquisite. They conjure a charming account of a vanished unspoiled world. There is no mass tourism yet; no crowded marinas; the Sailboats still have no auxilliairy engines and anchor in the harbours; the weather forecast is still predicted by the experienced old Sailor; the Yachts and sailing vessels catch the early land breeze to leave port and out at sea depend on the incoming sea breeze to bring them back to port.

These few scattered sailing pieces are the true attraction of this book, but are unfortunately too few to recommend the volume as a whole. 

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