Pierre u Jean

translated into Maltese

by Joe Pulè

published by Faraxa

My experience of reading Joe Pulè’s translation of Guy de Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean may be best described as one of uncomfortable pleasure.

Pulè’s work evokes both familiarity and novelty. He has already delved in the human dynamics set in nineteenth-century France, and brought them to life in our own language vividly and in a very engaging manner, as in the case of Alphonse Daudet’s Letters from my Windmill. However, Pierre et Jean is an interesting choice for a number of reasons.

It is arguably Maupassant’s most popular piece of writing, selling over 100,000 copies in the first year of its publication in 1888. This is true because it is a classic expression of the naturalist movement in French literature. It is also superbly written, and contributed to the establishment of his reputation even during the author’s lifetime. Nevertheless, as is also the case with Pulè’s text, its literary beauty, conveyed through clarity and apparent simplicity, is due to the complexity and overlayering of the human drama and the relations it explores.

Pulè’s rendering of Pierre et Jean as a psychologically complex novel maintains the nuanced portrait of its characters. Pierre is the older brother whose sensitive and introspective nature makes him struggle to cope with his doubts about his family and his own identity. Jean is more practical and outgoing. He is less troubled by the lights and shadows of their travails. The two brothers represent opposing sides of human nature, and their conflict propels the story forward with its emotional power.

Therefore, Pierre et Jean also allows for a powerful exploration of the themes of family, inheritance, and illegitimacy. It possesses resounding relevance to today’s society, one so focused on matters of accumulating wealth and bestowing legacies. Ironically, we are told we never own anything, but are at the same time encouraged to become guardians of precious belongings for future generations.

The novel tells the story of the two brothers, Pierre and Jean, who are both unsettled by the knowledge that their mother has been bequeathed a large inheritance by a family friend. This event lets loose a series of doubts and revelations in Pierre, who begins to question his own paternity and the legitimacy of his brother. Ultimately, the unravelling of his own brotherly relation to his younger sibling is exposed.

The description of the process is gripping, both in the original French as well as in the Maltese translation. Maupassant and Pulè’s rendering are very sympathetic to the difficult situation that unfolds. The trauma, especially for the mother and the elder son, is sensitively handled.

Allows for a powerful exploration of the themes of family, inheritance and illegitimacy

Pulè’s characterisation through his use of the Maltese language is up close and personal. The translator has the ability to transport Maupassant’s characters into our linguistic dimension through expressive direct speech and engaging dialogue, as well as sharp, acute and concise descriptions that are deft and precise.

The French author Guy de Maupassant. Photos: Wikimedia CommonsThe French author Guy de Maupassant. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

By doing so, we become very familiar with the characters that form the main axis of this family, psychological drama. Therefore we get close to the mother, Mme Roland, and her fears and unspoken thoughts. We also delve deep into the growing and engulfing suspicions of Pierre, both when harboured within his unrequited spirit, as well as when they manifest themselves in words and behaviour.

The human element is fleshed out and further captured by the strong sense of atmosphere evoked by Maupassant. The novel is set in the seaside town of Étretat. Maupassant captures the beauty of the Normandy coast in his descriptions of the sea, the cliffs, the fishing villages, the excursions out on the water, and the range of secondary characters the reader comes across.

Étretat attracted many artistic pilgrims who, as decribed by the ‘English Francophile’ author Julian Barnes, gathered “above its white cliffs – especially the one that curves down into a great chalk flying-buttress ­– to compare eroded reality with visual memories of Monet’s pictures”.

During Maupassant’s youth, spent in the area with regular summertime excursions to Étretat, the impressionist painters had not yet arrived. The place was still mainly a fishing village that also attracted tourists and summer residents. The sea and water sports, like swimming, boating and rowing, soon became constant themes in Maupassant’s life and work. This is also true of Pierre et Jean, and Pulè’s translation vividly evokes this particular microcosm.

The title page of the first edition of Guy de Maupassant&rsquo;s <em>Pierre et Jean</em> published in 1888.The title page of the first edition of Guy de Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean published in 1888.

Readers of Maupassant and classic French literature will also be grateful for a pleasant surprise neatly nestled between the attractive front cover, a reproduction of Monet’s depiction of the lighthouse in Le Havre, and our first introduction to the colourful characters in chapter one of the novel.

This is the brief reflection on the nature of the realist novel. This study was written separately to the story that follows, but started heading it in joint publications. It can still be read on its own, but the experience of reading them together has been described as antithetical.

This is because Maupassant’s reflections in the study, advocating for artistic freedom and chiding literary critics for holding authors accountable for realist treatments of society, seem to go against the naturalist style of the novel. It has been remarked that, in a way, the two texts resemble the tension between Pierre and Jean, two brothers at odds with themselves.

As for Pierre et Jean, it is a well-crafted, thought-provoking and accessible novel that explores some of the most important themes in human life. The Maltese translation manages to bring this classic piece of French literature close to us in ways that speak to us directly and sympathetically.

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