Friday, 16 September 2011
Did you ever see the Don Amichi movie of that title? It’s fantastic. I guess I should add it to my Love Film list while I remember.
It’s true that they do. Nothing stays the same.
I reread a short story this week, The Necklace by Guy De Maupassant. The way I responded to it this time was very different from my reading the first time round.
When I was a teenager, thirteen or so, I was a very reluctant reader. I’d spend the ‘silent reading’ sessions in English pretending to read and just daydream away. If I could go back and advise that youngster to take in the words, to actually make the effort to engage with the texts we were offered, I would – sadly, the thing about change is that it can’t often be controlled.
Anyway, I did read The Necklace when Bob Kennedy (English teacher and rugby coach) gave out the books and identified the theme for the lesson.
I have no idea why it grabbed my attention so. It’s old-fashioned in many ways, with a high density of description, the time-difference between then and now and a theme relating to a class structure I couldn’t fathom. I guess he just tells a damned good story.
If you want to read it for yourself without having it ruined, stop now. Here’s your spoiler alert.
Mathilde, the main character, is a thing of rare beauty. The unfortunate thing for her is not so much the fact that she marries into the lower middle-class, but that she is so painfully aware of the way the aristocracy and their ilk enjoy the finer things of life in a way that she is unable to.
It comes to pass that her ‘clerk in the Ministry Of Public Instruction’ husband has managed to secure tickets for a grand ball. It should be a dream come true, but Mathilde cries at the prospect of having to attend in ‘rags’.
Her husband agrees to spend all the savings he has, the money set aside for a hunting rifle, on a fine dress of her choosing.
When the dress arrives, Mathilde remains unsatisfied. Yes, it’s beautiful, but without fine jewellery it might as well be a sheet with a hole in the middle to poke her head through.
Hubby again steps in. Suggests she borrows a piece from a friend who has married into riches.
Off she goes to see Madame Forestier and, from the choice of anything in the boxes, she plumps for an exquisite diamond necklace.
Mathilde goes to the ball and, like Cinderella, is the talk of the town. Her husband joins other tired husbands in a side room as they doze and wait for their wives to make the most of the event.
When the couple get home, they discover that something’s wrong – the necklace has disappeared.
The husband retraces all steps and they pursue every possible avenue of explanation, but the necklace is gone forever,
Tracking down the piece in a jeweller’s, they discover it would cost a fortune to replace. They explain to Madame Forestier that the clasp needs fixing and they buy return the replacement only after they’ve taken out loans that far exceed their means (they could have probably bought a large chateau in the country, to help to put the value into perspective).
The couple spend the next ten years working their fingers to the bone in very poor circumstances as pay off their debt.
Mathilde, debt finally paid, is a shadow of her former self, has aged well-beyond the natural alteration ten years would cause.
Wandering by the Seine, she encounters Madame Forestier, who notes how much her friend has changed.
Mathilde explains all. Tells M. Forestier that it’s all down to the losing of the necklace. That she’s been working on menial tasks non-stop since that then.
Here I was, then, aged thirteen and gripped by the story, it suddenly dawning on me that the course of life might be altered completely in a tiny moment or act. And Maupassant has saved the killer blow to the end.
“Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why the necklace was paste! It was worth, at most, five hundred francs.”
The writer had stolen my breath. Might as well have punched me in the gut (felt like he really had). He made me incredibly sad as I thought how this woman’s life had been ruined by this one careless moment, how a night of fun and Mathilde’s vanity had conspired against her.
It just wasn’t fair.
So, over thirty years on, I had the same response even though I knew what was coming. In fact, I was craving that slap in the face again to see just why it had effortlessly etched itself on my mind.
I wasn’t disappointed either.
But this time, as I sat back to soak in the sadness, I had a different thought. And it was this: Yes, the woman and her husband had slaved away for ten years and had done without all treats that needed paying for, but they now had the chance to get the necklace back and sell it off for the 40 000 francs it was worth. They could buy a place, a nice place, and live without working for the rest of their lives. I think I’d settle for that.
As I say, things change.
The only thing that remains the same is the huge amount of pleasure a few pages of prose was able to give me.
Go try out a collection of his work; I doubt you’ll regret it.