Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Fan Mail

In her late teens, Marie Bashkirtseff wrote a letter to one Monsieur de M. Thus began a brief (Baskhirtseff died in 1884, shortly before her twenty-sixth birthday) but lively correspondence between the Ukraine-born mondaine and Guy de Maupassant.
Self-portrait of Marie Bashkirtseff

Only shortly before her death did Maupassant discover the identity of the correspondent who tells him in her first letter that she will always remain anonymous:
I read you almost with happiness. You adore the truths of nature and find a truly great poetry in them, all while stirring us with details of feelings so deeply human that we recognize ourselves in them and love you with a selfish love. Is that a flowery remark? . . . Be forgiving—the essence is sincere.
I’d obviously like to say exquisite and striking things to you, but it’s very hard, just like that, right now. . . . I regret it all the more in that you are exceptional enough for a person to dream very romantically of becoming your beautiful heart’s confidante, if indeed your heart is beautiful.
If your heart isn’t beautiful and if you “aren’t into that sort of thing,” I regret it most of all for you and then I’ll call you a manufacturer of literature and that would be it.
It’s been a year now that I’ve been about to write you, but . . . several times I thought that I was overrating you and that it wasn’t worth it. When, all at once, two days ago, I read in the Gaulois that someone sent you a gracious letter and you ask for this good person’s address to answer him. . . . I got very jealous right away—your literary merits dazzled me again, and here I am.
Now, listen closely to me, I will always remain anonymous (really) and I don’t want even to see you from afar—who knows? I might not like your looks. I know only that you are young and that you aren’t married, two essential points even in the blue of the clouds.
But Ill have you know that I’m charming—this delightful thought will encourage you to answer me. It seems to me that if I were a man I would want no commerce, not even epistolary, with an old English hag, regardless of what might think
Miss Hastings.
R.D.G. (Bureau de la Madeleine)


  1. Fan mail shows how deeply one may be reached by writing. Writers must feel flattered when they receive it. What I find a little sad is that the writing that elicits this sort of response exists in an ideal world that can never become real. The author of the book and the sender of the letter usually turn out to be ordinary people, foibles and all.

  2. I'm not exactly sure I get you. But one of the reasons--or so I've read--Bashkirtseff preferred to remain anonymous was that she knew Maupassant had had two or three hundred sexual partners. So she was certainly aware of at least one of his "foibles."

    Maybe I'll post Maupassant's response. It's interesting. Maybe there's even an English translation of it somewhere on the interwebz. That way, I'll be spared the bother of translating it myself.

  3. She says that she knows he's young and unmarried, which, here at least, makes her seem interested in him personally. I don't think many women write letters like this idly - there is always a motive. Let's just say she doesn't seem disinterested. Perhaps she was being coy because she knew she had little chance of snagging him.

  4. Re: Ludo Totem

    I didn't realize at first it was your post at NYRB. Anyway, we don't seem to have a major disagreement. I find it interesting that the serious issues like the status of Israel don't get as much of a response as the relatively silly ones about not finishing books or Catholicism on contraception. It all goes to show how unserious and self-absorbed many posters are (likewise at WLF).

  5. Oh, I use lots of different names on the Internet (it seems I'm not the only one). Sometimes I'll even post under my real name.

    I don't really think it's fair to begrudge Americans and Western Europeans their lack of interest in the state of affairs in the Near East. Things have been a mess there for so long that all possible arguments on one side or the other have been made again and again (often, at great length, in the pages of the NYRB). Sometimes a lively writer like Judt comes along and sparks renewed interest in the debate (your comments are good, too), but I don't think you can really expect this everlasting debate, often dominated by the voices of blowhards from both sides, not to have exhausted the patience of even the most serious and the least self-absorbed.

    1. At heart, what bothers me is the fact that this conflict has been going on my entire life with little progress, combined with the fact that the U.S. has been in a better position than any other country to do something about it. The Middle East was bound to be in a state of turmoil under any circumstances, but I think this could have been handled much better.

      It must be obvious to any educated Middle Eastern Muslim that the U.S. cares little about the region beyond its continued supply of oil and the guarantee of Israeli security. The region is always presented as the greatest threat to the U.S. without public discussion of the root causes of the terrorism. There are many causes, among them the propping up of puppet regimes that serve American purposes (e.g. Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein, Karzai, Mubarak, the Saud family), but the most conspicuous one is the unflinching protection of Israel. If the U.S. had dealt firmly with Israel decades ago, the situation now might be much better than it is.

      Israel was bound to be problematic from the beginning. Yet Israelis chose to move there and adopt a belligerent attitude toward the surrounding Arabs. If Israel had relied only on its own resources and Jewish Americans hadn't tilted American foreign policy, Israel would have reached a day of reckoning long ago. Now Israelis unrealistically think they deserve everything they have and won't kowtow to anyone. The reality, as I see it, is that they should have made great concessions long ago or left the region. In this case, European guilt about anti-Semitism (with the general acceptance of Zionism) and manipulated American foreign policy have enabled Israel to reach an untenable position.

      We don't have to discuss this anymore - I'm just elucidating my thoughts.

    2. Your final suggestion there is a good one. I believe I'll take you up on it, Moshe.