A specter both pathetic and comical, the outmoded shadow of an entire age

From Menuet by Guy de Maupassant, in his short story collection Contes de la bécasse.  The narrator is recalling a memory from his youth that has never left him.  As a student he had taken the habit of visiting a park of a style no longer in fashion at the time.  There he made the acquaintance of a former dancing director of the Opera and his wife, a former star of the same.  The two visited the park each day, the director explaining their devotion as notre plaisir et notre vie … tout ce qui nous reste d’autrefois (our delight and our life … all that remains to us of the past.).  They perform the below scene for the narrator:

Then I saw something unforgettable.  They moved forward and back with childlike affectation, smiled, swayed, bent, leapt like two old puppets some old machine was making dance – puppets a bit broken and made long ago by a skilled craftsman according to the manner of his time.

And I watched them, my heart stirred with exceptional feelings, my soul touched by an inexpressible melancholy.  It seemed I was seeing a specter both pathetic and comical, the outmoded shadow of an entire age.  I wanted to laugh and needed to cry.  All at once they stopped, they had finished the movements of the dance.  For some seconds they remained standing, the one before the other, contorting their faces in an unexpected way.  Then they embraced, weeping.


Alors je vis une chose inoubliable. Ils allaient et venaient avec des simagrées enfantines, se souriaient, se balançaient, s’inclinaient, sautillaient pareils à deux vieilles poupées qu’aurait fait danser une mécanique ancienne, un peu brisée, construite jadis par un
ouvrier fort habile, suivant la manière de son temps.

Et je les regardais, le cœur troublé de sensations extraordinaires, l’âme émue d’une
indicible mélancolie. Il me semblait voir une apparition lamentable et comique, l’ombre
démodée d’un siècle. J’avais envie de rire et besoin de pleurer. Tout à coup ils s’arrêtèrent, ils avaient terminé les figures de la danse. Pendant quelques secondes ils restèrent debout l’un devant l’autre, grimaçant d’une façon surprenante ; puis il s’embrassèrent en sanglotant.

 

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