Selected Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant

26 October 2012

The French short story writer Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant (b.5 August 1850) was a close contemporary of Robert Louis Stevenson (b.November 13 1850).

The comparison immediately highlights Maupassant’s seriousness as an artist against Stevenson’s delittantism, Maupassant’s subtle explorations of war and human relations contrasted with Stevenson’s boy’s own stories. The difference is typified by Maupassant’s adult depiction of sex compared with the almost complete absence of believable women in Stevenson’s fiction.

Love Contrast the improbable ‘love affair’ at the heart of Stevenson’s ‘Olalla‘ (1885) – the visiting English officer falls immediately head over heels in love with the beautiful daughter of the ‘degenerate’ Spanish family – with the themes  of human sexuality, bourgeois morality and the corrupting influence of military occupation in Maupassant’s first published story, ‘Boule de Suif‘ (1880).

France and Britain Hard to avoid the conclusion that 19th century French culture was adult while British Victorian culture was somehow deeply childish: Flaubert and Maupassant, Zola and Mallarme versus Stevenson and Haggard, Conan Doyle and Kipling.

Workrate The success of Boule de Suif inaugurated an amazingly productive decade. In the 1880s Maupassant wrote six novels and over 300 short stories, became well-known as a reporter and columnist, travelled widely and wrote accounts of his journeys; he bought a yacht, had numerous affairs and became celebrated for his parties. The nearest comparison for workrate and stories might be Kipling. Not for the affairs or parties though.

Thirty of the ‘best’ short stories are collected and translated by Roger Colet in the 1971 Penguin edition I’ve had since school.

Sex, treated frankly and openly, just is a major theme of French fiction in a way it isn’t among the more repressed English. Thomas Hardy gave up writing novels because of the intense criticism he received over the alleged immorality of ‘Tess of the Durbevilles’ and ‘Jude the Obscure’. In the first five stories in this collection, three are about prostitutes, one about an unfaithful wife and one about a man prevented from chatting up a pretty girl on a riverboat.

‘Boule de Suif‘ (1880) is the nickname of a prostitute. The carriage in which she and a crew of bourgeois is fleeing a town occupied by the invading German army of 1870, is held up at a hotel on the border by a German officer who refuses to let it proceed unless Boule de Suif sleeps with him. Her bourgeois companions, gentlemen and ladies all, are initially scandalised – but as the days pass, slowly begin to put pressure on her to relent and be screwed by the enemy. After a week-long siege of her feelings she finally gives in, she is laid, and the officer lets the coach continue – at which all her high-minded companions promptly treat her like an immoral slut. This perfectly naturalistic story – on the face of it an ironic commentary on the self-righteous hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie – is at the same time a wonderfully subtle parable of the mental collapse of a nation conquered in war. Maupassant was just 20 and a soldier in the army when France underwent the humilation of defeat in war to Prussia.

In ‘Madame Tellier’s Establishment‘ (1881) all the prostitutes of a friendly brothel in a small Normandy town decamp en masse 50 miles to attend the First Communion of the brothel-keeper’s niece. The village festivities and the church ceremony are wonderfully described – as is their return after many days away to be welcomed and partied by the leading men of their small town who had missed them so badly!

In ‘The Graveyard Sisterhood’ a man sees a beautiful widow weeping at the grave of her husband, a gallant officer killed in the recent war. He offers to buy her a tea and cheer her up and one thing leads to another and they go to her apartment and become lovers. After a while the affair dwindles, they lose touch. One day he feels nostalgia for her and goes to visit the cemetery again where he is flabbergasted to see her picking up another distinguished gent in the way she picked him up. She is a prostitute who has figured out that graveyards bring out something amorous in some kinds of men!

A Ruse‘ is told by an old doctor who once attended a young married woman whose lover has collapsed and died in her bed. And her husband is due back in half an hour! Together they come up with a ruse to save her… ‘

Happiness Ironic and knowing his stories may be but they are mostly happy. Madame Tellier’s Establishment made me beam with content all the way through. The punchline of ‘A Ruse’ made me burst out laughing. Even when the protagonists of ‘Two Friends’ are shot dead by the swinish Germans, their deaths have less impact than the preceding sunny description of the spring countryside and their happy fishing.

The ‘implied author’, the ambience created by these texts, is of a relaxed, amused, worldly-wise man with an amazing gift for selecting just the right details, snatches of dialogue and incidents to lay bare the soul of a character or the essence of a situation. Effortlessly charming. And economical. they never outstay their welcome. His stories have tremendous good manners.

Guy de Maupassant

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