from the Introduction by Catriona Seth
Though it does not enjoy the same status as in the English-speaking world, France’s tradition of short fiction is a proud one, with much debate around the generic borders of contes
. Charles Perrault (1628–1703), with his 1697 Contes de ma mère l’Oye
, gave defi ning characteristics to many renowned folk-tales and exercised considerable influence over European literature. Voltaire (1694–1778) was dismissive of stories like Zadig
(1747) or Candide
(1759). Now counted amongst his masterpieces, they have stood the test of time far better than the epic poetry or tragedies which he considered essential elements of his oeuvre. Diderot (1713–84) is another author whose shorter fiction – mainly circulated in manuscript form during his lifetime – enjoys a wide readership nowadays. The nineteenth century saw the publication of countless novellas and short stories, which often appeared in the press before being included in anthologies. Théophile Gautier (1811–72) composed numerous contes
throughout his literary career, starting with La Cafetière
in 1831. Baudelaire (1821–67) translated Edgar Allan Poe to critical acclaim. The work of Alphonse Daudet (1840–97) – tales from Provence, Lettres de mon Moulin
(1869), and stories based on events surrounding the Franco-Prussian War, Contes du lundi
(1873) – shows signs of literary kinship with a writer like Guy de Maupassant (1850–93). Amongst their contemporaries, Anatole France (1844–1924), whose reputation has waned since his 1921 Nobel Prize, also enjoyed considerable popular success. As a story teller, none of them arguably outshines Maupassant, who had been schooled in literature by Flaubert, the author of Trois Contes
and a close friend of his mother, née Laure Le Poittevin, and her brother Alfred, himself a poet.
During his essential creative years, which span from 1880 (‘Boule de Suif ’) to 1890 (‘The Olive Grove’; ‘Idle Beauty’), Maupassant published more than three hundred contes
as well as six novels. The provincial France of which he writes is the bruised republic emerging from the war of 1870–71, still smarting from the loss of Alsace and parts of Lorraine. Some stories have clear ties to the recent past and rely on precise chronological references. A sense of revenge underlies the challenge witnessed by two English travellers in ‘A Duel’, though there is something entertaining in the structure. ‘St Anthony’ and ‘Mademoiselle Fifi ’ offer a much darker take on encounters with the oppressor. Other tales are not set in a particular period and many of the themes are timeless: human passions like revenge, ridicule, envy or fear turn ordinary individuals with mundane existences into the stuff of memorable anecdotes.
Maupassant suggests atmospheres through a few careful lines and well-chosen details. His tales are often precisely situated geographically and involve unforgettable characters. They allow us to apprehend a condensed fragment of society. An effect of reality is achieved through the mention of proper names, of fictional but also historical figures, and allusions to places the reader can identify or could find in an atlas or an encyclopædia. The selection presented here allows us to range from Brittany to Corsica, or Paris to the Mediterranean coast, but also to North Africa or India. There are foreign landscapes like the sandhills south of Ouargla, ‘one of the strangest tracts of country in the world’. Several tales, including arguably the most famous ones (‘Boule de Suif ’, ‘The Horla’ and ‘The House of Madame Tellier’) are set in the province in which Maupassant himself was born and brought up: Normandy. Gisors, Gournay, Criquetot, Etretat, Tancarville, Bénouville, Yport, Fécamp are toponyms he would have heard throughout his life and places he would have known. ‘I am a Norman, a true Norman,’ says Dr Marambot in ‘Madame Husson’s Rose-King’, a claim Maupassant himself could have made.
The protagonists of the tales are often types – a country doctor, an academician, a senator, a well-intentioned matron – or illustrations of psychological traits like the Corsican widow of Paolo Saverini who seeks vengeance. They are also individuals with names and physical features. In ‘Mademoiselle Fifi ’, the Prussian occupying forces in rural Normandy are rough in their actions and in the syllables of their names: day after day, Major Count von Falsberg damages the graceful marquetry table in the Château d’Uville. His second-in-command, Captain Baron von Kelweingstein, Lieutenant Otto von Grossling and second lieutenants Fritz Scheunauburg and Marquis Wilhelm von Eyrik would not be out of place, in onomastic terms, in an operetta. In direct opposition to the invaders, the local parish priest who gives shelter to the murderess rejoices in the radiant name of Chantavoine – literally ‘Oats sing’. As this shows, the name of the character itself has, on occasion, particular significance. Having boarded a coach out of Rouen, well-meaning but narrow-minded members of the local society are dismayed to find their ride shared by a woman of ill-repute whose ‘nickname of Boule de Suif, ball of lard, tallow-keech’ may seem vulgar but is also emblematic of her generosity in sharing food.
Césaire Isidore Brument and Prosper Napoléon Cornu are given their full identities as they stand trial. The ridicule of them being called after emperors – of the Romans and of the French – is made obvious by their physique, which is mercilessly delineated by the author, and by their occupations: pig breeder and publican. ‘Brument was small and fat, with short arms and legs and a red, pimply face. His round head was set right down on his short, round body, without any sign of a neck.’ As to his adversary: ‘Cornu was lean, of middle height, with abnormally long arms. His face was distorted, his jaw crooked, and he had a squint. [. . .] His scanty, yellow hair was plastered close to his skull and gave his face a worn, soiled, damaged appearance, which was perfectly repulsive.’ There is nothing imperial here – except in the men’s desire to assert their power over another human being. Their rude features align with their behaviour.
Though they are not judged with such severity in their comportment, the Maison Tellier ‘houris’ too are executed in a few words. Take Raphaële, ‘thin, with high cheek-bones plastered with rouge’, her ‘oily black hair arranged in ringlets on her forehead’, or Flora, who ‘was supposed to be a Spanish girl, with copper sequins dancing in her carroty hair’. As to Fernande, ‘She was buxom, ran somewhat to fat, and had permanent freckles; her head was scantily covered with short, bleached hair, that looked like a combed-out tow.’ She represents the type of ‘the handsome, strapping, pink and white country lass’. We range here from the stock character to how the Fécamp prostitutes depart from the ideal, and the artifices used in their makeup and coiffure. Described with their flaws and foibles, Madame Tellier’s girls are not pretty but the ugliness in Maupassant’s world is often moving.
The tales are like snapshots. They often take place over a short space of time or they juxtapose a before and an after, leaving us to gather together scraps of information and guess at what happened in the elliptical meantime. Different generations, classes or ethnicities are conjured up in a few words. Maupassant is of his time in depicting the relationship between master and servant, between the colonized and the imperialist, between the upper and lower classes. The same goes for the behaviour of men towards women. Male characters, even when happily married, go off to the brothel or have mistresses. Nobody thinks any worse of them even when they are pillars of the community, like Poulin, the ex-mayor of Fécamp, a regular at Madame Tellier’s establishment. Their wives, sisters and daughters are not allowed the same freedom. Maupassant illustrates unsavoury human characteristics. Man is the worst of brutes. ‘You are my property. I am the master – your master. I can make any demand I please upon you, and at my own time. The law is on my side,’ Count de Mascaret cruelly says to the Countess in ‘Idle Beauty’. Violence against women is shown as a fact of life. The rough justice of ‘A Deal’ implies that anything can be bought and that most things can be taken.
Everything has its price, even a wife or a child – Monsieur and Madame d’Hubières in ‘In the Country’ want to carry off little Charlot Tuvache and end up instead with Jean Vallin. Nowhere are the cruel consequences of social conventions brought to the fore more vividly than in ‘His Son’. The rapid copulation between the visitor and the young serving girl is clearly rape. Startled and frightened, she fights against her aggressor. She only gives in when she collapses, exhausted by the tussle. She is a victim in this, but also when, displaying conflicting sentiments, she despairs at the departure of her abuser. He leaves and forgets the whole thing for thirty years. Only by chance does he discover that her life ended as a consequence of the unthinking actions of a man whose sense of entitlement is based on his gender and class. Seeing the wretch to whom the young woman – named Jeanne Kerradec, as we learn from the official records – gave birth, he asks himself two searching questions: ‘Am I that creature’s father? Am I the murderer of his mother?’ There is no doubt that the answer to both is yes. The Academician, a man ‘of standing and repute, of a sober and logical cast of mind’, sees himself in the idiot boy to whom he can do no good. Though the tale is a chilling one, his friend the Senator reminds him cynically that ‘All the same, it is good to be five-and-twenty, and even to beget children like that.’
Men’s brutal attempts to satisfy their desires destroy women’s lives, literally and metaphorically, and yet the bourgeois whom Maupassant depicts – and with whom he would have had much in common – continue to force themselves on working-class girls who cannot combat their advances. The painter Léon Chenal is seen covering Céleste’s face with kisses. We cannot be sure the plump young maid has consented: he runs after her and corners her. She might be laughing, but, by the artist’s own account, she is visibly struggling. His actions also constitute the cause of the unexpected suicide of the God-fearing Miss Harriet. Distress can lurk below an apparently serene surface. Even Countess de Mascaret is treated by her husband ‘like a brood mare on a stud farm’. Suspense keeps the reader, like the countess’s husband, waiting for the answer: which child is the bastard? We are on tenterhooks knowing there has to be a twist – and the seriousness of the noblewoman’s fate is evidenced by the fact that she is prepared to commit perjury before God.
Family relationships are often central. In ‘The House of Madame Tellier’, the brother and sister lead completely unconnected lives. The encounter between their universes has surprising effects. The bond between parents and children can be intense. The Rose-King is mocked by all but his mother. ‘A Portrait’ grants a place to a dead woman through her child’s worshipful respect. ‘Vendetta’ shows that a mother, even when old and frail, can avenge her son’s death. Strong filial ties are not shared between fathers and their sons. On the contrary, references to their relationship (or lack thereof ) are often disturbing. Guilt overcomes the hapless speaker in waves as he asks himself in ‘His Son’ whether he could have sired a half-wit.
Signs of optimism or benevolence are rare in Maupassant’s short stories. He is rather like the ordinary-looking man in ‘In the Spring’ who prevents a stranger from addressing a girl on the steamer to Saint-Cloud to save him from falling for her, considering this to be like protecting him from a serious illness. One exceptional case is ‘Moonlight’ in which the crusty abbé Marignan comes to appreciate human love as an expression of transcendence, comparable to ‘some scene from Holy Writ, the love of Ruth and Boaz, the fulfilment of God’s will in one of those great dramatic effects that one reads of in the sacred books’. It is as though the cynical Maupassant is himself yielding to the idea and being touched by the beauty of a raw human emotion.
Beyond such exceptions, the overall outlook is bleak. The tales showcase the cruelty of individuals to each other, but also the cruelty of the writer’s take on his fellow human beings. Whilst there are occasional strange solidarities, all too often, foreigners or people unlike oneself are rejected. Miss Harriet, the austere Protestant with her church-society brochures, communicates ‘in her atrocious French’ with her landlady who sees her as ‘a demoniac’: ‘Instinctively hostile to anything outside her peasant life, Madame Lecacheur’s limited intelligence conceived a hatred for the old maid’s transports.’ In ‘Boitelle’, the young peasant’s beloved is perfect but for one thing: her colour.
In another tale with a strange twist, ‘Shali’, the difference in values between two civilizations is set out symbolically through the worthless casket which the Indians consider to be beautiful. By reading the value of the rajah’s gift, ‘worth, in France, not more than a couple of francs’ on a European scale, and offering it to the Indian child he has befriended, the narrator, an admiral, then a lieutenant in the French navy, provokes a reaction which would have been predictable to her society. Lack of transcultural skills and a Western refusal to see reality through Eastern eyes mean that an apparently generous gesture is a death sentence passed on the very person the young man sought to reward.
The characters range from the most wretched to the high and mighty, from the illiterate to the erudite. The more pretentious they are, the less compassion they attract from the author. Maupassant is cocking a snook at a certain type of provincial savant in Albert Marambot’s disquisition on the history of Gisors and the origin of the town’s name in ‘Madame Husson’s Rose-King’. Like stingy Madame Oreille negotiating over an umbrella (‘The Umbrella’), Madame Loisel (‘The Necklace’), wife of a clerk in the Ministry of Public Instruction, whose name we only learn once the fateful invitation to the Minister’s ‘At Home’ arrives, is emblematic of aspirational city-folk who get short shrift from Maupassant. A large sum of money, put aside by her husband for summer lark-shooting parties, goes towards her handsome gown. She borrows a necklace and lives intensely for the duration of the reception, all eyes upon her. The couple spends years paying literally and metaphorically for this ephemeral public triumph.
Sympathy for the oppressed and the lowly extends to two main categories: country-folk and prostitutes. Maupassant frequented both. His love for the peasants of Normandy comes from his deep attachment to his native region and contacts with the local labourers during his childhood: a privileged son of divorced parents, often left to his own devices, he enjoyed spending time with farmers and mariners. A frequent visitor to whorehouses wherever his travels took him, the writer displays a respect – sometimes a grudging one, granted – for the working women whom fate led there. They appear as the polar opposites of the sententious bourgeois and aristocrats. Boule de Suif is a case in point. Not only is she kind-hearted when her socially superior fellow travellers lack nourishment, she is also the only one who appears to have thought through the attitude to have when confronted by a Prussian officer. She is reported to be in disgrace and clearly has her own moral standards. When the whole party is stranded at the inn, she only gives in to pressure from the twin authorities of the count and the nuns, a symbolic demonstration of the way in which Church and State hand-in-hand oppress the weak and offer them no protection in times of need: the whore reaps no rewards for her generosity but her natural qualities show up the priggish and petty individuals who, despite their rank, are evidently less honourable than she is.
Copyright © 2021 by Guy de Maupassant; Translated by Marjorie Laurie and Brian Rhys; Introduction by Catriona Seth. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.