Tl;dr: If you’ve never read Guy de Maupassant, definitely read “Boule de Suif‘, his first and most famous story. If you enjoyed that, I can recommend a few more. Maupassant is worth reading because of his clarity and brevity. He doesn’t flinch from displaying the dark side of human life, but that view into the dark side means that when he turns to satire, it’s delicious.
Occasionally I take on a reading project where I read as much of one author’s work as I can handle. One of these began when I picked up a cheap copy of a selection of Maupassant’s short stories, which I had barely begun when I foolishly left it on a bus. Looking for a replacement, I went to Project Gutenberg, where I was able to download the complete corpus of his short stories – thirteen volumes! – in one file. Here was something worth digging my teeth into.
What the typical reader knows of Maupassant is probably something like this: French writer, late nineteenth century, followed in the footsteps of Voltaire by exposing bourgeois morality as a sham, died insane from syphilis. To this I don’t have anything to add: I don’t know his biography, just his bibliography. So what did I learn from reading all these stories?
Firstly, they’re worth reading. Maupassant is everything I adore in short fiction: his stories have beginnings, middles, and endings, with sharply defined characters, and always have a point. Though not a moralist – he doesn’t seem to be keen for us to begin acting a different way – he does want us to feel something about his characters, and usually succeeds.
Secondly, like Shaw, Maupassant shows us how the past really is a different country. If you were under any illusions about how burdensome women’s life was for most of human history, Maupassant can relieve you of them. The engine driving many stories is the pain women suffer when, variously, interesting work is barred to them; their choices to marry and/or have children are constrained; and their fortunes are tied to those of their husbands. Oh, and while he’s at it, how sex can be a momentary thrill for a man, but can destroy a woman, because she’ll be stuck with a bastard child the man is under no obligation to support. And that’s best case; worst case, she dies in childbirth, or is forced to infanticide.
Thankfully, unlike Shaw, Maupassant isn’t a didact agitating for social change, which would make the stories tedious. He simply takes women’s lot as given, and the coolness with which he portrays their lack of autonomy and vulnerability to sexual interference makes the point more effectively than any rabble-rousing could have done.
In the same manner, Maupassant makes the point, again and again, that cruelty and greed are common vices. Those who don’t share in them should nonetheless be prepared to meet them; to understand, as he put it, that at best, life is a state of armed peace with one’s fellows. Those who don’t learn this, and who don’t face the world with sufficient toughness, have pitiable lives, blighted by exploitation, suffering, and loss.
Surely Maupassant’s major works are:
- “Boule de Suif,” sometimes translated as “Butterball”. Like Somerset Maugham, Maupassant’s first story is his best. (Maugham’s was “Rain”, if you’re interested.) “Boule de Suif” is the story of a band of refugees fleeing the Prussian invasion of France. War makes strange bedfellows, which leads to an aristocrat, a wealthy merchant, and their wives sharing a carriage with some nuns, a radical politician, and a jolly prostitute. The wealthy ones aren’t pleased with this arrangement, and snub the prostitute; but the plot thickens when the carriage falls into the grasp of a Prussian officer, who refuses to let it continue on its way unless his demands are met. The passengers’ changing response to their situation drives the story to its resolution, which is hauntingly sad.
- “The Diamond Necklace.” A young couple attends a ball and has a wonderful time, but on the way home, a valuable diamond necklace the woman borrowed for the occasion goes missing. What can they do? It’s impossible to replace it… or is it? With this one, Maupassant earns his reputation as a tweaker of bourgeois morality: you wouldn’t think that honesty, hard work, and a desire to keep one’s self-respect could be so horribly destructive.
- Good as those stories are, they’re definitely tragedies. Here’s a comedy: “A Family Affair”. In Maupassant’s time – much like our own – office workers often faced cramped, petty lives, circumscribed by office politics, the corporate ladder, and short pay. How might a corporate drone, like a bureaucrat in the Ministry of the Admiralty, react if a sudden inheritance offered some respite? Still funny more than a century later.
If you’ve read those, and are keen for more, try these:
- “Madame Baptiste”, which explores the cruelty of blaming the victim.
- “Monsieur Parent” illustrates Auden’s quotation about how those to whom evil is done will do evil in return, even if the evils are, in this case, the mundane crimes of everyday life.
- “The Legion of Honour” is a farce, but an amusing one and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
- “The Adopted Son” is remarkable for its surprise ending, which retains its power to shock.
- “The Little Cask” is one of many stories – I think the best – that hinges on the ruthless greed of people. Although this one features peasants, Maupassant expressed an equal lack of sentimentality as regards the bourgeoisie and the nobility.
- “La Maison Tellier”: A madam makes a weekend trip to attend her niece’s first Communion, and for lack of a keeper requires her staff of brothel workers to accompany her. This trip has unexpected emotional consequences. Theodore Dalrymple wrote that this story was yet another one of Maupassant’s jabs at the Catholic Church, and perhaps the author meant it that way, but I took away something quite different. If looking at a flower brings a smile to my face, it’s immaterial to me what the Ph level of the soil is.
And if you want the best of the rest, try these:
- “A Meeting” is Maupassant’s take on a lady-or-the-tiger type story. Is she or isn’t she?
- If the previous story was Maupassant miming Stockton, “Little Louise Rocque” is his answer to “Markheim” or Crime and Punishment. A guilty conscience can stalk us long after the authorities cease to.
- “All Over” is a nice, sharp reflection on mortality.
- “The Piece of String” is an account of a small injustice. Life in big cities may sap us with anomie and atomization, but I still prefer it to the closed loops of small-town life. This story illustrates why.
Notably absent from this list is the story that seems to be the one upon which Maupassant’s reputation rests today: “The Horla”. Sure, Lovecraft loved it, but to my mind it’s a second-rate story, one that is successful neither as weird fiction nor as a gloss on mental illness. Still, if you want to be au courant with Maupassant, don’t pass it by.