What with more reading and helpful comments, I think I’m getting somewhere. I want to put Maupassant’s stories into two piles: the Flaubert pile and the newspaper pile. I’m tempted to call the newspaper stories the Maupassant stories, but that’s too confusing, since the same fellow did write both sets. I greatly prefer the ones in the Flaubert pile, but that’s irrelevant. The two types were written by different methods and with different goals.
Maupassant was the one and only graduate of the Gustave Flaubert Creative Writing Academy. He submitted his stories and poems to Flaubert and pretended not to publish anything until Flaubert gave his permission, which took years. The masterwork that ended Maupassant’s apprentice work was his 1880 debut, “Boule de Suif.” Flaubert, in a letter, declared it a masterpiece, although he had a few “schoolmasterish comments.” What did Flaubert like? What did a story with the Official Flaubert Seal of Approval look like? From the same letter:
How beautifully done your bourgeois are! You haven’t gone wrong with one of them… The nun scarred with smallpox, perfect!... The poor prostitute crying while Cornudet sings the Marseillaise – sublime.*
That nun is about a fifth of the way into “Boule de Suif.” The occupants of a large coach have assembled, two nuns among them:
One of them was an old woman whose skin was pitted with smallpox as if she had received a charge of grapeshot full in the face at point-blank range. The other was a puny creature with a pretty, sickly-looking face and the narrow chest of a consumptive, eaten up by that devouring faith which makes martyrs and visionaries. (tr. Roger Colet, Selected Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 1971, p. 28)
The nuns, although present through the rest of the story, barely qualify as characters, but function more as props and foils for the title character, the prostitute Suet Dumpling:
Short, completely round, fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints like strings of tiny sausages, taut shiny skin, and huge breasts swelling underneath her dress, her freshness was so attractive that she nonetheless remained desirable, and much sought after. (30)
Flaubert asked M. to “reduce her stomach a little at the beginning!” Which, for all I know, Maupassant did.
The thematic richness of these three sentences alone amazes me. Every part of them links to another part of the story. The coach is fleeing the Prussian army – thus the violence of the smallpox metaphor. The thin nun is immediately associated with eating. Both nuns foreshadow some sort of sacrifice. Boule de Suif – and please note that this is the reader’s introduction to her – is not simply associated with food. The narrator turns her into food, right before her eyes.
These ideas, and many more, run through the rest of the long story. I don’t want to exaggerate and say that every single sentence is “worked up” or enriched like these are. Maupassant did not write like Vladimir Nabokov or James Joyce, but he wrote, slowly, meticulously, in “Boule de Suif” and a few other stories, very much like Gustave Flaubert.
Flaubert died soon after the publication of “Boule de Suif.” He had urged Maupassant “to write a dozen like it, and you’ll be a man!” (Steegmuller, 116). Maupassant wrote several more like it, not a dozen, mostly in 1881. “Madame Tellier’s Excursion,” “En Famille,” “The Story of a Farm-Girl” – try those to see what I’m talking about. Also, I guess, “Mademoiselle Fifi,” but I suspect that one of parody.
At the same time, though, he was also writing quite different stories – Maupassant stories. I’ll think about those tomorrow. And, unless I come to my senses, the Flaubert business continues next week.
* From Francis Steegmuller, Maupassant: A Lion in the Path, p. 110.