Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The best stories of Guy de Maupassant, an anti-consensus

I’ve been reading Guy de Maupassant’s stories.  I’d never really read him before, just “The Diamond Necklace,” with its famous trick ending.  I was sure that I would enjoy Maupassant, a student of Flaubert, but just never got to him.  We all know how that works.  Now, having read him a bit, I am confused.

A list, that might help. I have read, or am reading:

Selected Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 1971, tr. Roger Colet, 30 stories
Fifteen by Maupassant, Doubleday, 1972, tr. Miriam Morton, 13 not in the above
The Best Stories of Guy de Maupassant, 1945, tr. – no, sorry, “Selected by” Saxe Commins, 45 stories, 35 or so not in the two above.  I'm still reading this one.

In all three books brilliantly written stories alternate with glib nonsense.  Only one story is in all three books.  Penguin Classics has a newer collection; Oxford also has an older and newer.  Glancing through their tables of contents, they do not overlap much, either.  I believe I was looking for some sort of consensus on Maupassant’s best work.  He wrote close to three hundred stories, and I had hoped that diligent readers and translators had sorted through them and picked out the best for me.  And I suppose they think they have.  But there is no consensus, almost none.

Witness the 1884 “The Diamond Necklace” (or “The Necklace”).  Francis Steegmuller, in Maupassant: A Lion in the Path (1949), devotes an entire chapter to the story, one as long as the story itself, discussing its reception, primarily.  Why is the story so famous, that’s the question?  Steegmuller moves from Henry James’s deep appreciation of “the little perfection” – James rewrote the story as “Paste” – to the counter-reaction, as English-language critics dismissed Maupassant as a writer of trivial trick stories, based on a just a sliver of Maupassant’s work.

The two translations from the 1970s not only omit “The Diamond Necklace,” but do so almost angrily, as a matter of principle, avoiding the distortion of that horrible trick story.  The idea that this story embedded amongst thirty others will be uniquely damaging seems idiotic, especially when, as in the Penguin edition, the dangerously trivial trick story is replaced (see the Translator’s Note) by a different trick-ending story about a diamond necklace called “The Jewels.”  Leafing through the introductory material of these books, I felt like I had wandered into someone else’s argument. Maybe the newer collections have sorted this all out.

After “The Diamond Necklace,” Maupassant’s best known story is the first published under his name, the 1880 “Boule de Suif,” which is flawless, a triumph, brilliant, ethically penetrating, please continue in this vein.  A great masterpiece that Maupassant certainly did not repeat three hundred times, although he did repeat it a few stories later with “La Maison Tellier” (1881).  Or perhaps “La Horla,” a later psychological horror story, is better known; please put it on the list of the best.  To add to the confusion, Maupassant published three quite distinct versions, so be sure to read the best one, whichever that is.  I could go on.  The rest of the week, I will.


  1. Interesting that a short story writer would cause this much distress among critics and you. I like Maupassant's work, even the trick ending story...but my favorite has always been "The Piece of String."

  2. Hi FYI:

    There are several Maupassant collections now available for free as Kindle books.


  3. I'm reading - very slowly - Oxford WC's Mademoiselle Fifi and Other Stories, and so far they have been pretty much absolute trivial rubbish - to the extent that yes, one wonders why anyone would have selected them for anything.

    Are you sure you don't feel like, say, downloading all 13 volumes of his short stories from Project Gutenburg and reading them for us?

    His novels, though, I've so far quite enjoyed.

  4. Serena, I suspect I am missing part of your premise. Why should a short story writer be any less distressing than a novelist or poet? I'm not going to argue with "distressing," though. I'd go with "perplexed" but "distressed" is amusing.

    I like the trick endings (and "The Piece of String," too - why is that your favorite?). I put a high value on literary ingenuity. Some other readers clearly do not.

    Those old collections, Vince - that's just the problem. Anyone who plans to read all M.'s stories has no concept of the value of time. Anyone who wants to read them exclusively in those old translations may be making a terrible, hilarious, error. But I'll save the story of the 65 Maupassant stories not by Maupassant for tomorrow.

    Anyway, this is exactly why the talented, prolific short story writer is much more distressing than the novelist who published the same number of pages. 13 volumes of stories! Is this Chekhov we're talking about? No? Then just give me the good stuff, I beg you.

    I should mention the novels some time. I haven't read them, but am tempted, by a couple of them, at least.

  5. I have read exactly two short stories by Maupassant, like you, because I just haven't really gotten around to more. "The Necklace" I read in English, and liked it; I like a good trick ending and certainly don't disdain them like some of these editors seem to. And "Boule de suif" I read in French and thought was brilliant.

    The fact that he has written so many short stories makes me, as a short story lover, feel like I should devote more time to him. But you are so right; he is not Chekhov, and we just don't have that kind of time.

  6. I agree totally that “Boule de Suif,” is a wonderful short story-I have read and posted on that and two other stories and his novella Jean et Pierre-I am also wondering if Serana could clarify what she meant by "distressing"-if she means the mental exertion of reading 800 pages of short stories by Katherine Mansfield is greater than 800 pages of a Trollope novel than overall I agree with her-I am a bit compulsive and I like big reading projects but I do not think I would undertake all of de Maupassant's short stories-I do want to read the best ten or 20-

  7. die geneigte LeserinJanuary 25, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    As far as I can tell, Somerset Maugham wrote 3 different takes on Mapassant's "La Parure," and a few other stories that were also new settings of Maupassant themes. It gives you the idea that, for a period of time at least, some writers were obsessed with a certain kind of short story writing that evidently no one else had done in quite that way before.

  8. Gee, mel, you've depressed me. I've read 800 pages of Maupassant stories! I hadn't thought of it that way. Too much, too much - I'm an idiot.

    You've identified exactly what I meant by "distressing." No, not exactly - I'm not especially distressed by reading 800 pages of M., but by keeping 75 separate stories straight. The 800 page novel imposes a big structure, however complex, on which to hang characters, scenes, images, etc.

    Ten to twenty best - yes, that's it. Which are the ten to twenty best? A much more complicated question than I had guessed. "Boule de Suif," though -anyone with any sympathy for Flaubert's style should read that one.

    Excising "The Diamond Necklace" from that list to protect poor, delicate Guy's reputation is absurd if for no other reason than the admiration of James, Maugham, and so on. Maupassant clearly expanded the outer limits of what short fiction could do.

  9. "A Life" and "Bel Ami" are a great novels.
    I have listened to an audio version of Le Horla and it was fantastic. I could feel the fear and the madness increasing and overwhelming him. It's in French but I can give you the references if you're interested.

  10. I read about 400 pages of Maupassant and I enjoyed most of them. Did you see my posts about him (here and here)? I don't remember glib nonsense, and at least I didn't write about it on my site, but it's been a long time. I should revisit him. Curious to read your thoughts about the 65 stories he didn't write. I've heard of that.

  11. Rebecca, 400 pages in that book is more like 800 in mine. Did it have double columns or something? How else could all of the stories fit into 1400 pages? Or are there a hundred extra-short ones?

    I'll defer to you on the question of the presence of glib nonsense. I have found many of M.'s stories, and these are the ones some expert has picked out for me, to be clever but superficial, and a fair number weren't that clever. You didn't find, to pick from your Reread list, "A Sale" or "Was It a Dream?" to be ethically complex, did you?

    The nonsense was most likely to appear in the "high society" stories, but M. is not exactly packed with ideas even at his best. That is not a criticism, not from me!

    bookaroundthecorner - I don't understand French, and don't know how to listen to audiobooks, but i have no doubt a good actor could really make "La Horla" work.

    I will try a novel or two sometime. Steegmuller thinks Pierre et Jean is M.'s best work.

  12. Maupassant has never been a big favorite of mine, though I recently re-read Bel-Ami and it was a better book than I'd remembered. He's one of my guilty displeasures -- people I know I should like, but don't.

  13. I often find it funny when writers' works cause so much confusion or lack of consensus among critics, experts, and canon developers...is what I meant. There are these people sitting in their ivory towers, mostly men, trying to decide what is the best of someone else's work and what others should read. I'm in favor of collections of all an author's work...poet, novelist, short story writer, etc.

    I have not read Maupassant's novels, so my knowledge of his writing is only the shorter pieces. But I may have to change that after some of the comments you've received.

    As for The Piece of String, I love the story and how it shows how peer pressure and self-image can play into the hands of others and how once a rumor takes hold, it can grow and take on a life of its own and even have detrimental consequences.

  14. Jenny - of anything, my problem is that I like M. too much. The trivial stories are pleasurable enough to me that I keep reading them, telling myself that I'm looking for the better ones. A potato chip sort of thing - I need the willpower to stop eating them. Although I just found another killer. I don't know.

    Serena - quit pulling my leg!

    "Hey, I heard you liked Tolstoy. I was wondering where to start."
    "Just read it all!"
    "OK. How about, um, Dickens?"
    "Oh. How about -"
    "How - "
    "I said all! All! All!"

    You're gonna make it kind of hard for a teacher to write a syllabus.

  15. I was wondering whether or not Serena's comment was meant as "flame bait" or not!- On reading everything by an author-good idea if we have infinite unlimited time to read-I recently, just because I felt like it, read and posted on all of the 85 or so short stories of Katherine Mansfield-book bloggers, 90 percent female, can help develop the evolving canon-to me to say a work is of canon status is a description and a prescription-

  16. No, no, I got that potato chip thing from your original post. I just don't have that reaction to him. I have that just-one-more reaction to, um, definitely Wilkie Collins, and Dickens, and Louis Aragon (well, not his giant earnest Communist novels, but the early and late stuff), and Colette, and T.C. Boyle's short stories but not his novels, and lots of people. But not Maupassant.

  17. Now, reading all of Katherine Mansfield's stories, that sounded quite rewarding. You found a few scraps and unfinished things that weren't so hot, if I remember correctly.

    The big difference - and this is tomorrow's post, I guess - is that almost all of those Mansfield stories were consciously crafted artworks. That just isn't true of Maupassant. There's a split I'm going to try to write about.

    Jenny, I hope you, as a Flaubert enthusiast, find it interesting. Although - but that's next week, not tomorrow.

  18. I did find reading all the Katherine Mansfield stories very rewarding-some are not great works of art but all represent a real effort-no story factory products-

  19. Thanks for this post!! Just discovered it. I am also trying to see what all the Guy De fuss is about. Would you care to discuss who the greatest short story writers of all time are? Any genre. Any century.

  20. Bala, thank you. I figured Maupassant out to my own satisfaction. I won't speak for anyone else.

    I love it when other people write about the greatest short story writers 0 greatest anything - but I am not much of a list-maker myself, in part because my opinions are so conventional. Chekhov, Hemingway, O'Connor (both of them), blah blah blah. Whichever writers everyone else thinks is great, that's my list.