Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A gay frolic with Guy de Maupassant

The Story of a Farm Girl (1881) was, if I am counting correctly, Maupassant’s third story, or the third under his own name, the second after his brilliant debut with Boule de Suif.  Flaubert had died the year before, but Maupassant was still writing in what I see as his Flaubert mode.  Sun through a window “showed the defects of the glass,” smells of the farmyard and the dairy mingle, the hens “were lying on the smoking dung-hill.”

Just then, a colt, full of life and friskiness, galloped past her. Twice he jumped over the ditches, and then stopped suddenly, as if surprised at being alone.

In a sense, this is a pretty blatant symbolic representation of the restless servant, Rose, whose story this is, but it is only so obvious once I start tearing the story to bits.  It’s artful.  Smells, colors, a cart in the distance “driven by a man as tall as one’s finger.”

Lots of good writing in these early stories.  A chronological selected Maupassant might be useful, but no one wants to organize him that way.

I have been quoting from the translation in the 1945 Modern Library Best Stories of Guy de Maupassant, translator(s) unknown.  The editor has apparently selected the stories from older translations, which might explain this:

Then she seized him by the throat, threw him onto his back, so that he could not disengage himself from her, and half strangling him, she shouted into his face:  “I am enceinte, do you hear?  I am enceinte!”

What’s that, lady?  You’re a saint?  But didn’t you – oh, you’re speaking French.  Sorry, I don’t know French.  That’s why I’m reading a translation!  The funny thing is that the previous page has “she found that she was pregnant.”

The fact is that the older translations of Maupassant, at least of the naughtier stories, are a mess, and should probably be avoided, although who knows what problems the newer ones have.  Still, do you want this, if you can avoid it?:

For the first time in his life he was not bored at the theater, and spent the remainder of the night in a gay frolic. (“The False Gems,” Best Stories of, 1945, but presumably translated earlier)

For the first time in his life he was not bored at the theatre, and he spent the night with some prostitutes. (“The Jewels,” Selected Stories, 1972, tr. Roger Colet)

Actually, it’s nice to have the choice.  The prudish should go to Gutenberg, while libertines, and readers with any respect for the role of the author, can get newer versions.

Maupassant’s smuttiness damaged his reputation in England and the United States for decades, in two stages.  In stage one, most of his stories could not be published in English (M.’s stories “deal with matters that no decent man out of France would for a moment think worthy of his pains”).*  In stage two, liberated publishers start churning out trashy editions of “the frankest, most daring stories of their kind ever written!”  Francis Steegmuller plucked that false gem from a New York Times ad, which he includes in a horrifying supplement to his study of Maupassant:  “Sixty-five Fake ‘Maupassant’ Stories” (p. 353).  In 1902 a shady publisher assembled a “complete” Maupassant, tackily illustrated, crudely translated, and including sixty-five stories not by Maupassant, which were published again and again in numerous collections.  Steegmuller was the first person to discover the fraud.  He was able to track four of them to their original author, and then gave up the chase as a pointless waste of time.

This, then, is how Maupassant became, in English, the author of fancy smut, trick endings, and fancy smut with trick endings.  I can see how more recent scholars find this irritating.  Why they took out their anger on “The Diamond Necklace,” I still don’t get.  Perhaps the public domain Maupassant collections available on Gutenberg have been diligently cleansed of this trash. 

* Barrett Wendell, English Composition 1894, quoted in Francis Steegmuller, Maupassant: A Lion in the Path, 1949, p. 354.


  1. Heh, someone's definition of a "gay frolic" is different than mine.

  2. **

    It just does not seem possible to me that some smart graduate student somewhere hasn’t complied a credible collection of Maupassant’s short stories and ranked them according their merit.

    Surely some student must have written a doctorial thesis on Maupassant’s short stories by now.


  3. Ranking stories by merit is the very last thing any graduate student is going to do. Not in a dissertation. Not in a dissertation that qualifies for a PhD.

    Every collection I've mentioned is a selection by merit. Each translator or anthologist thinks he's got just the right batch. They all disagree with each other. That's what I find so interesting.

    Emily - you have to admit that the "gay frolic" euphemism does successfully conceal what Maupassant actually wrote. I wouldn't of guessed, either.

  4. I bought a collection of de Maupassant's stories for my Nook this Winter, but have yet to delve into them. Soon, perhaps, as you give me incentive.

  5. Soon - good. More incentives tomorrow and Friday.

  6. The original French text for "the gay frolic" reads as follows : " il passa sa nuit avec des filles", litterally "with girls" - certainly more concise and colourful than "with some prostitutes".
    As seen from a French point of view, your story of Maupassant's reputation ruined by trashy editors is fascinating.
    You can find the complete list of his works ranked in chronological order at
    The list is in French, but the site features the English translation of 150 of Maupassant's short stories or so.
    I also recommend : the entire works of Maupassant as free audio-books (in French only).

  7. Thanks for that slice of excellently-translated Maupassant. Hilarious!

    A friend of mine gave me all her Maupassant when she moved away; she was convinced I would love his work. I can't wait to get started.

  8. Thanks so much for those helpful links. I'm still puzzled why the English and American translators are so hostile to identifying publication dates.

    Interesting how the 1971 translator was afraid his readers would not fully understand "girls," isn't it?

    verbivore - I have no doubt you'll love some of it! How much, I wouldn't want to guess.

  9. I must not have read any of the fake "smutty" stories because I didn't find him all that smutty. Or maybe I was just reading those old translations. :)

  10. Rebecca, the edition you read did not have the fake stories. But it sure has some smutty ones. You list "Mouche" as a favorite. Five guys share a willing girl, repeatedly, she becomes pregnant and they all agree to be the father, an event ensues, and the story ends with a naughty joke.

    This is "gentleman's magazine" stuff. It's cute, very likable, but basically just a bawdy fantasy.

  11. Amateur Reader-I so much wish as you said that short story collections of the works of one author be in order of publication with the date of publication easy to find-I am reading a collection of the short stories of Colette in which the editor no where tells us when the stories were published and he groups them according to what he thinks the stories are about-I am very happy to have the stories translated but I hate the way the collection is done-I bought it sight unseen but would tell others to avoid it

  12. Absolutely - just a list in the back with date of first publication would be helpful.