Thursday, January 27, 2011

Strings of tiny sausages, grapeshot full in the face - Maupassant as Flaubert

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.


  1. .
    Don’t come to your senses! There is method in this.

  2. OK, so now I have died and gone to heaven. Maybe there are other people out there reading and writing with erudition and irreverence about Maupassant and Flaubert but I haven't found them -- until now. I have not read many of M's stories but rather novels, just discovered him this year. And finally, waaaaay too late, read Mme Bovary. Scandal for a Comparative Literature graduate.
    Ummm -- Zola, too? Or is that too much to ask?

  3. Absolutely! This does have a chance of going somewhere.

    Carol - thanks. I haven't read any of M.'s novels, and don't know how to fit them into the story. I have a guess. Someday, maybe soon, I'll give one a try. Your posts are the two you read were interesting.

    I hope to get to more Zola soon, too. I 've only read one of his books, Thérèse Raquin, and that was just last year. We all have our nice long list of Humiliations, to use David Lodge's name for the Books We Should Have Read By Now.

    You want to see irreverent about Flaubert, stick around until next week!

  4. This is Good and Bad. After reading one of the novels, Bel-Ami, I wrote Maupassant off: a second-rate hack, Flaubert wannabe. But this sounds interesting, worth reading, something else to add to my Humiliations.

  5. The three sentence quote from Maupassant you posted is amazing-it forces us to confront the combination of our instincts for food and sex into one-it makes the woman something one consumes and is not quite proud of when done-the woman does not feel at all comfortable with her own corpulence but she knows it gives her a power while it at the same time disgusts. She embodies a world made flesh and reminds us we are all slaves to our baser appetites.

  6. Anthony, you weren't wrong. Second-rate, sometimes; a hack, often; a Flaubert wannabe, sort of - Flaubert wanted M. to be a Flaubert wannabe! M., I'm now convinced, had his own plans.

    But then there's also the first-rate, artistic Maupassant, also, sometimes, a Flaubert wannabe (or not - see above, etc.)

    For example, "Boule de Suif" - as mel says, I can hardly believe everything packed, like a sausage, into that one line of description. The whole story is pretty much that rich.

  7. More on Zola. May I recommend...?
    Think of him as Arthur Hailey. You're probably too young for this, but think research-heavy, very topical. The Peasant Novel. The Les Halles Novel. The Mining Novel.

    Most fun? The Real Estate Novel, La Curee, most often translated as "The Kill." It includes a sex scene on a bearskin rug, stepmother with stepson. The kind of thing that made the English blanch at the notion of "French novels."

    In the meantime I'll keep reading.

  8. Arthur Hailey! Topical! You trying to make me give up on reading?

    If Germinal is the aesthetic equivalent of Airport, I might do just that. I'll certainly never read another word of Zola.

  9. No, no. Calm down. When I read God's Bits of Wood, what it made me think of most vividly was Germinal.

    The sausage and grapeshot bits are making me think of Impressionist painting. That thing by Monet -- "paint exactly what you see" -- except given motif and meaning, as well. Hmm.

  10. The sausage references makes me think of a lot of material (meat) packed in a tight casing and of something I might enjoy eating but I might not want to know exactly how it is made!-I think eating a sausage in public might have been a vulgar gesture as seen my the upper class people on the train but it is something they all would love to be able to do in a food deprived setting-

  11. I'm basing this on the movie of Germinal, which is fantastic, and not the novel, which I must read, but oh yes, there's a central scene of God's Bits of Wood that is a direct homage to Zola.

    I was kidding about not reading. But not about Arhtur Hailey! "Topical" is not a complimentary word at Wuthering Expectations. It should generally be followed by the word "trash."

    Ford Madox Ford wanted to label the Flaubert-and-followers school "impressionist," so you are not alone in thinking that.

  12. Triumph! Ford Madox Ford and I, we are like *that*. Close buddies. The saddest story I have ever heard. Etc.

  13. I really need to reread Maupassnt now! At least the big stories, my favorites. Of cousre, now I have a different translation and since I got the volume for $1 at a library sale, it might not be a good one....nonetheless, thanks for the inspiration to reread once again.

  14. Rebecca, yes, now that you know the stories you can start pulling them apart, seeing how they work.

    Your list of favorites is a good one - a nice anthology. I was thinking about writing about "Simon's Papa," which is the sweetest M. story I found. Maupassant was not merely a cynic.