Friday, January 28, 2011

They stood watching, full of delighted curiosity - Maupassant as Maupassant

Maupassant’s working life was short.  “Boule de Suif” was published in 1880.  Illness overtook him in 1891 and ended his career; he died two years later.  Even this eleven year stretch misstates the case.  1880 saw the single long story, 1881 a half dozen more:

Between 1882 and 1887, inclusive, he had written almost two hundred and fifty [short stories]; in 1888, he wrote only six – almost as few as in 1881, the year of La Maison Tellier. (Steegmuller, 272)

Two hundred and fifty stories in six years!  And I’m still missing something.  That span includes the first three novels as well as a staggering mass of journalism:

It has been estimated that in 1884, the year of La Parure [“The Diamond Necklace”], Maupassant produced 1500 printed pages, about 1000 of them in short stories.  (Steegmuller, footnote on p. 208)

Yesterday I divided Maupassant’s short fiction into a Flaubert pile and a newspaper pile.  The Flaubert stories are among Maupassant’s earlier stories, but one only needs to read them to discover the difference.  The newspaper stories are shorter, have less descriptive writing, far more (and cheaper) dialogue, simpler characterization, and fewer thematic elements.  They often have a light frame – Maupassant is telling us about someone who told him a story.  This kind of story obviously takes much less time to write.

The polished anecdote with not necessarily a trick but a twist, an ironic punchline, is Maupassant’s legacy, the type of story that he invented, the representative Maupassant story.  At their worst, they’re repetitive and trivial; at their best, light and ingenious.  No wonder translators disagree so much about which are the really good examples of his work.  What ineffable qualities.

Not that Maupassant abandoned everything he learned from Flaubert.  Almost every story has a spot or two, a description of a place or character, that is touched up a bit more.  A favorite of mine is “A Duel” (1883), one of Maupassant’s many “revenge on the Prussians” fantasies.  A pot-bellied tradesman finds himself in a train car with a German officer and some fellows I last saw in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938):

In the same compartment were two Englishmen who had come to France as sightseers, and who looked at everything with calm, inquisitive eyes.  They were both very stout too, and chatted together in their own language, occasionally referring to their guidebook and reading out extracts aloud while trying to identify the places mentioned.  (tr. Colet, p. 194)

German soldiers “covered the earth like African locusts.”  The officer’s face “was cut in half” by his moustache.  The story is only six pages long, and all of this descriptive thickening is in the first three pages.  Then the Prussian officer bullies the Frenchman, the Frenchman resists, and the last three pages violently hurl forward:

The Englishmen had stood up and drawn nearer to get a better view. They stood watching, full of delighted curiosity, ready to lay a bet on one or other of the combatants. (197)

I am afraid those Englishmen are representatives of the jaded magazine reader, and of me. They make for good comedy, anyway.  The ethical meaning of the story is actually built into the headlong rush – the behavior of the French protagonist, the psychology of his idea of honor, are reflected not in the details of the story but in its structure, which was new, is still clever, and is pure Maupassant.


  1. Hi A.R.

    Without knowing a lot about either author, it seems that there are interesting similarities between Maupassant and O. Henry. They were contemporaries and died early at 43 and 48 years. They are known for short stories and trick endings. Do you have any comment on this?


  2. My understanding is that O. Henry's work would barely exist without Maupassant. Huge influence.

  3. I think when I read his stories I really liked the trivial ones -- I just liked his style...Interesting comment on o.Henry. I really like his too, although I definitely see them as the "newspaper" stories, rather than the polished deep ones.