Tuesday 25 July 2017

The Best Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant has oft been declared the master of the short story. I personally think that honour belongs to William Trevor, but I'm not going to quibble about that right now.

As it wasn't so much his short story ability that attracted me at this point, but more his membership of the literary naturalism club. A club that included the likes of (the founder) Emile Zola and Thomas Hardy - two of my favourite authors.

Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was born on the 5th August 1850 and died at the age of 42 on the 6th July 1893. Most of his 300 short stories (and six novels) were set during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71 - an era I'm not very familiar with, but am slowly learning about thanks to Zola.

I find it very easy to get mixed up by all the wars happening in Europe during this century - who started what and why. I'm also prone to getting my Napoleon's and French Republic's mixed up. Given that the imbalance of power in Europe, that this war created, is often cited as one of the causes of WWI, I feel that I should understand it better. 

The shock of France's quick defeat as well as the hardship and hunger suffered by the population during the Prussian blockade, created a ongoing desire for revenge and right-wing politics in France.

Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq - Le Général Faidherbe au combat de Biefviller-lès-Bapaume, 3 Janvier 1871
Boule de Suif (or Dumpling or Ball of Fat), Deux Amis (Two Friendsand La Maison Tellier (Madame Tellier's Establishment) are the first three stories in my Best Of. They all focus on the resistance of the French population to the German occupation.

In Boule de Suif we have a cast of characters, who would never normally interact with each other in 'real life', brought together in a diligence (I love that word - after reading about the care and attention that the hostler took to hitch his horses to the coach, I wonder if that is that where the phrase 'due diligence' comes from).

The journey is slow and uncomfortable. Each character represents a particular stereotype of rural French society. From Monsieur and Madame Loiseau (wholesale wine merchants) who sit 'right at the back, in the best seats of all' to Cornudet, 'the democrat, the terror of all conservative people'. 

The coach also contains four more people who 'represent Society - the strong, established society of good people with religion and principle', two nuns 'fingering their long rosaries and murmuring paternosters and aves' and last, but certainly not least, Elisabeth Rousset, or Boule de suif, 'who belonged to the courtesan class'.

To my mind, Elisabeth is the true hero of this story. Her generosity and kindness are not only not repaid by her so called 'betters', but she shows up their utter lack of principle and total hypocrisy. Despite their superior views on her profession, they show themselves up to be little more than pimps.

Two Friends is set in Paris during the siege. Monsieur Morissot and Monsieur Sauvage represent two different political views - Imperialism and Republicanism 'under a king we have foreign wars; under a republic we have civil war'. Whilst out walking and fishing they both lament the futility of war and agree on one thing 'that they would never be free'. 

Once again de Maupassant presents us with brave, patriotic Frenchmen as opposed to the brutal, dull-witted German soldiers who confront them.

La Maison Tellier has another prostitute as protagonist. The bawdy nature of her working life is contrasted with the religious event that her brother invites her to in a sleepy rural village.

It's a bit of an odd story with a whole houseful of ladies of the night being transported to a child's first communion. I wasn't quite sure what the point of it was, except, perhaps, as a bit of fun. Madame Tellier herself, observes towards the end, 'everything has its right time, and we cannot always be enjoying ourselves'.

La Maison Tellier. Illustrations d'Edgar Degas. Paris: Ambroise Vollard, 1933
De Maupassant's realism is all about the showing. His descriptions of the environment and the people are just lovely. Class and political ideology feature in all of his stories with hypocrisy often being the common ground. The three stories I've read so far have a fairly clear point, counterpoint and final conflict/resolution. However, working out why someone did what they did, is entirely up to the reader, which is exactly what de Maupassant wanted.

For most of his career he was wary of looking too deeply into characters’ motivations. “The man who goes in for pure psychology can only substitute himself for all his characters,” Maupassant wrote, “for it is impossible for him to change his own organs, which are the only intermediaries between the outside world and ourselves.” Better, he thought, to report what people do and say, and say to themselves, than to ask what makes them tick.                              (Lorin Stein, 2010)

I'm looking forward to meandering my way through the final fourteen stories in this collection. But for now, I'm thrilled that I snuck these three stories in, just in time, for my Paris in July challenge with Tamara @Thyme for Tea. As well as my Deal Me In Short Story challenge with Jay @Bibliophilopolis -  theses three stories see me finally move onto the next suit of cards in my euchre pack. Slow and steady, slow and steady!


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed these. Unfortunately, I "did" Maupassant's Boule De Suif Et Autre Contes De Guerre during my French A-level and was a) put off them, b) given a lifelong feeling that if I did read his stuff it had to be in French, and my French is now not up to it. So it's good to see other people appreciating him.

    1. I can see how these stories would be good to read in a French class - they're straight forward examples of story telling and simply told but, interesting human stories nonetheless, although maybe not to a teenager!!

  2. Anonymous25/7/17

    First of all, I totally agree regarding William Trevor. He is certainly in my short story writers Hall of Fame. :)

    I've only read a few of Maupassant's stories in the years of Deal Me In, and none of the ones you just read. I may look into buying that collection. Reading a whole barrage of stories in a row by one author (as I did during the 24in48 Readathon) is an experience I'd like to try again, but only if the author is an established "master" of the form.

    1. I like reading several in a row too as it gives me a chance to get into the writer's rhythm and style properly - or as properly as one can when not reading it in the original language.

      Having done some reading about people's favourite de Maupassant stories, this Best Of certainly seems to tick all the boxes, so I'm really keen to try more of them sooner rather than later.

  3. I've read Bel-Ami and a biography about Maupassant....but never his short stories.
    I know he always conferred with Flaubert about his writing....so if Gustave thought it was good, then it was good.
    I agree W.Trevor is one of if not THE best short story writer of 20th C. My review of one of his stories is almost ready :)

    1. I've struggled with Flaubert in the past (I mean Madame Bovary of course) but it was more about the characters than the writing from memory.

      I have Bel-Ami somewhere around the house, but thought it was wise to start with the short stuff first.

  4. I read his set in the Franco Prussian war story "The Duel" this month in which a German officer insults a Frenchman on a train, provoking a duel in which the German is Killed. I have a collection of translations by Sandra Smith.

    1. The Duel is not in my collection - I will have to pop by over the weekend to check out your review :-)


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.