Guy de Maupassant and the pain of brevity…

How strange and changeful is life! How small a thing is needed to make or ruin us! – Guy de Maupassant, “The Necklace”

There must have been something in the water.

Guy de Maupassant (image courtesy Wikimedia)

If one considers some of the great short story writers of the late 19th-early 20th century – Chekhov, O. Henry, H.H. Munro, better known by his pen name Saki, and Maupassant, one must note two things: they gave us some of the most remarkable short fiction ever written (Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” Saki’s “The Open Window,” O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf,” Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog“) and they all died in their forties. If one adds in the brilliant American Stephen Crane, who died at 29 and who gave us “The Open Boat,” the average lifespan for a master of short fiction in this era works out to be roughly 40. That’s the lifespan of a medieval knight.

It’s as if short fiction genius comes with the price of a short life. It’s a literary artist’s version of Achilles’ choice: faced with the prospect of a long but uneventful life and dying forgotten or doing work that would bring them immortality but a brief temporal existence, they all chose option B.

I have long been divided about whether I thought Chekhov or Crane the greatest of short fictioneers, to borrow a term from my friend the gifted short fiction writer Teresa Milbrodt. Having recently finished reading The Tales of Guy de Maupassant, I find myself needing to consider adding a third contender to my deliberations.

First, though, as I am wont to do, let us go then, you and I, into one of my digressions….

Through my son Joshua I have been made aware of the Easton Press collection of classics of literature. For a bibliophile, there’s not much more sensuously pleasurable than sitting with a nice imbibable of one’s preference and reading from a beautiful leather bound volume. In a world clearly on a Nantucket sleigh ride to hell, such an experience is a reminder that we once valued this green and pleasant lea called civilization. So I found a small lot of these for a good price on our dear friend eBay and availed myself of a few volumes. The first of them I chose to read was called The Tales of Guy de Maupassant. Having read a handful of his stories (besides the once ubiquitously anthologized story mentioned twice already above, I’d read “The Jewelry,” “A Piece of String,” and “Mother Sauvage”), I felt sure that I’d enjoy knowing more of his work.

I did, and I recommend his collected stories to you unreservedly. But what has impressed me as I have pondered Maupassant’s stories over the last few days has been the reach of his influence. Let me offer a few examples.

It is well known that his most well known story, “The Necklace,” was imitated by Somerset Maugham and Henry James. What has become apparent to me is Maupassant’s influence on other great short fiction from his younger contemporaries. Maupassant’s “A Coward” has echoes in Crane’s “The Blue Hotel,” “A Mystery of Heroism,” and even The Red Badge of Courage. His satire of the power of a lie, “A Piece of String,” seems to resonate in Saki’s “The Open Window.” The pain of social convention that must be observed explored in “At the Spa” is reflected in Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog.”

There are about 50 stories in this collection, but one deserves special mention. “Boule de Suif” (translated as “Roly-Poly”) tells the story of a group of French travelers captured by Prussian troops during the Franco-Prussian War. The travelers are a cross section of French society including titled aristocrats, wealthy bourgeoisie, a radical artist/ politician, a pair of nuns, and a prostitute. The Prussian commander demands that the prostitute, a person who has shown more kindness, courage, and patriotism than any of the others, provide him with her favors before he will release the travelers to go on their way. She refuses until persuaded by her fellow passengers to sacrifice herself as an act of patriotic heroism. Once she has done so, they shun her. As Maupassant notes:

No one looked at her or thought of her. She felt herself drowned in the scorn of these respectable scoundrels who had first sacrificed her and then rejected her like some filthy or useless article.

It is a powerful depiction of the failure of humans to be humane to one another. Many critics consider it Maupassant’s finest story.

Rest assured that it is but one fine story in a book loaded with them. Maupassant’s too brief life gave us stories to be long remembered.

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