Sunday Salon: The Best Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant
Boule* de Suif
The Boule de Suif is a corpulent courtesan. She travels with an assortment of other people who are patriotically French and regard themselves to be respectably married. When they run out of food only the Boule de Suif has thought to bring her own and she shares this willingly. They are detained by a Prussian officer in a village. It turns out he will only let them go if Boif de Suif gives herself to him. She refuses. When her fellow-travellers find out they resent this and eventually persuade her to go to him. The next morning they are allowed on their way, but now all her fellow-passengers, except one, Cornudet (who is Boif de Suif's client and, maybe, lover) refuse to speak to Boule de Suif and even slight her. When they are hungry they bring out their own food, but this time Boule de Suif, is the one without. She is offered nothing and cries. In the meantime Cornudet hums the Marseillaise...
Although set in late nineteenth century France this story, I believe, is timeless. As social apes we have an imperative to form hierarchies and one of the worst things that can happen to us is to lose rank or find ourselves ostracised by those we respect.
*Corrected later. Thanks to Nora who very kindly pointed out idiotic spelling error.
The Two Friends.
Paris is beseiged and the people starving. Two old friends accidentally meet again. They used to go fishing outside the city and decide they could go again since one of them knows the Colonel guarding the city. They are given a password to get back in and eventually reach the canal and start to fish. The Prussians and the French start firing again and shortly afterwards they find themselves captured by the Prussians. The Prussians tell them that if they divulge the password they can save themselves. They don't, even when separated. When they are brought together again they say good-bye to each other and are shot. The Prussians then eat their fish. It's very sad because just over a couple of pages I have become fond of them. I was expecting them to escape.
Madame Tellier's Establishment.
It is apparent from the outset that Madame Tellier runs a house of disrepute - there is the implication that elsewhere people would not admit to running such a house, but in this area of Normandy it is just another business. However, this suspicion is soon quashed and all seems quite innocent, at least to me. There is a downstairs and two lower class waitresses serving the working men, and a posher upstairs with more vividly-described women. Madame Tellier herself is a widow.
Then one day her patrons arrive at her door and the place is locked. It is mysterious and no one knows where they've gone. Without her the businessmen are bereft and ill-tempered. Fights break out.
The next section explains what has happened. Madame Tellier has gone to her niece's first communion and taken all the girls with her. The journey is well described - they are jolly and unrestrained. The women seem glamorous to this little village and they are treated with reverence. One by one they start to cry 'just like the sparks from an engine set fire to dry grass' as they remember their own communion until eventually the whole congregation was crying and 'something superhuman seemed to be hovering about their heads.' It seems to be a turning point. Madame Tellier's brother flirts with one of Madame Tellier's girls and Madame Tellier takes pains to make sure they all catch the train and go home.
News of Madame Tellier's return to her establishment spreads quickly and her usual clients celebrate their return. If it wasn't a brothel before it is made quite clear that it is now; but although the women are loose it is clear also that they are held in high regard and the overall atmosphere is that of joy.
I think the success of this story lies in the way it plays around with the expectations and prejudices of the reader. What is Madame Tellier's Establishment: a rest-house or a whore-house?
This is the nick-name given to a young, boorish Prussian officer who is unpopular with his men. The Prussians have occupied Normandy. In a small act of defiance the local priest has refused to sound the church bell, but the Prussians don't much mind. The Prussian officers have taken over a French chateau and have wrecked the place; Mademoiselle Fifi being one of the main people responsible. Part of the reason for this behaviour is boredom and, in an attempt to alleviate this, one of the non-commissioned officers is dispatched to procure a group of women to entertain the four officers in charge.
They have a dinner together, during which they become more and more drunk, and the senior officer assigns each officer a woman in order of rank. Mademoiselle Fifi is assigned a young Jewish girl called Rachel. He treats her roughly and somewhat contemptuously - biting her lip when he kisses her, and she tells him he will pay for that. As Fifi becomes more drunk he also becomes more jingoistic, eventually telling Rachel, who is on his knee, that as victorious Prussians they have a right to all the French women. Feeling threatened, she stabs him in the neck with a small dessert knife and runs off. Fifi dies and Rachel is never found (although three more Prussians are killed in attempts to find her). For Fifi's funeral the church bell rings - the apparent capitulation in fact masking a French victory - Rachel has been hidden in the bell tower.
This is a satisfying story in which right (for once) wins out - and although de Maupassant concentrates mainly on the men in his descriptions and view-point it is the women and the way they are treated which seems to me to be point of the story.
Clair de la Lune.
Greatly atmospheric tale about an arrogant priest who loves and knows God but detests women. He wishes his niece to become a sister of charity but she is an irrepressible romantic sort of girl who is not interested in God and spirituality but wants to hug things like insects and flowers. One day he hears she has a lover whom she meets every night between ten and midnight and becomes determined to put an end to it. However, when he opens his door that night he sees nature by moonlight which overawes him. He is so affected that when he encounters the lovers they seem part of the miracle of God's world so he decides not to interfere after all. In fact feels ashamed at his audacity of even thinking of it.
A very interesting story for several reasons, but notably for giving an insight of the French view of the English, in particular the variety of English old maid who toured mid-nineteenth century France.
A young artist is fascinated by an English woman twice his age who shares his lodgings. At first she ignores him and indulges in her eccentric behaviour of protestantism and nature worshiping. One day she sees his painting of a viewpoint she loves and after this they become companions. However, when he compliments her looks she seems hurt by him and doesn't bother with him. In an effort to get her back he gives her a picture and their hands touch. He feels what he calls a 'love tremor' run through her. Knowing that she loves him he then announces he will leave, and then, that night is caught kissing a young servant. That night he hears weeping and someone pacing. The next day Miss Harriet is nowhere to be seen. She is eventually found in the well. He then dresses her body and kisses the corpse on its cold lips.
This is a tale with a twist. A poor woman, Mathilde, yearns for a day at a ball. Her husband manages to find her enough money for a gown but she has to borrow her necklace from a friend. She goes to the ball. She is a sensation but she loses her friend's necklace. Since they cannot find it they search town to find a replacement, but the replacement costs so much they have to sell everything they own. They become poor and work hard and they both age. Ten years later she sees the friend with the necklace. The friend looks young and has a child, and is aghast at how Mathilde has aged. When she hears the story about the necklace she laughs. The necklace was paste and not expensive at all. It's quite a conventional story, almost like a moralistic folktale, and very satisfying.
A young man visits a family he has known for some time. On 12th night a cake is divided and the person receiving the token buried within has choice of 'bride'. Usually it is the host that finds the token and he chooses his wife as bride, but this time it is the guest who bites on something hard. He looks around the table, apart from the wife and three daughters there is only Mademoiselle Pearl. Since he would feel compromised if he chose one daughter over the others he chooses Mademoiselle Pearl. She is 40 and attractive and, he realises, he doesn't know anything about her. He asks his host who explains (via an extremely well told and atmospheric story) that Mademoiselle pearl is a foundling. His family adopted her after finding her, as a baby in the middle of a snowstorm - led to her carriage by the howling of a dog.
Mademoiselle Pearl was wrapped in much wealth and this was kept for her dowry. However she never married. The host explains she had many suitors but rejected them all and seemed especially sad around the time the host married his cousin after an engagement of 6 years. The visitor then accurately surmises that the host loved Mademoiselle Pearl which causes the host to break down in tears, and then, later Mademoiselle Pearl to faint. Nice work. He then scarpers feeling oddly satisfied with what he's done. This tale is haunting me for all sorts of reasons - most of all because I keep thinking of that mess the visitor has left behind. Sometimes it might be better if some things are better left unsaid.
The Piece of String.
A very sad tale. A man sees a piece of string on the road, and ashamed that an enemy sees him do this pretends to be looking for something else. Later, it transpires that a pocket book has been lost on the same piece of road, and the enemy of the man says that the man had picked it up and stolen it. The man protests his innocence but no one believes him. Even though the pocket book is later handed in everyone believes that the man still stole it and induced an accomplice to hand it in for him. The man becomes so obsessed by proving and protesting his innocence he eventually wastes away and dies. Again, a universal tale and a great advertisement for the life of a hermit.
Madame Husson's Rosier.
A man finds himself in a small provincial town in Normandy and locates a friend who invites him to breakfast. They eat well, and this is described in loving detail. He is then shown round the town by his friend and they encounter a drunk or, as the friend puts it, a 'rosier'. He then tells the tale of where this term comes from.
Madam Rosier, being impressed at Paris's election of a pure maiden of virtue decides to start a similar contest in her own town. She sets her servant on the task but the servant is unable to find an uncorrupted maiden. However, she then learns of Rosier, a shy and innocent man, and untouched by any vice. He is duly elected and celebrated, and rewarded with a silk purse of 25 gold coins. Unfortunately, he returns to his shop alone, looks at the coins and runs away. He is not seen for a week or so, and then is found, stone drunk against a wall and broke. After that there is no hope for him. He has become an alcoholic.
The friends continue around the town, taking pride in the history. It's an old-fashioned moralistic tale of the power of the rich to corrupt, with added multi-layering spice.
That pig of a Morin.
A tale of hipocrisy. Morin, a middle-aged man, finds himself in a train carriage with a beautiful woman. She smiles at him and he fantasises about her as the train travels through the night. The next morning at a train station, unable to resist any longer he purses up and goes to kiss her. She screams loudly and Morin is charged with attempting to molest her.
A young man and a lawyer are asked to try and get the young woman to withdraw her complaint. They go for walks with her and her uncle, and on one of these walks the young man finds he too is drawn to her and tries to kiss her. She doesn't object as much to this since he is good-looking and young. They are invited to stay the night and the young woman finds several reasons to visit the young man in his room. The young woman withdraws her claim and since the lawyer has to go back to town, the young man has to return too.
He sees the young woman many years later. Her husband reports that she always speaks fondly of him. Morin, however, never recovers from the trauma, is despised by everyone and dies two years later. It's a sad tale and reminds me of the 'The Piece of String'. In both cases the nervous distress brought on by being wrongly accused is enough to kill.
A beautiful woman tells her husband that she resents, at the age of thirty, that she has been kept in motherhood for eleven years, and that it is his attempt to disfigure her because he is jealous of her. She says she had been forced to marry him because of his wealth and the poverty of her parents. He is shocked because he thinks of himself as a model husband and father. She says he only loves his children because they symbolise his power over her. She then asks him to come to church with her and there confesses that one of his seven children is not his own. She then rushes away. Later that day a maid brings her a note from him saying he is going on a long journey.
The next section features two men discussing he woman at the opera. She is now thirty-six although she looks a lot younger. The husband, though, has for the last six years had played wild and loose and looks much older.
The last section returns to the couple. The man has been punished and feels tortured that he cannot love any of his children because he is plagued with doubts about which one is not his and pleads with her to tell him. Convinced he has suffered, as she has suffered, she tells him she was lying before, and when he is convinced that she is not lying, they become friends - at last.
The Olive Orchard.
A story which is modern in structure with a few good twists, especially one at the end. First the curate is introduced in his village. Even though he is fairly old he is strong. He has a sad history. His parents died when he was a young man and he subsequently fell in love with a woman who then betrayed him. News of her betrayal sent him into a murderous rage, and to save herself she told him that the child she was carrying was not his. Although he would kill the product of their liaison he could not kill another man's child. He then told her to go away and that he never wanted to see her again. The effect of this betrayal was profound. He became a priest and then a curate in a village where he has been ever since.
Later in the day on which this story started the housekeeper tells him that a vagabond has come to the door asking for him. The vagabond eventually turns out to be the curate's son. They eat dinner together. The son was called after the other man, and lived as his son until it became apparent, from his looks, that he was the curate's son. The son then 'kicked against the traces' and was sent to a reformatory. There, through playing tricks, he accidentally drowned several people and was sent to prison. After he was released, he was went back to his mother. Just before she died she told him who his father was, and would have gone to the curate immediately had he not branded his stepfather with a hot poker on the day of his mother's funeral.
By now the curate can see all that he despised about his mistress in his son. He proposes that the son leaves him in peace in another village where he supports him as much as he is able, but the son is not happy with this. They fight.
The next morning the housekeeper, who has been sent away while they were eating together, finds them both. The son is in a drunken stupor and the curate has had his throat cut. Everyone assumes murder, but in fact it was suicide.
Two men, a pig farmer and a bar owner, are accused of attempting to murder the pig farmer's wife in court. The wife explains what happened - they promised her 1,000 sous if she did what she was told: first fill a large barrel with water, then strip off, then finally get into the barrel. They then shoved her head under the water. She ran off and escaped.
The explanation is that pig farmer needed money and so proposed selling his wife to the inn keeper who was a widower. They agreed on a price per volume and, because they were both drunk, used Archimedes's idea to measure her volume.
The two were acquitted after the pig farmer was reminded about the sanctity of marriage. It's a short tale with excellent descriptions.
An exceptionally poignant tale about shooting game. The narrator shoots down 'a teal with silver breast' and its companion gives 'a little heart-rending wail' and circles watching its companion. The bird, the cock, cannot continue without the hen and is eventually shot down too. The narrator then returns to Paris - the start of his distaste for 'sport'.
Two Little Soldiers.
Two Breton soldiers take Sunday lunch in countryside that remind them of home and befriend a milkmaid. After a couple weeks one of the soldiers. Luc, asks for leave mid-week and on the Sunday it is clear why - Luc and the milkmaid embrace and Luc's companion, Jean, ignored. On the way back to barracks, Jean leans over a bridge so far he topples over and is lost. Whether it is through being deserted by his friend or loving the milkmaid too is not made clear. A sad story.
A traveller comes across a poor couple in Corsica and lodges with them overnight. It transpires the woman is from his village and he remembers the scandal in which she, a rich and handsome girl, eloped with a hussar. The old man is the hussar, and although they have been poor and led a hard life she has, she says, led a happy one. It's a very simple story, making the point that money can't buy love, which each generation seems to have discover for themselves, again and again.
In conclusion: a great selection of stories. I enjoyed each one, and the writing excellent.