Wednesday, February 14, 2018

International Short Stories: French, edited by Francis J. Reynolds

Evidence of France’s literary superiority
Guy de Maupassant
International Short Stories: French, compiled by Francis J. Reynolds and published in 1910 by P. F. Collier & Sons, is the third in a trilogy of International Short Stories anthologies, following volumes on American and English stories. This French collection includes 23 stories and novellas by French authors both classic and contemporary (for 1910). Though the American and English volumes were fine, it is remarkable how superior this French volume is to both of those preceding books. While each volume has its household-name superstars, the difference in quality is most notable in the obscure, run-of-the-mill writers long since forgotten. While the minor authors of England and America served primarily as disappointing distractions from the better works in their respective volumes, here the French team proves to have a deep bench of players capable of consistently high performance. This volume captures a moment in time when, whether in the case of romanticism or naturalism, French literature really led the world in narrative innovation and literary merit, until arguably the Americans took the lead with early 20th-century realism.

In terms of big Panthéon-worthy names, the starting five, if you will, includes exceptional selections by Honoré de Balzac (“The Elixir of Life”), Emile Zola (“Jean Gourdon’s Four Days”), and Alexandre Dumas (“Solange”). Victor Hugo’s “A Fight with a Cannon” is actually an excerpt from his novel Ninety-Three, but the lifted scene stands alone as compelling short story. Voltaire’s novella Zadig is also reproduced in its entirety. Though a worthy work, having been published in 1747 it does suffer a bit from its extreme antiquity.

For the most part the second-string players, those who deserve more fame than they presently enjoy, are also represented by admirable offerings. Guy de Maupassant, a true master of the short story, delivers likely the book’s best selection, “Abandoned,” in which a married woman and her former lover visit the love child they spawned 40 years before. “A Piece of Bread” by François Coppée, another greatly underrated storyteller, is a touching tale of a friendship between two soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War. Alphonse Daudet’s excellent entry, “The Last Lesson,” is a moving tale of the last French-language class taught at an Alsatian school before the Prussian takeover. Alfred de Musset’s “Croisilles” is an enjoyable lighthearted romance written in a style reminiscent of Balzac. Another reasonably well-known storyteller, Prosper Mérimée, is less successful with “Mateo Falcone,” perhaps his best-known story but certainly not his best.

The remaining baker’s dozen of authors bear names unlikely to ring a bell with most 21st-century readers. With the exception of one or two disappointments, however, such as A. Chenevière’s African colonial tale “Tonton” and Clémence Robert’s pulpy military adventure “Baron de Trenck,” the quality of these lesser-knowns’ selections is quite good and in some cases truly pleasant surprises. Henry Murger’s “The Passage of the Red Sea,” a delightfully wry satire of the art establishment, is right up there among the volume’s best selections. Offerings by Paul de Kock, Erckmann-Chatrian, René Bazin, Marcel Prevost, and Alain René Le Sage are also impressive works.

For lovers of classic literature, the International Short Stories series is pretty good overall, but the French volume is clearly the one book of the three that definitely deserves a download. Not every story included is a masterpiece, but the goods far outweigh the bads.

Stories in this collection

A Piece of Bread by François Coppée
The Elixir of Life by Honoré de Balzac 
The Age for Love by Paul Bourget 
Mateo Falcone by Prosper Mérimée 
The Mirror by Catulle Mendes 
My Nephew Joseph by Ludovic Halevy 
A Forest Betrothal by Erckmann-Chatrian 
Zadig the Babylonian by François Marie Arouet de Voltaire 
Abandoned by Guy de Maupassant 
The Guilty Secret by Paul de Kock 
Jean Monette by Eugene François Vidocq

Solange by Alexandre Dumas 

The Birds in the Letter-Box by René Bazin 

Jean Gourdon’s Four Days by Émile Zola 

Baron de Trenck by Clémence Robert 

The Passage of the Red Sea by Henry Murger 

The Woman and the Cat by Marcel Prevost 

Gil Blas and Dr. Sangrado by Alain René Le Sage 

A Fight with a Cannon by Victor Hugo 

Tonton by A. Chenevière 

The Last Lesson by Alphonse Daudet

Croisilles by Alfred de Musset
The Vase of Clay by Jean Aicard

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