Monday, October 27, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: French I by Alphonse Daudet, et al.

Vive la France!
Guy de Maupassant
In the 19th century, the greatest literature in the world was being produced in France. English-language readers may have been more familiar with British writers, but in terms of stylistic innovation and storytelling skill the French were really in a league of their own. When Charles Scribner’s Sons published their ten-volume series Stories by Foreign Authors in 1898, they devoted three whole volumes to French fiction. This book, subtitled French I, is the first volume of the series.

Of the six stories included here, only one of them misses its mark. “Uncle and Nephew” by Edmond About is about a man in danger of losing his sanity because he can’t summon the courage to propose to the woman he loves. It starts out as a mildly fun romantic comedy and eventually devolves into a confusing and silly farce. Thankfully, the other five stories are much better.

Alphonse Daudet’s “The Siege of Berlin,” takes place during the Franco-Prussian War. If you know anything about that war, you know that there was no siege of Berlin, but all is explained in this touching story of patriotism. “The Juggler of Notre Dame” by Nobel Prize-winner Anatole France, is a funny, satirical tale of a street performer who finds religion. In Paul Bourget’s “Another Gambler,” Claude mourns the loss of his black-sheep cousin Lucien, and fears he may have inadvertently been the cause of the dead man’s downward spiral. It’s a very moving and compassionate study of childhood regrets. These three selections are all strong, but it’s the two excellent stories that finish off the book that really make this collection worth reading.

“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant is a masterpiece. Madame Loisel is a beautiful and charming woman, but born poor and married poor. She bemoans her station in life, longing for the excitement and luxury of the wealthy class. When her husband, a clerk, is invited to a ball, she seizes the opportunity for one night of lush life, but how much will this one enchanted evening cost the couple in the end? It’s a seemingly simple story that delivers a moral message, but it’s profoundly deep and insightful in its examination of wealth, class, and ambition.

Another great story, Victorien Sardou’s “The Black Pearl,” is set in Amsterdam, for no apparent reason. To prove his enduring love to the woman he wishes to marry, Balthazar must find a preserved flower that he saved from their meeting years before. When he returns home to retrieve the beloved talisman, however, he finds that his desk has been ransacked and his valuables stolen. With the help of his scientifically minded friend Cornelius, and a zealous detective named M. Tricamp, Balthazar searches for the solution to this puzzling case. It’s a great mystery, worthy of Sherlock Holmes. The startling conclusion is truly a surprise, though to some extent it does defy belief. Some confusing passages and overly melodramatic moments keep this story from being perfect, but it’s still a great read. Too bad Sardou didn’t write a whole series of detective novels with these characters; I would certainly read them.

This is one of the best volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series and a great collection for fans of classic French literature. These authors may not be as famous as Hugo, Zola, Balzac, or Dumas, but after reading the pieces included here you’ll certainly want to seek out more of their work.

For some reason, neither Amazon nor Project Gutenberg offers ebook files of the French volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, but they can be found for free at Wikisource.

Stories in this collection
The Siege of Berlin by Alphonse Daudet 
The Juggler of Notre Dame by Anatole France 
Uncle and Nephew by Edmond About 
Another Gambler by Paul Bourget 
The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant 
The Black Pearl by Victorien Sardou

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