Monday, December 15, 2014

Ten Tales by François Coppée

Master of the short-short story
François Coppée
Ten Tales is a collection of short stories by French writer François Coppée, published in English translation in an American edition of 1890. The introduction by Brander Matthews explains that Coppée is a master of the Conte, a distinctly French form of fiction which falls somewhere between a brief sketch and a full short story. Though Coppée is not a household name among today’s English-language readers, the quality of these stories makes a strong case that perhaps he should be.

Coppée’s writing lies somewhere between the naturalistic realism of Emile Zola and the more fanciful, allegorical storytelling of Honoré de Balzac, but with a lighter, less pessimistic outlook than either. Though he at times covers some tragic subject matter, he does so from a matter-of-fact perspective without resorting to gratuitous melodrama. A common theme that runs through many of these stories is sacrifice. Characters give up their freedom, their vices, or their lives for the benefit of family, friends, and loved ones. There is a romantic heroism to such renunciations, but Coppée presents them frankly as unidealized instances of the dignity of the common man. These tales speak for the shopkeepers, retired soldiers, petty criminals, and working stiffs of Paris. Coppée’s characters are ordinary individuals who, just like real people, are sometimes thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

One of the strongest stories in the book is simply titled “At Table.” Coppée describes a sumptuous banquet thrown by wealthy nobles, but one guest, dubbed the Dreamer, contemplates the misery that the lower classes had to endure to make such a luxurious repast possible. Though it’s poetic rather than preachy, it could serve as a stirring socialist manifesto. The weakest piece in the book is “The Sabots of Little Wolff,” a brief Christmas fable, predictable and cloying, that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the selections here.

This book is not without its flaws, but most of them are the fault of the translator or editors rather than the author. Do not read the introduction before reading the stories, because Matthews will spoil them all for you. Unfortunately, a few otherwise perfect stories like “The Substitute” and “A Voluntary Death” are spoiled by their own titles. The translation can be awkward at times, employing a fair amount of clunky, antiquated vocabulary that may hinder the understanding of today’s readers. The ebook file that’s available for free on Amazon has one other weird defect. The original printed edition was illustrated, but the ebook version does not contain the illustrations, which is fine. However, someone inserted written descriptions of the illustrations into the text, and they are typographically indistinguishable from Coppée’s prose. So in mid-paragraph you might come across a sentence like “Two geese, strolling across the bottom of the page.” The reader has to learn to overlook such distractions in order to fully enjoy the book.

Coppée’s work deserves a better Kindle file, but these tales are worth the trouble. Anyone enthusiast of A-list French writers like Zola, Balzac, or Flaubert should familiarize themselves with Coppée. These days he may be considered a member of the B-team, but he’s an overachiever that will surprise you.

Stories in this collection
The Captain’s Vices 
Two Clowns 
A Voluntary Death 
A Dramatic Funeral 
The Substitute 
At Table 
An Accident 
The Sabots of Little Wolff 
The Foster Sister 
My Friend Meutrier

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