Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Complete Original Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume I

Tales of the Franco-Prussian War
Guy de Maupassant
Literary critics could argue long and hard about who’s the best novelist in French literature, but when it comes to short stories, few would deny that Guy de Maupassant is the master. In his short career (he started late and died young), de Maupassant wrote over 300 short stories, as well as half a dozen novels, some poetry, a few travel books, and several plays. Like his Russian counterpart Anton Chekhov, the short stories are his claim to fame. The Complete Original Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, a 13-volume set of his short fiction translated into English, was published in 1911. Despite its title, the set is not really complete, but it does contain 182 stories in all, a dozen of which comprise Volume I.

The Complete Original Short Stories does not arrange its entries chronologically or in any discernible order. The first story in Volume I, however, is in fact the first story that de Maupassant published, entitled “Boule de Suif.” It is also the story that made him famous, and it is still regarded by many as his best. De Maupassant was a protégé of Gustave Flaubert and an associate of Émile Zola. “Boule de Suif” was first published in 1880 in an anthology entitled Les Soirées de Médan. Médan is a village near Paris where Zola had a house and would host gatherings of like-minded writers. Zola was the founder of the Naturalist school of French literature, and Les Soirées de Médan is essentially a manifesto of Naturalism. In addition to Zola’s story “The Attack on the Mill,” the collection included five stories by younger writers including de Maupassant and Joris-Karl Huysmans. Despite Zola’s established fame, it was “Boule de Suif” that garnered the most acclaim and attention, thus launching de Maupassant’s literary career.

The story is an expertly written tale of class conflict and hypocrisy. Ten passengers share a stagecoach ride from Rouen to Le Havre. The party is made up of three wealthy and snobbish couples, two nuns, a Republican, and a prostitute. Boule de Suif, meaning “Ball of Tallow” or “Dumpling,” is the latter character’s nickname. When the coach stops at an inn, the party is detained by a Prussian officer, who refuses to let the coach go on until Boule de Suif agrees to sleep with him. The remaining passengers, therefore, are put in the awkward position of both despising her profession and encouraging it.

“Boule de Suif” may be the best entry in the book, but all the stories are quite good. The one common element that unites all the stories in Volume I is that they are all set during or shortly following the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871. Some, like the aptly titled “The Horrible,” deal with the horrors of war, while others like “Coup d’Etat” are more lighthearted and satirical in tone. A few selections are love stories set during wartime, such as the poignant “Two Little Soldiers.” De Maupassant often capitalizes on the inherent romance and adventure of war but ends with an antiwar message of universal humanity, as in “The Lancer’s Wife.”

If there is a fault to these stories, it is that many are too brief. “Boule de Suif” is by far the longest work in the collection and clearly the best because its length allows de Maupassant to demonstrate his talent for character development. Even in his briefest stories, however, de Maupassant exercises an attention to detail that vividly brings his characters and settings to life, and his plots often feature surprising (but not gratuitous) twists. I have been a Zola fan for many years and have almost finished his complete works, and now I look forward to reading as much de Maupassant as I can find in English.

Stories in this collection

Boule de Suif
Two Friends
The Lancer’s Wife
The Prisoners
Two Little Soldiers
Father Milon
Coup d’Etat
Lieutenant Lare’s Marriage
The Horrible
Madame Parisse
Mademoiselle Fifi
A Duel

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