Monday, May 9, 2022

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

A few masterpieces in an otherwise middling collection
Guy de Maupassant
Like America’s Edgar Allan Poe or Russia’s Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant is considered France’s master of the short story, at least for the 19th century. The Complete Original Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, a 13-volume English-language collection of the French author’s short fiction, was published in 1911. It is not really “Complete,” but it does contain 182 stories, eleven of which are gathered into Volume II. The selections, originally published in the 1880s, are not arranged in any discernible order.

Volume I of The Complete Original Short Stories included a dozen stories all set during the Franco-Prussian War, and initially it seems like Volume II is going to maintain that setting, as the first four stories all take place during that conflict. “Mother Sauvage,” about a French woman quartering Prussian soldiers in her home, is the prize of the volume, a stunning story both shocking and moving. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “The Mustache” is an unfunny piece of fluff penned as a faux letter from a woman to her friend, in which the narrator gushes over her love of a man with a good mustache. “Epiphany” is another humorous tale set during wartime, while “The Colonel’s Ideas” is a more conventional and predictable tale of wartime heroism.

The remaining selections do not mention the Franco-Prussian War, which makes for a nice change of scenery. “A Question of Latin,” a rom-com in which a student plays matchmaker for his meek Latin teacher, is warm and funny. The real standout stories, however, are those that depict a darker side of life. “Madame Baptiste” is a remarkable story in which de Maupassant frankly depicts the disgraceful way that so-called “respectable” 19th century society treated victims of sexual assault. “The Blind Man” is a similarly brutal tale about the abuse suffered by a blind man at the hands of his family and neighbors. This one feels less meaningful and believable than “Madame Baptiste” because de Maupassant only seems interested in sketching a worst-case-scenario portrait of cruelty.

All the stories are quite brief and can be read in ten or fifteen minutes each, with the exception of “A Family Affair,” which is roughly five times the length of the typical entries. De Maupassant was a writer of the Naturalist school, and his work clearly shows the influence of mentor Emile Zola. Nowhere in this volume is that more apparent than in “A Family Affair,” a story in which de Maupassant lampoons the suburban middle class. A meek office worker and his shrewish wife are jolted out of their routine existence when his mother dies. As a staunch Naturalist, nothing is sacred with de Maupassant, and the sanctity of funeral proceedings are turned into a ridiculous farce showcasing the selfishness, vanity, and greed of the deceased’s loved ones. Unlike Zola, who always reserves a little affection for even his most contemptible characters, de Maupassant clearly despises his cast, which somewhat lessens the fun for the reader.

Though “Mother Sauvage,” “Madame Baptiste,” and “A Question of Latin,” clearly demonstrate de Maupassant’s mastery of his medium, the remainder of the book’s contents are comprised of surprisingly mediocre fare. If one were to base one’s opinion of de Maupassant’s literary career on Volume II alone, his reputation as the French Poe or Chekhov might seem undeserved. This selection of stories is a step down from Volume I, but overall it is still an above-average collection of short fiction.

Stories in this collection

The Colonel’s Ideas
Mother Sauvage
The Mustache 
Madame Baptiste
The Question of Latin
A Meeting
The Blind Man
A Family Affair 
Beside Schopenhauer’s Corpse

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