‘Idyll’ by Guy de Maupassant

I played a lot of clock patience when I was about fourteen: I liked to watch the pattern repeating and deviating. In the same way, I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes and PG Wodehouse. They were soothing even if they didn’t quite deliver that hit of total absorption I was looking for. Guy de Maupassant’s ‘La Parure’, which I read in French, seemed a bit like one of those patterns at first, so I moved over to his stories in translation, and found myself in receipt of the strong stuff, his marvellous mixture of shape, character, and sensuality. ‘Idyll’for instance, is outrageous: a man meets a wet nurse on the train. He is hungry and she is busting and the result is stupendous. It helped to cure me of the notion that sex didn’t exist in the past. Also, I’d been on the train in the opening description and I was amazed that writing showed it better than telly. “The train had just left Genoa en route for Marseille and was following the long curves of the rocky coast. It slithered like an iron snake between the mountains and the sea, past beaches of yellow sand lapped by little silver waves, before being swallowed up into the mouth of a tunnel like an animal bolting into its lair.”

First published in 1884. Widely translated and collected, including in A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (Penguin Classics, 2004)


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