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)
It’s depressing how human behaviour doesn’t evolve. Well at least that’s what it feels like after reading the desolate short story, ‘The Necklace’. This plot has the flavour of a Kanye & Kim vignette (but not April 2018 moral philosopher Kanye). Not least because it involves jewellery in Paris. Whilst I did not grow up poor, I grew up in a materially precarious environment. Nothing was taken for granted and luxuries were speculative and mostly realised through bank loans. The longest relationship I’ve ever had is with debt. Why? Because I also wanted what I didn’t have. I wanted to live in a city I was not born in and then in a country I was not born in. I had an idea of the life I should be living, and whilst it didn’t involve jewellery or designer handbags, I had a sharp sense of entitlement. ‘The Necklace’ highlights how odious an trait entitlement is and how recklessly we can mistake imprisonment for escape.
Collected in The Necklace & Other Tales, 2003. Can be read online here
I was pronouncing ‘Guy’ incorrectly, the librarian told me. Still getting used to being comfortable with choosing my own etiquette for approaching collections, I read the title story first as a light bedtime treat. I read it again. I kept reading under my covers with a torch until four in the morning, the first time I had ever seen that time on a clock. The underside of my duvet was an alpine slope, the shadows in my curtains were the trunks of sycamores and rifle butts, a knot of wood on my desk was a screaming, hopeless mouth. Nowadays perhaps I would attempt to categorize the stories as psychological thrillers or ghost stories or tight, taut, social commentaries—all I knew at the time was that the final sentence of ‘The Mountain Inn’ reversed the flow of blood in my veins and that the next day when I saw a large-eyed, soft-pawed dog chasing after a ball in the park, I burst into tears and would not be consoled.
Translated by H. N. P. Sloman. Found in a soft, green 1957 Penguin books with a far too sedate cover, available to read online here
I’ve gone for Maupassant as my first choice. probably because this is the first short story I remember really sticking in my mind, and it’s therefore acquired a kind of nostalgic perfection. To my great satisfaction I was the only member of sixth form to receive a detention (I misremember the reason) and was locked by my A-level French teacher alone in a classroom for two hours one Friday afternoon. Before escaping via the window, I read this deceptively simple, gallant story of two old friends who meet again by chance during the Franco-Prussian war and the 1871 Siege of Paris. Reminiscing about the fishing trips they used to take together, the men obtain leave to do so one more time. Their excursion is interrupted by four Prussian soldiers and what ensues, despite the patina of propaganda and nationalistic pride, is a story of quiet bravery, the desperate losses of war on both sides and the sheer bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
(First published 1883. Also published in A Parisian Affair and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2004. Translated from French by Sian Miles)
As a student of French, way back, I was taught that Maupassant (together with Prosper Mérimée) was a master of the short story. He published about 300 of them. I don’t remember how many I actually read, but I’ve never forgotten the vivid central image in this one, of the fisherman whose arm is cut off to save the catch. It’s firmly in the nineteenth century French realist tradition that Maupassant learned from Flaubert (Madame Bovary etc), and that encompasses all those gritty urban stories by Zola. Maupassant’s first love was the sea rather than the city, but he made as strong a social comment about the inhumane priorities of the fishing bosses in a short story as Flaubert did about the bourgoisie and Zola the factory and mine-owners in their novels.
(First published in 1888. You can read it in English here)
A great short story; a great horror story; a great depiction of madness, as good as ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. But what I love about ‘The Horla’ is its ending. Short stories, perhaps even more than novels, like to tease the reader with the idea that the story goes on after the narrative ends, that the characters have an afterlife of sorts, in some hypothetical literary realm belonging to neither reader nor author. Maupassant gives this homily a swift kick up the jacksie by leaving its greatest horror for that – terrifyingly attenuated – aftermath. After ‘The Horla’, Maupassant is telling us, no hypothetical continuing narrative, no more story, no more stories at all.*
(first read it in the Melville House Art of the Novella series [a travesty: it’s not a novella!] Again, available in plenty of editions and anthologies and online, including here)
* Last night, at the launch of his collection Darker with the Lights On (in conversation with Joanna Walsh and Chris Power), David Hayden talked eloquently about stories as ‘biomes’, a biome being a term in ecology for a large community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat. It is a space you can enter, which is in some sense self-sufficient – like a smaller-scale version of the Gaia theory, I suppose – and nurturing, and it can, it is implied, nurture anyone who enters and adapts themselves respectfully to the habitat – the reader, in other words. It’s a lovely idea, and it offers another way of explaining why ‘The Horla’ is so particularly devastating as a story. Maupassant’s story does operate as a biome, a complete world unto itself, that draws the reader into it and closes them off inside – but it’s a diseased habitat, and when the crisis and disaster happen, the reader finds they’re still stuck inside, with no means of egress. The biome is a bio dome, fatally contaminated but effectively sealed. The forked paths of this particular garden are one-way only.