My short story mentor, an enthusiastic leader of a book group on AOL, believed the short story was the most demanding and elegant of literary forms. He insisted that we read The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories every year (this is how I know so much about T. C. Boyle and Alice Munro). But though he was devoted to contemporary fiction, he was also very keen on classics. I’ve lost touch with him since I left AOL, but am sure he would be proud of me for reading Guy de Maupassant’s On Horseback and Other Stories. Yes, especially since I was supposed to read de Maupassant’s most famous story, “Boule de Suif” (“Ball of Fat”), for our group. I rather think I did read it, but remember nothing about it.
Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), a prodigy of Flaubert and Zola, wrote over 340 stories. The six entertaining stories collected in On Horseback and Other Stories are a perfect place to start. The tone and voice of the stories range from the comic to the tragic, from the everyday to the shocking, from realistic to the supernatural. And often these disparate effects are all mixed up.
My favorite story, “The Necklace,” is a rather sinister riff on “Cinderella.” A beautiful young woman, Mathilde, longs above all to be rich. While her husband, a civil servant, is delighted with their modest evening stew, she thinks of “dainty dinners, of glittering silverware, of tapestry that peopled the walls with mythical personages and with strange birds flitting in a fairy forest…” She cannot bear to visit a rich friend anymore because she is so jealous. When finally her husband gets an invitation to the palace of the Ministry, she refuses to go unless she can have a new dress. She spends her husband’s hunting money on the dress (well, that seems okay to me!). But then she must have jewels. And after she borrows a diamond necklace from her rich friend, she is satisfied, and really is the belle of the ball. But then something dark happens…I mean really dark.
“The Horla” is positively Dostoevskyan, the partly humorous, partly sad diary of a man who is losing his mind. He hallucinates, believes that some newly evolved post-human being form has taken over his life, notices his milk and water glass are empty every morning, and can escape this other’s terrifying possession only when he leaves home. I’ll say no more about what happens.
In the rambling comic story, “Madame Tellier’s Establishment,” the owner of a well-run house of prostitution takes a day off with her employees to attend her goddaughter’s first communion. Her customers are furious and baffled when they knock on the door and see the incomprehensible sign, “Closed for first communion,” and violence breaks out. But Madame Tellier and her girls are already traveling by train to her brother’s village, and on the journey meet a raucous, witty man who alternately entertains them by kissing a peasant’s ducks and insults them by recognizing their bright clothes as a sign of their profession. In the village, however, they are treated like royalty, because the bright clothes signify wealth to the peasants, not prostitution. Ironically they are ushered into the front row of the church. But when one of the women starts remembering her own first communion, the emotion spreads like a plague, and…but I can’t reveal it. There’s almost something South American about this story: did Gabriel Garcia Marquez read it?
Anyway, they’re very good stories, usually compared to Chekhov, but I was also thinking of Dostoevsky and Turgenev.