Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories. Oxford World’s Classics, 1993. Translated by David Coward.
Born near Dieppe, Normandy in 1850, Maupassant lived from the age of eleven with his mother at Étretat, on the Normandy coast, after she obtained a legal separation from her abusive husband. This setting and background may well have influenced the largely cruel stories in this collection, notable for their unrelieved cynicism, misanthropy and depiction of shabby, mendacious, sensual Norman peasants and bourgeoisie as grasping, venal, cunning, violent and selfish.
Two years later he was placed at a school in Rouen, and hated it (I started reading this collection on the train back from my recent visit to Rouen and Normandy). This school became the basis for the characteristically bleak story here, ‘The Question of Latin’. At seventeen he met Flaubert, who as I posted recently was born in Rouen (they both attended the Lycée Corneille there, at different times), and was to become a mentor to the younger man when his writing career began, and through him was introduced to other literary figures like Zola and Turgenev, who also influenced his style and themes.
Soon after graduating in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out; several of the stories in this collection are set during or soon after this traumatic time for the humiliated, defeated French. Although he enlisted in the military, Maupassant saw no action personally. But as David Coward points out in his introduction to this edition of selected stories, Maupassant would have seen first-hand examples of the arrogance of the conquerors – a feature of the war and post-war stories here – and the ‘spineless collaboration of local bourgeois notables.’
This misanthropic tendency is seen in most of the stories here. His view of humanity is that we’re a pretty hapless, grotesque lot, driven by implacable lusts and forces beyond our control, while religion is a fantasy to disguise the futility of existence. Morality and higher feelings are an illusion. Coward concludes that Maupassant’s bleak and cynical view of the human condition is that it’s a ‘ghastly comic farce’.
The opening story sets the tone. An apparently fanatically zealous, but deeply hypocritical priest is so outraged by the carnality of his flock – a tendency which he secretly shares – that he murders a young couple he finds fornicating in a shepherd’s wheeled hut by pushing it over a high cliff with them inside it. He’d earlier kicked a whelping bitch to death because a group of curious village children were watching this shameful scene with interest.
The ‘Fifi’ of the title story is the nickname of one of the stereotypically boorish occupying Prussian officers during the war. Despite his effeminate ways, he’s the most outrageously boastful, violently destructive and arrogant of the lot of them. His favourite pastime is gratuitously to destroy or vandalise the priceless artefacts the owners of the château in which they’re billeted had left behind. When he hires a group of girls from the local brothel to a debauched ‘party’ to entertain himself and his bored fellow officers, he goads and degrades one of the girls too far, with horrifying murderous consequences. But the girl’s desperate act of patriotism isn’t portrayed as entirely noble.
Several of the stories remind me of Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’; ‘Call it Madness?’ is narrated as a first-person rant by a madman who insists repeatedly that his murderous, irrationality isn’t mad…’ In Who Can Tell?’ the narrator believes he’s seen his furniture leaving his house one night as if animated. When it later reappears, as if by magic, in an antique shop, his precarious hold on reality finally gives way.
‘Two Friends’ appears to set up a tale destined to be less nasty as two drunken city chums set out behind enemy lines to enjoy some peaceful fishing at their favourite pitch on a river. It doesn’t end well for them.
One of the longest and best stories is ‘Miss Harriet’. Henry James even found a vestige of ‘tenderness’ in it (it doesn’t last). She’s an ageing English spinster who catches the eye at a farmhouse inn of a philandering young artist. When he realises this religiously fanatical, virginal spinster is falling in love with him he behaves less than chivalrously, and her suffering destroys her.
So it goes on. Vengeful violence is exacted on Prussians by some French patriots, goaded out of their passivity by grief or the arrogance of their oppressors. A pretty artist’s model becomes the subject of local gossip at a holiday haunt as the story of her having to use a wheelchair reveals a sordid secret.
Women generally fare even worse than the flawed men in these tales. They are scheming and devious, intent on snaring any man foolish enough to fall for their tawdry charms, or too stupid or besotted to perceive their duplicitous greed.
‘Monsieur Parent’ is the longest and probably the nastiest in this selection. Henry James refers to its ‘triumphant ugliness’. He characterised Maupassant’s ‘most general quality’ as ‘hardness’, and the stories, which he acknowledges as ‘masterpieces’, are filled with ‘pessimism’ and are ‘extremely brutal’:
His vision of the world is for the most part a vision of ugliness…[with] a certain absence of love, a sort of bird’s-eye-view contempt.
Maupassant’s literary method involves little attempt at psychological exploration; his characters act on instinct, unreflectingly, as they feel impelled to, and that’s it. He was at pains not to reveal motivation – beyond the usual greed and cruelty. He pokes the teeming antheap of his world with his authorial stick and describes the ensuing furious turmoil – which is ‘mean, narrow and sordid’, a ‘picture of unmitigated suffering’ (James again).