Neil Rathmell

100+ essays on literary topics

A Readers’ Diary, 4 December 2013

I have read quite a lot of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories and some of his longer works too, though none of them is very long. The stories I am reading now, in the collection called Le Rosier de Madame Husson, are the first I have read for some time and remind me what makes Maupassant’s voice so distinctive. He writes dispassionately about passion. The story, whether he or someone else is the ostensible story-teller, is told always with absolute detachment. He writes about individuals, not to generalise about human nature, but only to tell a particular story.

The story that gives the collection its title was borrowed by Benjamin Britten for his comic opera, Albert Herring. It is about a well-behaved young man whose virtue is held up as an example to the young women of the town by making him le rosier, the May King, since none of them is worthy of the title May Queen. The irony of Maupassant’s story is that the townspeople now use the term rosier de Mme Husson to describe a drunkard. Being made May King was the ruin of Isidore, who spent his prize money on the pleasures from which he had previously abstained. The essential difference between the French story and the English opera is that Isidore dies of delirium tremens (Dr Marambot, who tells the story, says that he had the honour of closing his eyes) whereas Albert’s night on the tiles is a Damascus road experience from which he emerges a stronger person. Britten makes an allegory out of Maupassant’s sardonic observation of real life.

Another story, La Martine, has a brutality about it from which the English sensibility recoils. Benoist, a farm worker, falls in love with la Martine, a farmer’s daughter. Uneducated and inarticulate, he puts his love into words by saying to himself whenever he sees her, ‘Nom d’un nom, c’est une belle fille.’ He is love-sick. He loses his appetite. His mother worries about him. He is driven at last, after months of silent suffering, to speak to the girl. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘it can’t go on like this.’ ‘What can’t go on like this?’ she asks. He tells her briefly that he can neither eat nor sleep for thinking about her. ‘What would it take to cure you?’ she asks. He stares at her open-mouthed. She punches him in the stomach and runs away. Their mutual affection now assured, they see each other every day. But they put off telling their parents. Too late. The girl’s parents give her to someone else, Vallin, an old school friend of Benoist. They marry. Benoist has lost his love and his friend. He is in despair. The resolution comes when, out in the fields, he hears a scream from Vallin’s farmhouse. He goes to investigate. Hearing more screams, he goes inside and finds Vallin’s wife in labour. Maupassant tells us that he did then what he was used to doing with animals, with cows, with sheep, with mares: he helped and she gave birth. After the birth she thanks him (‘Merci, Benoist, t’es un brave coeur’) and cries a little, as though she feels some regret. But Benoist, he says, no longer loves her. (Lui, il ne l’aimait plus, plus du tout. C’était fini. Pourquoi? Comment ? Il n’eût pas su le dire.) It was over. Why, he couldn’t say. That, I think, is the key to Maupassant. Neither comedy nor tragedy, just life.

The only English writer who has anything in common with Maupassant is Thomas Hardy. One of the stories in this collection, La Vente, is about one man selling his wife to another. M.Brument needs 1000 francs to pay off a debt. He has the idea of selling his wife to raise the money and offers her to M.Cornu, the owner of the local bar. They haggle over the price. M.Brument says he will sell her by volume at 2000 francs per m3. The story revolves around the court case which ensues from their attempt to calculate the woman’s volume by immersing her in a barrel of water and measuring the quantity of water displaced. The Mayor of Casterbridge begins with the sale of a wife. Hardy’s novel was published in 1886, Maupassant’s story in 1887. No suggestion that either borrowed the idea from the other, just a coincidence that reveals a common interest in anything that reveals the limitations of civilisation and an approach to literature which is based on observation of human affairs with no window dressing and no moralising. Just life.

maupassant 01

Guy de Maupassant

My next essay, due on 11 December, is TWO POEMS.

The next entry in my READER’S DIARY is due on 18 December and will be about whatever I’ve been reading lately.

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