Blogley, Writing and Books

284 – Guy de Maupassant and The Trip of Le Horla

I’ve been reading the short stories of Guy De Maupassant, a French writer who died over 120 years ago.

I first came across him in a bookshop in Montauban, a small redbrick town, 50 kms north of Toulouse. I was looking for some Albert Camus as I wanted to start reading novels in French and was counting on the famous Algerian ex-goalkeeper (and novelist) to get me started. There are only so many times you can read The Little Prince.

I asked the proprietor if he had La Peste (after The Outsider, Camus’ most famous book). He said he had: four copies in fact. I took the one with the biggest print and then he asked me if I’d read any Maupassant. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that a village near Cahors?’ I joked (Montpezat being a village a few miles from here). He smiled weakly (idiot Englishman), ‘No, he’s the master of the short story. Very good for learning French,’ he said in English. ‘Because it’s simple.’

He didn’t have anything in stock so I forgot about him until nearly a year later. Christmas Day 2016, Elizabeth gives me my last present of the day. It’s a book. Paperback.

‘Guess what it is?’ she asks. I roll off a few authors. ‘Camus, Hemingway, Auster, Ballard? ‘Nope,’ she replies. ‘Delillo, Steinbeck, Exupery?’ ‘Nope. Open it.’

I open it and The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant falls out of the wrapper and onto my lap like a giant block of Emmental. Tears well up and I say a big thank you! And so begins my interest in Guy de Maupassant.

Born in 1857 in Tourville sur Arques near Dieppe in Normandy, he died in Paris in 1893 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. His most famous story, Boule de Suif (Butterball), tells the story of a coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The inhabitants: a prostitute, a wineseller, two nuns, a factory owner, a count, a politician, and their wives, constitute a fascinating cross section of French society in the late 19th century.

This story is the first one I read and is a perfect introduction to his style. The simplicity of which stems from his first hand knowledge of  the farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, prostitutes, soldiers, civil servants, shopkeepers, landowners, writers and vagabonds he encountered in his  life.

After moving to Paris in 1878 to work as a civil servant he wrote in his spare time. However, after Boule de Suif was published in 1880, Madame Tellier in 1882 and Mademoiselle Fifi in 1883, his reputation was so high that he gave up his job to write full time. By the time he died he’d written over 300 stories, six novels, plus countless collections of poems and other writings on travel and nature.

One of the things you notice when you read his stories is the phenomenal amount of food they eat. In Miss Harriet, a story about a puritanical English Protestant woman living in a rundown auberge in a small village called Benouville on the Normandy coast, they typically lunch on: ‘a ragout of mutton, followed by a rabbit and salad, followed by cherries and cheese.’ All enjoyed with cider. In another story aptly named The Beggar, their ‘simple’ lunch consists of a couple of chickens, a partridge, a side of ham, followed by cheese and a tart. Again washed down with cider. I daresay not everybody enjoyed such lunches in 19th century France. However, this abundance of food is so common in his writing that I suspect this was how rural people ate.

His stories are also at times very tragic and sad. The Blind Man, the story of a man who’s abused and tortured by his own family because he can’t work on the farm, is one of the most crushing stories I’ve ever read.

Conversely his stories can be phenomenally uplifting and amusing. Almost farcical. Stories such as The Duel, The Drunkard and The Relic are silly comic book affairs. Whereas stories like The Necklace and A Piece of String (and Boule de Suif) are highly political.

I enjoy his works because they are simple, finely crafted stories distilling a code of values and ideas into short pieces. Normally with staggeringly abrupt endings. So abrupt at times that I’ve wondered whether some pages have been torn out.

There are over 300 stories and yet my favourite is The Trip of Le Horla, a fascinating trip from Paris to Holland in a hot air balloon. It charts an overnight voyage – yes overnight! – from the centre of Paris to Huyet on the Dutch coast. There’s some awe inspiring description of the trip – a trip I assume he made himself – but it’s also a superb meditation. This is one of my favourite sections as they float across France at 2000 metres:

All memory has disappeared from our minds, all trouble from our thoughts; we have no more regrets, plans nor hopes. We look, we feel, we wildly enjoy this fantastic journey; nothing in the sky but the moon and ourselves! We are a wandering, travelling world, like our sisters, the planets; and this little world carries five men who have left the earth and who have almost forgotten it. We can now see as plainly as in daylight; we look at each other, surprised at this brightness, for we have nothing to look at but ourselves and a few silvery clouds floating below us.

His diversity is astonishing. Tales of varying length and assorted subjects ranging from tragedy to satire to comedy to farce. All different and yet all possessing the author’s vivid set of personal experiences.

Visit http://maupassant.free.fr/ where all his material can be found. Or download the complete short story collection for your Kindle, tablet or phone for free here – 800 pages of a late 19th century French writer. What else could you want for the spring?

Or you can read my own selection of  short stories, The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, here

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The French, Writing and Books

244 – L’étranger

camus

“Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : ‹‹Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués›› Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.”

The first paragraph of L’étranger, a book I read years ago after finding it in a pile of my maternal grandfather’s belongings after his death.

Since then I’ve read it three times at different stages in my life, and each time been mesmerised by it. The haunting routines of the protagonist Meursault. His functional lifestyle and lack of concern about anything, even the death of his mother. A man whose days, routines, acquaintances, family, work, hold little or no value.

Je me suis fait cuire des œufs et je les ai mangé à même le plat, sans pain parce que je n’en avais plus et que je ne voulais pas descendre pour en acheter.”

(I cooked some eggs for myself and ate them out of the pan without bread because I’d run out and couldn’t be bothered to go downstairs to buy some.)

I keep coming back to this line. It sums up the character. The minimum is always done. Eating the eggs out of the pan is enough. He would like some bread with the eggs – he is hungry, we know this – but he lets it pass. It’s not important.

The book continues in this style for its 182 pages almost devoid of description, which I like. I’m drawn into Meursault’s world, a world free from unnecessary distraction. He lives in his mother’s flat (his mother is in a home two hours away), he goes to work in an office, he smokes, he reads, he goes swimming, he has occasional sex, he goes to the cinema. All without feeling particularly anything for any of them.

The reason for this post is that Elizabeth very kindly bought me the French version for Christmas, having only previously read it in English. I was excited. I can speak and read French, but I’m not proficient. If ever I was going to start reading French novels, this was it.

I had started reading Saint Exupery’s Courrier Sud over the summer, but had got lost somewhere in his ramblings about his lost love Genevieve. I’d actually read the book in English years ago, and remembered it was pretty boring then, so a bad choice. L’étranger on the other hand was a guaranteed winner so I embarked on it on Christmas Day just after our traditional Christmas lunch of poached egg on toast (we had stuffed Turkey later).

I was engrossed from the start:

Mother died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the home: “Mother dead. Funeral tomorrow. Yours faithfully.” It means nothing. It was yesterday.

And from here the story unfurls. A story of how a man should react to the death of his mother. A man overcome by grief, crushed by the loss, unable to partake in normal life. But this is not the case. Meursault gets on with life from the very first day. He goes swimming, goes to the cinema, has sex. It’s these small, almost irrelevant, actions that are ultimately Meursault’s downfall.

There is another strand to my quiet obsession with this book. When I was eight, I too was told that my mother had died. Not through a telegram, by my father. I remember the time, the place, the day, even the weather (overcast and warm), as though it was yesterday. And yet, like Meursault, life carried on as though nothing had happened.

I understand Meursault completely. I am (or at least was) him, an outsider looking in on the world. Indifferent to events around me and happy to plod along doing whatever is necessary to get through it. Murray Smyth, my housemaster at school, who I mentioned in Blogley 242 saw this. Describing me one afternoon as I was busy minding my own business away from everybody else, as insular. I didn’t know what it meant at the time so I looked it up: ‘Island like’, was part of the definition that stuck in my head. ‘Island like,’ I thought. ‘Like a boarding school.’ I didn’t understand the meaning of irony at the time either.

I think differently now. I’m not separated from other people or cultures, new or different ideas. I enjoy life and the world. I enjoy chopping wood, lighting fires, running, cycling, books, languages, food, animals, fresh air. I even like other people. But there’s part of me that can’t help thinking like, or wanting to be, Meursault. The Outsider.

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