Guy de Maupassant: His work no longer receives the attention it deserves from the English-speaking world
Guy de Maupassant is considered the greatest short story writer in French literature. He is often said to have defined the modern short story and influenced the likes of Chekhov, Maugham, Babel and O. Henry. In France, his work is studied at secondary schools and universities, as it is in England. But it is probably true to say that in the English-speaking world generally he no longer receives the attention he deserves.
Sandra Smith, who has previously translated Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, argues that this is partly due to the fact that in the past translators were only required to deliver literal translations. In older translations of Maupassant, she believes, the lyricism and flow of style was lost. To illustrate the struggle of translation, she cites the translator Ollie Brock who wrote: “Imagine trying to cook the same meal twice with different ingredients. You wouldn’t manage it.”
Getting away from a reverence for the original text gives translators the chance to look beyond literal translations and find “emotional equivalents” that transport the reader into Maupassant’s time and place. This is how Smith’s new translation of “The Necklace” and other stories aims to reintroduce Maupassant to a new audience.
Maupassant was born into a minor aristocratic family in Normandy in 1850. When he was 11, his mother risked social disgrace by divorcing his philandering father. While still at school he met his mother’s friend Gustave Flaubert, who became his mentor. At Flaubert’s home he met Zola and Turgenev. He began identifying with realism and naturalism. In 1880 he published “Boule de Suif”, which is part of the new collection and a “masterpiece that will endure”, according to Flaubert. It was a success, so much so that Maupassant gave up his job as a civil servant and dedicated himself to writing.
Biographies point to 1887 as the year when signs of mental illness began to appear. His body, too, was deteriorating from a syphilitic infection. It was the same year that “The Horla”, also in this collection, was published. It is a terrifying story of anguish and the supernatural. In 1891, he wrote a letter to a friend saying that he was going mad, suffered from delusions, and that his brain was running out through his nose and mouth. A short time later he tried to commit suicide and was committed to a private asylum in Paris, where he died aged 42.
In his short life Maupassant wrote more than 300 short stories, six novels and three travel books. The narratives are effortless and naturalistic. Certain themes reflecting his own life recur in his stories: the Franco-Prussian War (many of his stories and essays are anti-war and show war’s devastating effects), the countryside, peasantry, prostitution and adultery. He likes to end his stories with a moral or a twist.
He is both funny and pessimistic. His characterisations are piercing but never too cruel. The German officer in “Boule de Suif” is “stretched out in an armchair, his feet resting on the mantelpiece, smoking a long porcelain pipe and wrapped in a flamboyant bathrobe that he doubtless stole from some abandoned house belonging to some bourgeois with bad taste”.
When his protagonists yawn, they do so according to their social status, character and level of sophistication. One “either noisily opened his mouth or modestly held a hand to cover the gaping hole, their breath escaping in a kind of mist”. Similarly, a man in “Mademoiselle Pearl” who has just realised the secret tragedy of his suppressed love doesn’t just weep but does so “in a distressing, ridiculous way, tears pouring out of his eyes, nose and mouth at the same time, the way a sponge releases water when you squeeze it”.
Maupassant not only notes what he sees, but shows people’s psychological state. Sometimes, the way he sees his characters is almost geometrically abstract. He imagines that the thoughts of Madame Chantal, a heavy woman who is “squared off like a firestone,” are square too. Other people’s ideas seem round and move as fast as a hoop. As soon as they say something, Maupassant can see their ideas rolling and taking off. He pictures 10, 20, 50 round ideas that run after each other.
In his short travel book Afloat, Maupassant described the typical novelist, whose “eye is like a pump that sucks up everything, like the hand of a thief that is always at work”. Nothing escapes him: he notices every small movement and gesture. “And the most terrible part of all is that the wretch cannot help drawing striking portraits, in spite of himself, unconsciously, because he sees things as they are, and he must relate what he sees.”
He concludes: “It is assuredly as dangerous for people in good society to invite and make much of novelists as it would be for a miller to breed rats in his mill. And yet they are held in great favour.”
Irony and wit are important features of Maupassant’s voice. For that, and for his revealing depictions of people in everyday situations and insights into their hidden love lives and tragedies, his stories should continue to be treasured.