It is of course interesting to explore the depths of the human psyche, but getting to the level of complete honesty and realism
can be downright uncomfortable. This collection of nine very short stories by the nineteenth century French author Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) have the
effect of making one fidget in one's seat while reading, becoming aware of a knot forming in one's stomach. Human nature is not pretty. We have not become
the god-like creations we may and should have become. These stories shine a glaring light on the ugliness that we call humanity. In some of them, the
circumstances are ordinary, but have through one exaggerated event, become extraordinary. In addition, Maupassant's descriptions of his characters give the impression of them being
physically disgusting, and he has a penchant for writing about prostitutes and the Franco-Prussian War. Wow! These are not bedtime stories!
Ball-of-Fat (Boule de Suif) takes place during the German occupancy of France during the Franco-Prussian War. Ten people have packed into a carriage to flee Rouen, where it was believed the soldiers would soon enter. The couples are quite wealthy, and with that comes greed, haughtiness, selfishness and cruelty to those not their social and financial equals. (I thought the French Revolution was supposed to have exterminated these people!!) Also included are two nuns, a single man, and an extremely fat prostitute, called Boule de Suif. She is described thus:
The woman, one of those called a coquette was celebrated for her embonpoint which had given her the nickname of "Ball-of-Fat." Small, round, and fat as lard, with puffy fingers choked at the phalanges, like chaplets of short sausages; with a stretched and shining skin, an enormous bosom which shook under her dress, she was, nevertheless, pleasing and sought after, on account of a certain freshness and breeziness of disposition. Her face was a round apple, a peony bud ready to pop into bloom, and inside that opened two great black eyes, shaded with thick brows that cast a shadow within; and below, a charming mouth, humid for kissing, furnished with shining, microscopic baby teeth. She was, it was said, full of admirable qualities.
The snow had been falling, and worsens as they set off, making their journey extremely slow and tedious. It becomes
obvious that they will not reach their destination as planned. There are no hotels or places to dine, and soon everyone is starving. Though the other people
in the carriage have treated Ball-of-Fat with disdain, she pulls a large basket out from under her seat, loaded with wonderful food and bottles of wine. At
first the people resist it, but she generously offers it to everyone, and they all, because they are so hungry, eventually accept.
They finally reach Tôtes, where there is a hotel, but it is occupied by Germans. As they await their supper, the proprietor of the establishment enters and inquires if there is an Elizabeth Rousset present. It is Ball-of-Fat, and the Prussian officer wishes to speak with her. She at first resists, then goes, returning shortly, reddened and exclaiming, "Oh! the rascal; the rascal."
The next morning the group intending to be on their way, finds that they are being detained, and learn that it's because Ball-of-Fat will not sleep with the officer. The others can't understand her repugnance toward the German—after all it is her profession. The other members of the group offer to leave her behind, if they will be permitted to leave, but the officer refuses until he gets what he wants. Then they attempt to befriend her and in subtle ways hint that she will be doing her duty to save them. After several days, they all, including the nuns, gang up on her and make her feel guilty for not doing her job. She finally agrees, and the others enjoy a celebration while she is in bed with the officer.
The next day they all board the carriage, but rather than thanking Ball-of-Fat for doing what she "needed to do," they treat her with even greater contempt, leaving her in tears. And what is even worse, they now all have brought food and she has none, yet no one offers her anything to eat.
This is a pathetic, shocking, and disgusting story of the wickedness that accompanies wealth and social standing. Guillotine, where are thou?
The Necklace is about a young lady, Matilda, who thinks she is much better than she is. She believes she should be married to a wealthy man and have everything her heart desires, but instead, because of her social standing, she marries a hard-working clerk who attempts to satisfy her. One day, he is thrilled to announce that he has secured an invitation to a very elite ball. Rather than being joyful, she only complains that she hasn't the right dress. He gives up money that he had saved so that she can buy a beautiful gown. Then she complains that she hasn't jewels to wear with it. Her husband suggests she borrow from a particular friend, Mrs. Forestier, that is wealthy. The friend is happy to comply, and she chooses a beautiful diamond necklace.
The ball is a wonderful success, but upon returning, the necklace is gone. Matilda and her husband search the streets but the necklace is not to be found. They then go to a jewelers to replace it, the cost, of course, being way out of their league. But still, they borrow to the hilt, and the necklace is returned. Because they are in such deep debt, Matilda now must work her fingers to the bone at drudgery, and she loses her beauty and becomes old and haggard very quickly. But at last, the debt is paid off. One day, she runs into her friend Mrs. Forestier, who barely recognizes Matilda. I won't tell you the ending, but it is caustic and darkly humorous, and deserving to Matilda, who placed wealth above all else.
A Piece of String is one I found personally disturbing because I have been in this situation. It is market day, and one Maître Hauchecome, who is thrifty, bends down to pick up a piece of string he sees lying in the dirt, thinking it may come in handy for something. He is being watched, and, rather embarrassed that he is saving string from the dirt, slips it into his pocket.
Later, an announcement is made that a wallet has been lost, and an enemy of Hauchecome, that had seen him pick up the string, turns him in for theft. Of course, he allows himself to be searched and explains he was only picking up string, but is doubted, though they have no cause to hold him. Later, the wallet is found and turned in, and Hauchecome, so overcome with relief, and who is honest, tells everyone the story of the string and his innocence. But it is not received as he expects. People now begin to whisper that he gave the wallet to someone else to have it turned in. The story comes to a tragic end.
I know what is it to be extremely honest, then be accused of something and be ostracized, though innocent. It's a terrible feeling.
Mme. Tellier's Establishment glorifies the profession of prostitution! Apparently, in rural Normandy it was considered no different than becoming a dressmaker. This story relates the good life of a house of prostitution, even being honored at Church during a confirmation ceremony!
It is interesting how Maupassant includes the Church in his prostitution stories. In Mademoiselle Fifi (who is actually a violent and hateful German Captain), a prostitute is hidden and protected by the Church, in fact, honored, for killing the German brute.
Miss Harriet is a very sad story about a spinster in her fifties who falls in love.
A Way to Wealth leaves much to the imagination . . .
My Uncle Jules is about a real scoundrel!!
And the final story, The Horla, is a supernatural thriller. I don't get easily scared by creepy stories unless they are very well written. This one is, because it seems real enough to be true—something that could actually happen.
In all this is an interesting and unique collection of stories, which, despite the squirmy feeling some of them create, as noted above, on the whole I enjoyed the book. The French certainly have their own distinct perspective on life. One comment, however. If you buy the Dover Thrift Edition pictured, be aware that the print is extremely small. I'm personally Ok with that—my up-close vision is superb (at a distance, though, I'm blind as a bat. Hah!). People that have visual issues for reading would never be able to struggle through this book.
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