The Best Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant

the-best-short-stories-of-guy-de-maupassant“Guy de Maupassant was a master of the short story. This collection displays his lively diversity, with tales that vary in theme and tone, ranging from tragedy and satire to comedy and farce. In a lucidly direct style, he provides unflinching realism and sceptical irony. He depicts the deceptions, hypocrisies and vanities at different levels of society. Prostitution is frankly described, while the harshness of war is deftly exposed.” Publishers

“Maupassant is considered one of the fathers of the modern short story… Taking his cue from Balzac, Maupassant wrote comfortably in both the high-Realist and fantastic modes; stories and novels such as “L’Héritage” and Bel-Ami aim to recreate Third Republic France in a realistic way, whereas many of the short stories (notably “Le Horla” and “Qui sait?”) describe apparently supernatural phenomena. The supernatural in Maupassant, however, is often implicitly a symptom of the protagonists’ troubled minds; Maupassant was fascinated by the burgeoning discipline of psychiatry, and attended the public lectures of Jean-Martin Charcot between 1885 and 1886.” Wiki

A good collection of stories by one of the masters of the form: Maupassant, along with Joyce, Borges, Kafka, Mansfield, Gogol, Carver, Salinger, and of course, Chekov, just knows how to write short stories. Quite a few of the stories in this collection are among his best, most notably ‘Boule de Suif’.

 

Mr A

Move over Freud: literary fiction is the best therapy

Fiction breaks down social isolation and creates a sense of belonging, argues the author and former psychoanalyst
Books and bonds … Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in the 1996 film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady.
 Books and bonds … Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in the 1996 film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady. 

One of my maxims as a university teacher of literature was: “A great novel not only enhances our understanding – more crucially it understands us.” When I later trained as a psychoanalyst I annoyed my tutors with my refrain that one could learn more about the subtleties of human psychology from literature than from the works of FreudAdler or Jung. This was not to decry the pioneering wisdoms of those great psychologists, but years of teaching literature convinced me that fiction trumps theory in its illumination of the hidden recesses of our consciousness.

There is now good evidence for the therapeutic effects of reading. The Shared Reading project, organised by the Reader Organisation, suggests that reading in groups – in their case they bring together groups of people with mental health issues for example, but the findings apply as well to the local book club’s monthly gathering with added wine – significantly “improves self-confidence and self-esteem, builds social networks, widens horizons and gives people a sense of belonging, preserving the mental and physical health of those who are well and building mental resilience”.

Chronic loneliness and isolation are now prevailing social problems, but it is not necessary to be part of a group reading project for a book to have a role in ameliorating this social malaise. As the shrewd and alienated Holden Caulfield says in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” I think many of us can count some books as close friends (my particular friends are Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot). And it is by no means a trivial good that, at a fundamental level, reading confers a benefit by entertaining us. To “entertain” means to “admit, cherish, receive as a guest” and books can, and do, dissolve social isolation, as the estranged and damaged Caulfield exemplifies, by inviting in the reader to become involved in an imaginal world. Immersion in a fictional society seems to promote many of the rewards of immersion in actual society: among other benefits, it encourages escape from the self, by no means always escapist. To get outside the confines of our individual egos is a liberating experience, and entry into another universe, by way of the written word, may be a safer, or more practically possible, route for some – for the elderly, the incarcerated or the emotionally fragile, for instance – than by personal physical encounter. Among the Shared Reading successes is its work in psychiatric hospitals and prisons.

‘Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ … a scene from the 2012 film adaptation of Anna Karenina. Photograph: Focus Features.
 ‘Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ … a scene from the 2012 film adaptation of Anna Karenina. 

I suspect what is most fruitful about the encounter with a literary landscape is the intimate knowledge it encourages of other human beings, albeit fictional ones, often surprisingly like ourselves. It is here that the “understanding” granted by great literature becomes therapeutic. The opening pronouncement of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” applies to more than families. All unhappy individuals are unhappy in their own way, too. This is partly because self revelation is far from easy and self understanding, and the vocabulary for it, is rare. But it can often be apprehended helpfully in the accounts of fictional sensibilities.

Take Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, for example (a novel which, in my view, surpasses the more celebrated Jane Eyre). Its hero, the emotionally repressed Lucy Snowe – plain, lonely, angry and desperately striving to be self-sufficient – suffers a painful breakdown as a result of weeks of friendless solitariness during her time as an English teacher in a Belgian school. From my professional knowledge of breakdowns, Brontë’s account is pin-sharp accurate and not only conveys a depth of experience (whether actual or imaginative) in its author, but acts as an objective correlative for those who have suffered in similar silence, conferring a critical lifeline, in the sense of not being quite alone in the world. Similarly, anyone who has undergone the wounding experience of family discord and alienation will find resonances in King Lear or Marilynne Robinson’s Home.

Perhaps more surprisingly, and more radically, we may discover in a book shadow aspects of ourselves we have failed to acknowledge or recognise. Few of us imagine we are potential murderers: yet few reading Crime and Punishment can fail to enter the tortured consciousness of Raskolnikov, who believes in committing a murder he is acting justifiably, or fail to empathise with his anguished punishment of guilt. Dostoevsky illuminates, through the example of his character, what we might otherwise be too defended to comprehend: that our civilised selves may conceal a lethal armoury, potentially capable of atrocities, and that those who justify killing in the name of ideology are not as alien as we might care to believe.

Exploring dark psychology … the film adaptation of Lolita.
 Exploring dark psychology … the film adaptation of Lolita.

So reading is not merely a diversion or distraction from present pain; it is also an enlarging of our universe, our sympathies, wisdom and experience. The act of entering into the consciousness of another being, another sex, or sexual preference, social group, political outlook or religious persuasion, allows a respite from private and parochial preoccupations. That widening of our concerns may entail entering another location, or period in history – or an arena of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Education, as people are never tired of repeating, is a process of leading out, which suggests another benefit: that in being led by reading into previously unknown territory, we learn.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/26/move-over-freud-literary-fiction-is-the-best-therapy?CMP=twt_books_b-gdnbooks

A Nervous Breakdown by Anton Chekov

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In this collection of three of Chekov’s short stories it becomes clear why Chekov is often praised as the master of the short story. What should a good short story do? In a word: work. And do each of these stories work? Yes. They are variously haunting, sad, amusing, but always compelling. Which very much gets to the point: why do they work? Everything is well balanced: narrative and description. Scenes are well placed. Narrative time slows down, speeds up. Events happen. Time passes. The reader finds themselves in just the right place and time to pick up the thread of the story, a thread that is never, however, dropped. And we are led to the ending, as well as being allowed to find it ourselves. We are, with Chekov, simultaneously surprised and reassured: we find that the world is as we think it, people are as we imagined, and events transpire just so: this is the world according to Chekov.

 

Mr A

Why I Am so Clever by Friedrich Nietzsche

nietzsche-cleverWhat is wrong with Friedrich Nietzsche? Probably a great deal. But in this little book, a pamphlet really, you get a pretty keen insight into the problems that being Friedrich Nietzsche throw up: his intellectual arrogance is appalling, even amusing. It is interesting as a brief look at the frayed edges of his philosophy: putting the particular before the general, the physical before the abstract and cultural, for example how climate and diet are important determiners of culture and modes of thought. Nietzsche was not a fan of Christianity either, nor of his own readers, his fellow Germans, nor pretty much anyone alive in his time, excepting maybe Wagner. Weird.

Mr A

clever

 

WHY THE MONA LISA STANDS OUT 

When a work of art is considered great, we may stop thinking about it for ourselves. Ian Leslie weighs the evidence

IN 1993 A PSYCHOLOGIST, James Cutting, visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to see Renoir’s picture of Parisians at play, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, considered one of the greatest works of impressionism. Instead, he found himself magnetically drawn to a painting in the next room: an enchanting, mysterious view of snow on Parisian rooftops. He had never seen it before, nor heard of its creator, Gustave Caillebotte.

That was what got him thinking.

Have you ever fallen for a novel and been amazed not to find it on lists of great books? Or walked around a sculpture renowned as a classic, struggling to see what the fuss is about? If so, you’ve probably pondered the question Cutting asked himself that day: how does a work of art come to be considered great?

The intuitive answer is that some works of art are just great: of intrinsically superior quality. The paintings that win prime spots in galleries, get taught in classes and reproduced in books are the ones that have proved their artistic value over time. If you can’t see they’re superior, that’s your problem. It’s an intimidatingly neat explanation. But some social scientists have been asking awkward questions of it, raising the possibility that artistic canons are little more than fossilised historical accidents.

Cutting, a professor at Cornell University, wondered if a psychological mechanism known as the “mere-exposure effect” played a role in deciding which paintings rise to the top of the cultural league. In a seminal 1968 experiment, people were shown a series of abstract shapes in rapid succession. Some shapes were repeated, but because they came and went so fast, the subjects didn’t notice. When asked which of these random shapes they found most pleasing, they chose ones that, unbeknown to them, had come around more than once. Even unconscious familiarity bred affection.

Back at Cornell, Cutting designed an experiment to test his hunch. Over a lecture course he regularly showed undergraduates works of impressionism for two seconds at a time. Some of the paintings were canonical, included in art-history books. Others were lesser known but of comparable quality. These were exposed four times as often. Afterwards, the students preferred them to the canonical works, while a control group of students liked the canonical ones best. Cutting’s students had grown to like those paintings more simply because they had seen them more.

Cutting believes his experiment offers a clue as to how canons are formed. He points out that the most reproduced works of impressionism today tend to have been bought by five or six wealthy and influential collectors in the late 19th century. The preferences of these men bestowed prestige on certain works, which made the works more likely to be hung in galleries and printed in anthologies. The kudos cascaded down the years, gaining momentum from mere exposure as it did so. The more people were exposed to, say, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, the more they liked it, and the more they liked it, the more it appeared in books, on posters and in big exhibitions. Meanwhile, academics and critics created sophisticated justifications for its pre-eminence. After all, it’s not just the masses who tend to rate what they see more often more highly. As contemporary artists like Warhol and Damien Hirst have grasped, critical acclaim is deeply entwined with publicity. “Scholars”, Cutting argues, “are no different from the public in the effects of mere exposure.”

THE PROCESS DESCRIBED by Cutting evokes a principle that the sociologist Duncan Watts calls “cumulative advantage”: once a thing becomes popular, it will tend to become more popular still. A few years ago, Watts, who is employed by Microsoft to study the dynamics of social networks, had a similar experience to Cutting in another Paris museum. After queuing to see the “Mona Lisa” in its climate-controlled bulletproof box at the Louvre, he came away puzzled: why was it considered so superior to the three other Leonardos in the previous chamber, to which nobody seemed to be paying the slightest attention?

When Watts looked into the history of “the greatest painting of all time”, he discovered that, for most of its life, the “Mona Lisa” languished in relative obscurity. In the 1850s, Leonardo da Vinci was considered no match for giants of Renaissance art like Titian and Raphael, whose works were worth almost ten times as much as the “Mona Lisa”. It was only in the 20th century that Leonardo’s portrait of his patron’s wife rocketed to the number-one spot. What propelled it there wasn’t a scholarly re-evaluation, but a burglary.

In 1911 a maintenance worker at the Louvre walked out of the museum with the “Mona Lisa” hidden under his smock. Parisians were aghast at the theft of a painting to which, until then, they had paid little attention. When the museum reopened, people queued to see the gap where the “Mona Lisa” had once hung in a way they had never done for the painting itself. The police were stumped. At one point, a terrified Pablo Picasso was called in for questioning. But the “Mona Lisa” wasn’t recovered until two years later when the thief, an Italian carpenter called Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught trying to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The French public was electrified. The Italians hailed Peruggia as a patriot who wanted to return the painting home. Newspapers around the world repro­duced it, making it the first work of art to achieve global fame. From then on, the “Mona Lisa” came to represent Western culture itself. In 1919, when Marcel Duchamp wanted to perform a symbolic defacing of high art, he put a goatee on the “Mona Lisa”, which only reinforced its status in the popular mind as the epitome of great art (or as the critic Kenneth Clark later put it, “the supreme example of perfection”). Throughout the 20th century, musicians, advertisers and film-makers used the painting’s fame for their own purposes, while the painting, in Watts’s words, “used them back”. Peruggia failed to repatriate the “Mona Lisa”, but he succeeded in making it an icon.

Although many have tried, it does seem improbable that the painting’s unique status can be attributed entirely to the quality of its brushstrokes. It has been said that the subject’s eyes follow the viewer around the room. But as the painting’s biographer, Donald Sassoon, drily notes, “In reality the effect can be obtained from any portrait.” Duncan Watts proposes that the “Mona Lisa” is merely an extreme example of a general rule. Paintings, poems and pop songs are buoyed or sunk by random events or preferences that turn into waves of influence, rippling down the generations.

“Saying that cultural objects have value,” Brian Eno once wrote, “is like saying that telephones have conversations.” Nearly all the cultural objects we consume arrive wrapped in inherited opinion; our preferences are always, to some extent, someone else’s. Visitors to the “Mona Lisa” know they are about to visit the greatest work of art ever and come away appropriately awed—or let down. An audience at a performance of “Hamlet” know it is regarded as a work of genius, so that is what they mostly see. Watts even calls the pre-eminence of Shakespeare a “historical fluke”.

Shamus Khan, a sociologist at Columbia University, thinks the way we define “great” has as much to do with status anxiety as artistic worth. He points out that in 19th-century America, the line between “high” and “low” culture was lightly drawn. A steel magnate’s idea of an entertaining evening might include an opera singer and a juggler. But by the turn of the 20th century, the rich were engaged in a struggle to assert their superiority over a rising middle class. They did so by aligning themselves with a more narrowly defined stratum of “high art”. Buying a box at the opera or collecting impressionist art was a way of securing membership of a tribe.

Although the rigid high-low distinction crumbled in the 1960s, we still use culture as a badge of identity, albeit in subtler ways. Today’s fashion for eclecticism—“I love Bach, Abba and Jay Z”—is, Khan argues, a new way for the bohemian middle class to demarcate themselves from what they perceive to be the narrow tastes of those beneath them in the social hierarchy.

The innate quality of a work of art is starting to seem like its least important attribute. But perhaps it’s more significant than our social scientists allow. First of all, a work needs a certain quality to be eligible to be swept to the top of the pile. The “Mona Lisa” may not be a worthy world champion, but it was in the Louvre in the first place, and not by accident.

Secondly, some stuff is simply better than other stuff. Read “Hamlet” after reading even the greatest of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and the difference may strike you as unarguable. Compare “To be or not to be”, with its uncanny evocation of conscious thought, complete with hesitations, digressions and stumbles into insight, to any soliloquy by Marlowe or Webster, and Shakespeare stands in a league of his own. Watts might say I’m deluding myself, and so are the countless readers and scholars who have reached the same conclusion. But which is the more parsimonious explanation for Shakespeare’s ascendancy?

A STUDY IN the British Journal of Aesthetics suggests that the exposure effect doesn’t work the same way on everything, and points to a different conclusion about how canons are formed. Building on Cutting’s experiment, the researchers repeatedly exposed two groups of students to works by two painters, the British pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais and the American populist Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade’s garish country scenes are the epitome of kitsch—the gold standard for bad art. The researchers found that their subjects grew to like Millais more, as you might expect, given the mere-exposure effect. But they liked Kinkade less. Over time, exposure favours the greater artist.

The social scientists are right to say that we should be a little sceptical of greatness, and that we should always look in the next room. Great art and mediocrity can get confused, even by experts. But that’s why we need to see, and read, as much as we can. The more we’re exposed to the good and the bad, the better we are at telling the difference. The eclecticists have it.

https://www.1843magazine.com/content/ideas/ian-leslie/overexposed-works-art

 

World Poetry Day: 28 of poetry’s most powerful lines ever written

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The rhythm of the tongue brings wordless music into the air; it is in poetry that the human essence is refined to such ritualistic purity. It’s in the steady beats, the sonorous rise-and-fall of speech; for a moment it appears as if all the mysteries of the world have unlocked themselves to our private view.

It’s these works which are celebrated on World Poetry Day, falling on 21 March, in which UNESCO recognises the moving spirit of poetry and its transformative effect on culture.

In honour of these celebrations, here stands a small collection of singular lines, stanzas, and notions possessing of a power which springs the most moving of thoughts and feelings off of the page and into the humming imagination of its readers.

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Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me; / The carriage held but just ourselves / And Immortality
‘Because I could not stop for Death’, Emily Dickinson

And when wind and winter harden / All the loveless land, / It will whisper of the garden, / You will understand
‘To My Wife’, Oscar Wilde

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper / And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper / In an elementary world; There is something down there and you want it told 
‘Dark Pines Under Water’, Gwendolyn MacEwen

This is the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper
‘The Hollow Men’, T.S Eliot

Out of the ash I rise / With my red hair / And I eat men like air
‘Lady Lazarus’, Sylvia Plath

Only a true master of the English language can pronounce all the words in this poem (we tried)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, / Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs / And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
‘Dulce et Decorum est’, Wilfred Owen

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved / in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
‘Sonnet XVII’, Neruda

I would like to be the air / that inhabits you for a moment / only. I would like to be that unnoticed / & that necessary
‘Variation on the Word Sleep’, Margaret Atwood

they speak whatever’s on their mind / they do whatever’s in their pants / the boys i mean are not refined / they shake the mountains when they dance
‘the boys i mean are not refined’, E. E. Cummings

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O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done; / The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won
‘O Captain! My Captain!’, Walt Whitman

Don’t like the / fact that he learned to hide from the cops before he knew / how to read. Angrier that his survival depends more on his ability / to deal with the “authorities” than it does his own literacy
‘Cuz He’s Black’, Javon Johnson

The weight of the world / is love / Under the burden / of solitude, / under the burden / of dissatisfaction / the weight, / the weight we carry / is love
‘Song’, Allen Ginsberg

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill/ Of things unknown but longed for still/ And his tune is heard on the distant hill/ For the caged bird sings of freedom
‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’, Maya Angelou

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst  / Are full of passionate intensity ‘
The Second Coming’, William Butler Yeats

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave / Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind; / Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. / I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned
‘Dirge Without Music’, Edna St. Vincent Millay

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles
‘Leaves of Grass’, Walt Whitman

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot. / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d
‘Eloisa to Abelard’, Alexander Pope

Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove: / O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, / That looks on tempests, and is never shake
‘Sonnet 116’, William Shakespeare

Tree you are, / Moss you are, / You are violets with wind above them. / A child – so high – you are, / And all this is folly to the world
‘A Girl’, Ezra Pound

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You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise
‘Still I Rise’, Maya Angelou

you are much more than simply dead/  I am a dish for your ashes / I am a fist for your vanished air / the most terrible thing about life/ is finding it gone 
‘The Unblinking Grief’, Charles Bukowski

At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you. / I thought even the bones would do./ But they pulled me out of the sack, / And they stuck me together with glue
‘Daddy’, Sylvia Plath

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
‘Howl’, Allan Ginsberg

She had blue skin,/ and so did he./ He kept it hid/ and so did she./ They looked for blue/ their whole life through./ Then passed right by–/ and never knew
‘Masks’, Shel Silverstein

Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light
‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, Dylan Thomas

Water, water, every where, / And all the boards did shrink; / Water, water, every where / Nor any drop to drink
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart / I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars / I am the red man driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek – / And finding only the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak
‘Let America Be America Again’, Langston Hughes

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by, / Sneak home and pray you’ll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go
‘Suicide in the Trenches’, Siegfried Sassoon

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/world-poetry-day-28-of-poetrys-most-powerful-lines-ever-written-a6944301.html?cmpid=facebook-post

 

Boule de Suif

…a classic Guy de Maupassant short story…

Boule_de_Suif

Let’s talk about Guy de Maupassant, because he was born today (august 5th) in 1850 and because—why not? He’s Guy de Maupassant. As our own Lorin Stein wrote in 2010,

In a career that spanned barely a decade—the 1880s and early 1890s—Maupassant produced some 300 stories, 200 articles, three travel books, a collection of poems, three plays, and six novels, and the bulk of this production was consumed with the pursuit of illicit sex. His specialty was the conte leste, a kind of bawdy comic story we have very little of in English after Chaucer (think Boccaccio or The Arabian Nights). Maupassant modernized this tradition, testing the boundaries of what was permissible even in the Paris tabloids, where many of his stories first appeared. He was the best-selling writer of his generation.

Maupassant’s early story “Boule de Suif,” from 1880, remains a hallmark and a natural starting point. It’s about a prostitute whose refrain, like Bartleby’s, is that she would prefer not to—in this case, a Prussian officer asks repeatedly for the pleasure of her intimate company, and she invariably denies him. Unlike Bartleby, though, Boule de Suif must eventually give in, not by any defect of will but because of peer pressure.

This Prussian guy, you see, has detained her and several of her countrymen at a local inn. He’ll only allow the group to leave if Boule de Suif (or “Dumpling,” should that translation suit you, or “Butterball,” or most literally “Ball of Fat”) surrenders to his advances. And so her fellow travelers, all of whom disdain her for her occupation, find themselves begging her to succumb.

From this simple conceit, Maupassant wrings a whole novel’s supply of tragicomic tension. “Boule de Suif” is prototypical Maupassant: sexual but not psychosexual, a distinction that can seem counterintuitive after Freud and modernism. To quote Lorin again:

What most troubled and delighted Maupassant’s readers was his erotic identification with women. He saw them as sexual objects, and he saw himself as a sexual object … As he had it, even a genius couldn’t write about sensuality if he wasn’t inclined that way himself. The reverse held too. In the aesthetic battles of the day between the “psychological” and the “objective” novel, Maupassant took a hard objectivist line. For most of his career he was wary of looking too deeply into characters’ motivations. “The man who goes in for pure psychology can only substitute himself for all his characters,” Maupassant wrote, “for it is impossible for him to change his own organs, which are the only intermediaries between the outside world and ourselves.” Better, he thought, to report what people do and say, and say to themselves, than to ask what makes them tick.

And what a report we get in “Boule”—I read it a little less than a decade ago, and what stuck with me, more than any of the sexual politics, was Maupassant’s vivid descriptive powers. Surviving foremost in my mind was a paragraph about Cornudet, one of Boule de Suif’s companions—a total blowhard whose beard, I remembered, was the same color as the beer he liked to swill. I just revisited the passage and found it no less striking:

Then they took their places round a high soup tureen, from which issued an odor of cabbage. In spite of this coincidence, the supper was cheerful. The cider was good; the Loiseaus and the nuns drank it from motives of economy. The others ordered wine; Cornudet demanded beer. He had his own fashion of uncorking the bottle and making the beer foam, gazing at it as he inclined his glass and then raised it to a position between the lamp and his eye that he might judge of its color. When he drank, his great beard, which matched the color of his favorite beverage, seemed to tremble with affection; his eyes positively squinted in the endeavor not to lose sight of the beloved glass, and he looked for all the world as if he were fulfilling the only function for which he was born. He seemed to have established in his mind an affinity between the two great passions of his life—pale ale and revolution—and assuredly he could not taste the one without dreaming of the other.

It will come as no surprise, given the whiff of contempt emanating from those words, that Cornudet behaves like a complete prick in the story’s brutal conclusion, after Boule de Suif has done her duty. In a devastating, morose span of description, she finds herself shunned by the same crowd that urged her on, the same bunch whose liberation she’s secured. They’re all riding out on a stagecoach, and here comes Cornudet again:

Then Cornudet, who was digesting his eggs, stretched his long legs under the opposite seat, threw himself back, folded his arms, smiled like a man who had just thought of a good joke, and began to whistle the Marseillaise.

The faces of his neighbors clouded; the popular air evidently did not find favor with them; they grew nervous and irritable, and seemed ready to howl as a dog does at the sound of a barrel-organ. Cornudet saw the discomfort he was creating, and whistled the louder; sometimes he even hummed the words … and all the way to Dieppe, during the long, dreary hours of the journey, first in the gathering dusk, then in the thick darkness, raising his voice above the rumbling of the vehicle, Cornudet continued with fierce obstinacy his vengeful and monotonous whistling, forcing his weary and exasperated-hearers to follow the song from end to end, to recall every word of every line, as each was repeated over and over again with untiring persistency.

And Boule de Suif still wept, and sometimes a sob she could not restrain was heard in the darkness between two verses of the song.

A simple phrase like “digesting his eggs” conjures, in this sinister context, a mess of hideous gastrointestinal burbles. And how casually distressing to specify that Cornudet took the trouble to whistle more loudly against the noise of the coach, and that Boule de Suif’s sobs could be made out in the interstices.

Read all of “Boule de Suif” here, translated from the French.

Boule de Suif