Guy de Maupassant

09/02/2012

The Irony of Form

Guy de Maupassant was generally seen as one of the great masters of the short story, and yet reading through a collection of his work one finds he was the master of the story that was general rather than singular, compact rather than elliptical. If it is true that another master of the form, Somerset Maugham, learnt a great deal from Maupassant, it resides in an interest in characterisation without much concern for psychology. Now the translator in the introduction to the Selected Short Stories proposes that critics´ insistence that Maupassant wasn’t concerned with psychology was unfair, but if we differentiate between character and psychology we might be in a better position to understand the specific genius of Maupassant´s work without over-crediting its brilliance

Above all else what Maupassant understands is that the traditional short story is a compact form, and thus any revelation of character must be consistent with the limitations of narrative space. Only one story in the collection contradicts this (the first person diary piece, ‘The Horla’), consequently feeling like a much more modern story than the others. The rest are closer to tales, with Maupassant´s narrative control more important than his probing of character. In one story where the leading character goes hunting with some friends, ‘Guillemot Rock’, the family tragedy at its heart is a twist revealed shortly before the conclusion. Every year the group gathers together at a specific place for the hunt, yet this particular year one of them seems out of sorts and it transpires he´s been keeping his son-in-law´s body at the inn, having been given the task of taking him from the village to his burial place. When the others find out what he has done they aren´t shocked, they´re pragmatic. The son-in-law is dead so our central character might as well continue shooting with the others. There is no subtle psychological probing to the story, and what is interesting is this consistent pragmatic cynicism that runs through Maupassant´s fiction. His relative lack of interest in psychological complexity allows for two things –  the mastery of short story form, and also revelation of sensibility. A more nuanced psychological writer probably wouldn´t have been able to arrive at the world view Maupassant offers, and at the compactness of contained form.

For example, when in ‘Guillemot Rock’ everybody agrees that the central character should keep shooting, this is immediately accepted as the most sensible thing to do, and no ethical discussion comes out of the story. There is a deliberate flattening of psychology here not too dissimilar to the accusation leveled at Maupassant´s contemporary, Emile Zola. But where Zola was interested in a certain baseness of physiology, Maupassant is more concerned with the inner logic of social pragmatics. If one claims he doesn´t care for psychology, it is that he seems fascinated by what one needs in the social situation. In another story, ‘The Signal’, a woman ends up casually calling a man up to her apartment after mimicking the gestures of a courtesan. Unable then to get rid of him, she succumbs, and relates the story to a friend. The friend proposes that she needn´t feel especially bad – alter all the man was attractive – and she also received a small sum of money. The story concludes with the friend saying she should buy her husband a little present with the cash she received; it’s the least she can do, she says.

Again, social pragmatics obliterate any ethical discussion. While it is true in both stories there are hints of soul searching, this proves irrelevant next to the force of  societal function. In each instance what can be gained by not hunting or guiltily telling the husband? It is as if the formal precision lies in the containment of the pragmatic. Thus we talk of character over psychology because generally Maupassant presents character not as individualistically distinctive, but societally normalized. What is generally absent from Maupassant´s work, as it is absent in very different ways from Zola´s – and this is where they both differentiate greatly from other key nineteenth Century writers like Poe and Dostoyevsky, no matter the Poe-like aspect of the diary story ‘The Horla’ – is in the idea of the soul.

This notion of the soul is the further reaches of psychology, and the flipside of societal character. Hence from a a certain point of view Maupassant would seem to be a shallow writer – with neither great exploration of psychology, nor revelation of soul – he remains close to the social surface. Yet this is what makes Maupassant important: the delineations of character contained within the short story form is a little like the social character functioning within behavioural norms and getting what they want out of the situations in which they find themselves. In another story, ‘The Graveyard Sisterhood’, a woman apparently grieves her late lover. A young man befriends her, hears her story, and takes her for dinner, and they end up making love. Months later, he returns to the graveyard and notices her doing exactly the same thing with another man, and realises this is basically how she makes her living. Maupassant isn´t remotely interested in the state of the woman’s soul, more in the simplicity of the woman’s deceit and the gullibility of the men who fall for it.

It is one of two stories in the collection that actually resembles Milan Kundera´s work, notably the stories in Laughable Loves, and more especially still ‘The Hitchhiker´s Game’. But where Kundera is a modern writer in his interest in the evaporation of certitude within two opposing psychologies, Maupassant is a classical writer in the categorical nature of his conclusions.  In both ‘The Graveyard Sisterhood’, and also a later story, ‘In the Bedroom’, where Maupassant shows a wife demanding her husband pay her for sex, since he has been known to pay many a courtesan for their services, Maupassant concludes the story with the inevitable but entirely understandable irony of the situation: in the former, the supposedly grieving woman can be seen to take other lovers; in the latter the wife makes a logical demand. Kundera ends his story of a couple who start role playing with each other for sexual pleasure with the woman feeling in some way that she has lost her identity. In the process of stripping and role playing for her lover, the character reveals more of herself psychologically than she may have wished, and the boyfriend exposes her to an unlocateable humiliation. Kundera searches out the mystery of psychology as the ostensibly innocuous becomes personally terrifying. Maupassant pushes a certain pragamtics to a logical conclusion. In the first story a woman finds she can prey on men’s sentimentality, and in the second a wife realises there is no reason why her husband shouldn’t pay for her services if he is so willing to pay for the services of others. As she says, at least by paying her the money stays in the family.

Both stories work off the irony of classic reversals, though the first does so for the purposes of a narrative twist, while the second for a consistent logical throughline. Where ‘Graveyard Sisterhood’ expects us to be as surprised as the narrator that he has been duped, the second works not with surprise but with a sense of the inevitable, a line of reasoning taken to its entirely plausible conclusion. Yet in each instance both stories feel like classical tales because they are self contained in the world and not produced out of contrary perspectives. Without applied subjectivity, ‘The Hitchhiking Game’ would have little meaning. The point of the story lies in a certain type of over-reaction, over-sensitivity that Kundera explores. This is why we differentiate between character and psychology. Maupassant is a writer who gives us characters without enough individuality to impose themselves subjectively on the story. Maupassant offers us the tale with no more than sketchy characterisation, thus giving his stories the wonderful containment that makes him such a master of the classical story, and possessing a technical control writers like Maugham can learn from.

Yet surely a pressing question for the modern story is how to offer greater psychological texture without obliterating the short story form.­ To understand this problem better we can note in Maupassant’s short fiction how he delineates character. Usually a character is introduced to us quite externally, with a description that includes their name, their physical characteristics, their general demeanour and their employment. He provides us with their physical and civil status. In such an approach he is entirely in keeping with nineteenth century character description, and indeed we can look even at Zolas’s work and see, no matter the distinctive interest in physiology, the nineteenth century demand for descriptive summation. “In he came, a tall, strapping, curly headed, powerfully built man in the full prime of his forty years, his long, pointed unkempt beard made him look like Jesus Christ but a Christ on whose face life had left its mark.” (The Earth) “He was a short, rather thickset man, clean shaven and already greying. The heavy jowls, square jaw, flat nose were sallow and expressionless, an effect emphasized by the heavy lids half shut over the big, light coloured eyes.” (Le Bete humaine) Generally speaking, in short story form or novel length, character description remains quite similar. The difference is chiefly one of event. In the novel characters get the opportunity to transform through a series of actions, where in the story it chiefly focuses on more or less one incident. The central character’s fling with the woman in the ‘Graveyard Sisterhood’, the character sleeping with a stranger who pays her in ‘The Signal’. In the novel the character usually is set but capable of transformation, while in the story the character is set and can only chiefly be surprised. This is partly why so many stories rest on twists, or work with the type of logical throughlines Masupassant often practices. The temporary lover in ‘Graveyard Sisterhood’ is surprised the female character survives by duping lovers. The husband in ‘In the Bedroom’ is surprised that his wife will charge him for sex. The woman in ‘The Signal’ is surprised that she can make love to a stranger and keep the news from her husband. In ‘The Hitchhiking Game’,the female character isn’t surprised by her feelings, though they are less categorical than those in many a Maupassant story. She is devastated by them.

Yet we need to go further into the problem of character versus psychology. Would a story like Maupassant’s tale of a dancer who wants to remain young not also be a psychological study, especially considering the relative absence of story? Here in ‘The Mask’, the narrator watches a dancer having an accident. He realises that the dancer wasn’t a young man as he initially thought, but an old man wearing a body suit that made everything about him seem young. He takes the man home to the man’s wife, and she tells him about the man’s beauty in his youth, his numerous affairs and the day that when she saw he had a grey hair that he would at last be hers. Instead the dancer tried to retain his youth any way that he could, and Maupassant tells a story of misguided vanity while at the same time nevertheless not making the story especially psychological. There is no sense of internal realization, no singular dimension that comes out of the story as there is in Kundera’s, as the tale seems less an examination of character, than a cautionary tale about vanity. He remains a  character-type like numerous other Maupassant figures.

It would be unfair however to say this typology illustrates Maupassant’s weakness as a writer, merely to say it does so in this instance. In such an example, Maupassant’s investigation of character doesn’t yield new insights into vanity, nor does it move along with the narrative snap of most of the other stories. Again, though, one doesn’t want to say Maupassant can tell a story but doesn’t have much more to offer. What he provides is a scrutinizing look at man in the social world, and the logic of that world. When the wife asks for money from her husband to sleep with him in ‘In the Bedroom’, when the man goes on shooting in ‘Guillemot Rock’ no matter the presence of his son in law’s body, when someone wonders what would happen if she called a man to her apartment, in The Signal, the stories skilfully indicate the most plausible action within a certain societal norm. Maupassant’s skill is in tweaking these norms, working with the reasoning procedures of the bourgeoisie and subtly scandalizing us by pushing the behaviour that little bit further.

If we look again at ‘Graveyard Sisterhood’, perhaps here is a woman who once grieved for her lover, but at the same time lacked the financial wherewithal to survive. She is befriended by a man in sympathy, and he provides for her needs however briefly. A week later the same thing happens and so on. The woman gets to visit her dead beau, the temporary lover gets to feel that he is doing a good deed at the same time as being serviced, and from the pragmatic point of view everybody gets what they want. Indeed Maupassant’s stories are so given to eschewing the psychological that jealousy (so central to Zola’s work) has barely a place in this story collection. Even in what is seen to be his masterpiece, ‘Le boulle de suif’, the central character, a prostitute, gives her body to a Prussian officer so that a coach full of people can continue on its way. As far as the others are concerned, since ‘Boule de suif’ was a prostitute anyway, why shouldn’t she give her body to an enemy soldier on this occasion as well? Where Boule de suif and her long term friend and admirer see a betrayal of honour, the others reckon she is simply doing her professional duty. A prostitute is supposed to take clients wherever she finds them. In this instance  Maupassant works less with the irony of bourgeois pragmatism, than the tragic way in which the character is used by the others. If most of the stories work off ironic pragmatism, here the story, which is the longest in the collection, offers tragic pragmatism. In both instances, though, Maupassant’s skill lies in showing social values at work, not getting too close psychologically to the characters.

Again however we return to Kundera, and an interesting speculative comment in The Art of the Novel where he proposes that modern man has been made by the novel, that his sense of individuality coincides with the novel form. But at the same time there is in much nineteenth century fiction not one’s individuality expressed but one’s social role. Society is stronger than the individual, and it is surely only really with the twentieth century novel, with a few exceptions like Dostoyevsky, that individuality has been the novel’s focus. From Dickens’ Great Expectations to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, from Middlemarch even to Jude the Obscure, our social place is negotiated, attempted but not especially called into question. In Sartre’s work, though, in Camus’, in Clarice Lispector’s and Peter Handke’s, the self no longer expects society to be the locus of their identity. The mind is in danger of dissolving in the face of a reality much greater and more amorphous than the social.

Though, as we’ve proposed, this is an aspect of Maupassant’s late story ‘The Horla’ that reads like a diary entry, most of the others attend to the demands of the social, with Maupassant questioning society but neither quite in the process probing the psychological specifics of his characters, nor what occupies the space beyond society’s mores. In ‘The Mask’ there is nothing behind the society of which the character is a part, and his vanity is seen for what it is: the inappropriateness of an aging man who will do almost anything to hold on to his youth. In ‘The Signal’ the woman who cheats on her husband with a stranger, doesn’t call her identity or call society into question. Both in ‘The Mask’ and ‘The Signal’, the characters are as secure at the beginning of the story as they are at the end of it: deluded in the former instance, perhaps, and dissembling in the latter, but basically the same.  What we might choose then to admire in Maupassant’s work is the manner in which he reveals society’s workings almost in the Georg Lukacs sense, where he praised 19th century realism over 20th century modernism because of the relative objectivity of the 19th century novel’s presentation of the world. Now Lukacs does also note in an essay on ‘Tolstoy and the Development of Realism’, that  he believed Maupassant in his novel Une Vie  “isolated the psychological problems from the social problems. For Maupassant society was no longer a complex of vital and contradictory relationships between human beings, but only a lifeless setting.” However we are suggesting that by modernist standards the attention to psychology is less present that the attention to the social. Lukacs is talking about the absence of the socio-political in Maupassant’s novel in relation to its historical setting (before the revolution in 1848), but we are more interested here in the minimising of the psychological.  He does not reveal the self, he does not create fresh psychological perceptions in relation to what he shows us, but instead brilliantly stale ones that illustrate the staleness of the narrow society on which he focuses.

Maupassant was generally seen as a misanthropic writer, someone who wrote with a jaundiced eye on social mores. But there have been more pessimistic French novelists than Maupassant, and indeed a twentieth century writer like Celine seems infinitely more bleak in his vision than Maupassant ever was. Yet one can come away from Maupassant’s work feeling more despairing, more hopeless in the face of the socially inevitable. A writer like Celine phenonemologizes despair, makes it part of a subjective vision. Maupassant’s pessimism is more objective and thus appears less perceptually free, and can seem even aesthetically limited, as though he does no more than echo the social norms. Maupassant’s pessimism doesn’t only come from the pragmatic irony we find in so many of the stories, but also with this irony a belief that society is what it is. A fellow nineteenth century writer Stateside, Ralph Emerson, could say “if you don’t like the world, make it to suit you. All true men have done so before you”. Maupassant makes it in the image of what he finds, no matter the prolific work ethic that indicates a frenzy of self/expression, with Maupassant publishing dozens of articles, nearly three hundred stories and six novels in an eleven year period. From a modern perspective Maupassant’s heavy work load and yet relatively conventional approach would seem to be a weakness, not least taking into account a recent J. M. Coetzee comment that a writer’s purpose is increasingly to be speculative, meditative, enquiring, and also that such an outporing suggests hackwork rather than artistic endeavour. However we can do worse than look at Maupassant, just as we can look at  Maugham, and see how a conservativeness of perspective allows for a completeness of form, and at the same time how society is reflected in many ways in this use of form.

Frequently in both Maupassant and Maugham, the irony of form reflects this conservativeness of perspective. In the stories of both there is a belief in the way things are, and that the writer’s purpose is to sketch them appropriately. Maugham has admitted he might not have been a great writer but he could see what was in front of his eyes. Like Maupassant he sees what he sees and what he sees is what is there to be seen. This sounds like a tautological given, but that is so often what it happens to be in these writers’ works as they don’t investigate what is beneath the surface of things. However to have done so would have been of course to endanger the form in which the story is contained, and we may wonder whether just as we can note the significance of an existential perspective in much twentieth century writing, and character as given in the nineteenth, so we can also differentiate between the positivist aspect of Maupassant and Maugham, and the phenomenalist concerns of certain writers. Where positivism insists on trusting only what can be seen, objectively, phenomenology equally insists on the significance of what can be seen by the subjectivity of the observer, the body viewing the perceptual field. One reason why Maupassant can nevertheless be seen as the more important writer isn’t only that he is Maugham’s predecessor, but especially because Maupassant was more readily reflecting his time than Maugham was reflecting his. It is like a variation on the Lukacs notion of reflecting one’s society so that Balzac needn’t be politically radical, but he needs at least to be reflecting the moment that can capture bourgeois mores in all their decadence. By the same reckoning a writer can capture his moment in terms of thought and ideas as well, with Maupassant at least of his epoch rather than behind it.

At the same time though maybe the short story form dates less immediately than the novel, and this is why Maupassant and even Maugham are still respected for their shorter pieces rather than their longer works. While the novel was shape-shiftingly radical in the first half of the twentieth century, contracting time into less than twenty four hours in Dublin in Ulysses, expanding it into a cerebral infinity in Remembrance of Things Past, capable of endlessness in The Trial, the story could still work within more assured boundaries, as we find in Joyce’s Dubliners, or Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s tales, even Kafka and Borges’s fables.

Is the novel form an intrinsically more malleable structure than the short story, or are there ways in which the story can be reshaped towards the writer’s own ends? There are at least two ways of answering this question. One is to look at a few contemporary short story writers who created radical fiction within the short story form. A collection of stories like The Naked Eye indicates there were plenty of writers in the sixties, taking off from some of the relatively experimental approaches of Borges and Kafka, that shows the story needn’t be a priori conformist,` and we have ourselves already talked of Kundera’s ‘The Hitchhiking Game’.

The second approach is to look at Maupassant’s stories themselves and imagine them told differently. A short story like ‘The Ruse’ is a brilliantly cruel suspense story. An old doctor tells a young patient how he once helped a young woman get out of a difficult situation with a lover who happened to die on her. She phones the doctor and tells him her awful predicament, and the doctor comes and dresses the corpse, the wife and doctor then take him into the drawing room and sit him on the sofa. The husband comes in and the doctor explains the three of them were having a late night chat and the fellow male companion slipped into unconsciousness. The doctor says to the husband that they should lift him into the carriage, and the doctor can attend better to him when he gets him home.  When he arrives at the man’s house he then certifies him dead. The story ends with the patient wondering why the doctor told her so horrible an anecdote, and the doctor replies, “so as to offer you my services in case of need”. The doctor’s services including the well being of the bourgeosie in all areas of their lives, even it includes the odd fib in times of crisis. Again we have an example of social pragmatism, but again no psychological subtlety, no existential possibilities, no phenomenological observations, no hint at the soul.

But what if the story were from the young patient’s point of view and that she recalls a doctor telling her more or less the story the doctor tells, but now she is in a similar predicament? Her lover lies dead in her bed and her husband is due back not that night but the next morning. She needs to get rid of the body, but she is struck by the smell that starts to come off it, by the look on his face, by the maid she hears moving around downstairs. She wonders about the sperm on her stomach and breasts, and that perhaps she doesn’t want to phone the doctor, that she wants her husband to discover the corpse himself after she leaves. She gets up and washes herself, packs and deserts the house. She stops off on the way out of town and tells the doctor that there is a corpse in her bedroom and that he should go and certify that he is dead, and by natural causes. She then casually leaves the town, as though not at all interested whether she will later be arrested for leaving the dead body, or concerned about her husband’s likely anger and pain. All she can think about is the smell that began to come off the corpse, and its expression in death. As she exits the town in a carriage, she tries to forget the look and the smell not because she feels especially guilty, but that she wants to remember her lover as the vigorous, handsome figure he was only a few hours before. She realises sitting in the carriage that the dead lover reminds her now too much of the husband, and she asks the coachman to ride ever faster.

Here we would have phenomenologized and psychologized the story. It is no longer an ‘objective’ tale of what a doctor can do for his patients, as if they are all a mass, with lovers, with maids, and a need to have a doctor sort out their predicaments. It is instead a story about an individual with distinct reactions to each stage of the tale. Early on in Maupassant’s story the doctor says, after the patient asks how a woman can love in the midst of lies and treachery, “Oh, that’s easy. I can assure you that a woman doesn’t think about all those little niceties when she takes it into her head to stray off the straight and narrow path. I would go further and say that no woman is ripe for true love until she has gone through all the promiscuities and disappointments of married life…” As he goes on to tell his anecdote, there is no sense that the woman being told the story, or the story the woman is about, are distinguishable. The only difference is that one committed adultery and the other has yet to do so. How can there be psychology if everyone reacts in basically the same way? Psychology is reduced to behaviour, and here of course we have once again positivism returning in a different guise, with the actions basically observable and consistent. Adultery may be morally unacceptable, but that doesn’t make it unusual.

Maupassant’s genius in many of the stories is to indicate that the morally unacceptable is also frequently the norm, and this brings to mind some observations by Slavoj Zizek on the culturally accepted versus the culturally real. This is where some element of the culture that is acceptable privately but condemend publicly. “Such a [prívately accepted code] must remain under the cover of night”, Zizek says in The Metastasis of Enjoyment, “unacknowledged, unutterable  –  in public everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence.” Yet we’re insisting while that is often the case, it is not the same thing as exploring the singularity of a state. The Zizekian observation in the context of the short story can give tales a nice twist of non/conformity without reshaping the form itself. Society expects a certain code but can accept deviations as long as they become if you like inner norms as opposed to outer ones. The outer norm would be that it is a disgrace to have an affair. The inner norm would be that of course everybody has affairs and it would be as naive to think people don’t as it would be scandalous to talk too openly about people who do. However this contrast between the inner and outer still doesn’t individualize. It is still a norm. Our alternative version of ‘A Ruse’ would deny the norm and creates subjectivity.

What goes on in such an approach as Maupassant’s is determined irony.  Zizek’s theorizing of the inner and outer norms works wonderfully well in explaining Maupassant’s brilliance at the contained short story. From ‘A Ruse’ to ‘In the Bedroom’, from ‘Guillemot Rock’ to ‘In The Woods’ (where an aging couple return to the frissons of their youth by making love in the woods before getting caught and having to explain themselves), all share this type of irony. It is as though in each instance the characters have to explain their behaviour in its inner rather than outer mode and all will be okay again. It might from a certain point of view (the external social norm) be scandalous, but from the inner social norm it is fine.

It would be unfair to insist most of Maupassant’s stories only function in this way, though this element is vital to their success, for they seem part of a deeper pessimism that Roger Colet notes in his introduction. “A pessimist by nature, a pessimist from the influence and example of his friend and mentor Flaubert, and a pessimist out of admiration for the greatest philosopher of his time, Schopenhauer, Maupassant saw avarice and lechery, cruelty and greed, selfishness and hatred at work wherever he turned.” These are nothing if not human traits at work, and Maupassant shows not only the deliberate hypocrisy of society in many of the stories in the Zizekian sense, he also shows a cruel disregard for others within this hypocrisy that allows the story to remain a tale, but with a sting rather a twist in it.

One of the finest is ‘The Matter with Andre’, where a captain has a week long affair with a notary’s wife while her husband is in Paris. The problem lies with her young child, who won’t stop crying, and all the mother’s cooing and caresses still leave the child bawling, and making it impossible for the couple to make love. Eventually the captain gives the child a hard pinch, and this seems to do the trick, and the wife notes the child no longer cries at night and that they can peacefully have sex. However, near the end of the story when the husband returns, he notices  the child is covered in horrible bruises. The wife blames the bruises on the completely innocent nurse, who is immediately fired. The story ends with the narrator saying “her behaviour was reported to the town council, and she found it impossible to find another situation.” The nurse has played no part in the story until the last few lines, yet she is what gives the story its texture of cruelty. The hapless child becomes the hapless nurse. They are both characters unable finally to take care of themselves in a world of inevitable harshness. The hypocritical lightness of ‘The Ruse’ or ‘The Signal’, becomes the despair of a complete degradation of values. In ‘The Ruse’ and ‘The Signal’, values are superficially presented and no one is really harmed. The husband need be none the wiser in the latter and the lover is dead in the former. Life continues as though to make a fuss over the truth of the tales would be to miss the point of bourgeois life.

This isn’t quite so in ‘The Matter with Andre’, nor is it so in ‘Boule de suif’. In the latter, the social pragmatism lies in the titular character sleeping with a Prussian soldier since she was after all a prostitute, as some of the others note in discussing their plan to persuade her to do it. “The women huddled together, voices lowered, and the discussion became general, each person expressing an opinion. But it was all perfectly respectable. The ladies in particular found delicate turns of phrase and charming euphemisms to express the coarsest ideas.” Maupassant offers the story with the determined irony of the lighter ones, but there is also the sting. Boule de suif may be a prostitute, but just as there is honour amongst thieves, Maupassant shows there is honour within the heart of a hooker, and the others expect her to violate this value. While the other women reckon “Seeing that it’s that slut’s job to go with any man who wants her, I don’t think she’s any right to refuse one man rather than another”, Maupassant wonders who is being dishonoured in the process of Boule de Suif’s sacrifice.

While one notes that Maupassant isn’t much interested in psychology, there is nevertheless an often nuanced sense of moral values at play. It would be naive to assume that in the lighter tales there has been a degradation of values. ‘The Ruse’, ‘The Signal’, ‘Guillemot Rock’, ‘In The Bedroom’, ‘The Graveyard Sisterhood’ are all tales with a twist and a value system that is suspect but not degraded. There is no degradation of values in the process of the telling, but simply a realization of the social norms and naivety or sophistication towards them. This is what the doctor offers in telling the story to the young wife in ‘The Ruse’. In ‘Boule de suif’ and ‘The Matter with Andre’, as well as in an apparently innocuous story like ‘The Piece of String’ the degradation is much more apparent.

In the latter a thrifty man notices a piece  of string on the ground and promptly picks it up. He may feel slightly ashamed at stooping down to pick something off the ground, but later he’s accused of picking up a wallet that has gone missing. Someone observed Hauchecorne bending over, and no one would believe that he picked up nothing more than a piece of string. That evening he “felt ill all night as a result”, and though later he would tell everybody he met that he was obviously innocent, nobody quite seemed to believe him. By the end of the story, and within a few months of the incident he takes to his bed and weeks later is dead. Maupassant again gives us an example of a potential trivial matter from a certain point of view being of immense magnitude from another.

But doesn’t this slightly contradict our claims that Maupassant isn’t interested in subjectivity, even contradict slightly our insistence that Maupassant isn’t a writer interested in the soul­? Not especially. Maupassant remains generally outside the  subjectivity of the self and wants to comment instead on the soullessness of society. To explore a soul is one thing, and this would incorporate anything from Dostoyevsky to Bernanos, with their singular protagonists and the exploration of their states. Hauchecorne has no complex self to explore, and Maupassant sums him up in a few lines. Maupassant doesn’t want to examine a character’s soul, he wants to sum up instead the social soullessness. This can lead often to no more than minor consequences or no consequences at all, or on occasion to major ones: as in ‘A Piece of String, ‘The Matter with Andre’ and ‘Boule de suif’. Either way, he requires no psychological or ‘soul complexity’ to do so. It is true that occasionally Maupassant explored the psychological (and ‘the Horla’ is described by Colet as “one of the most terrifying stories of madness…ever written”), but Maupassant is, we’ve been arguing, a  writer not of psychological states but social ones.

Such an approach seems to require a relative superficiality of characterisation that means the story can be well told but the character only sketchily presented. Maupassant still counts as a ‘master of his craft’, and a modern writer could learn much from Maupassant’s control of information, of location, of situation. Yet could one now write like Maupassant and be taken seriously? Is this simple snobbery on the part of the modern reader, or does twenty and twenty first century man require that a singular being passes through events, events Maupassant breezily allows his composite characters to pass through. ‘In the Bedroom’ could almost be an Alberto Moravia story, but instead of arriving at the ironic cynicism of a wife saying that if she proves a decent lover she might also ask her husband for a rise, even the often criticised Moravia (attacked for his schematism) would surely insist that the husband would at the same go through an internal crisis. In ‘The Graveyard Sisterhood’, again the central narrative consciousness would be ruptured by his failure to grasp the relationship he seemed to be having with the woman. Would it not call into question his general perception of the world? How can the modern writer still work with twists and stings, yet at the same time indicate that man is much more complex and subtle than Maupassant often allows him to be? How can one learn from a master and accept that it no longer possible to write seriously with quite this type of mastery?

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Guy de Maupassant

The Irony of Form

Guy de Maupassant was generally seen as one of the great masters of the short story, and yet reading through a collection of his work one finds he was the master of the story that was general rather than singular, compact rather than elliptical. If it is true that another master of the form, Somerset Maugham, learnt a great deal from Maupassant, it resides in an interest in characterisation without much concern for psychology. Now the translator in the introduction to the Selected Short Stories proposes that critics insistence that Maupassant wasn't concerned with psychology was unfair, but if we differentiate between character and psychology we might be in a better position to understand the specific genius of Maupassants work without over-crediting its brilliance

Above all else what Maupassant understands is that the traditional short story is a compact form, and thus any revelation of character must be consistent with the limitations of narrative space. Only one story in the collection contradicts this (the first person diary piece, 'The Horla'), consequently feeling like a much more modern story than the others. The rest are closer to tales, with Maupassants narrative control more important than his probing of character. In one story where the leading character goes hunting with some friends, 'Guillemot Rock', the family tragedy at its heart is a twist revealed shortly before the conclusion. Every year the group gathers together at a specific place for the hunt, yet this particular year one of them seems out of sorts and it transpires hes been keeping his son-in-laws body at the inn, having been given the task of taking him from the village to his burial place. When the others find out what he has done they arent shocked, theyre pragmatic. The son-in-law is dead so our central character might as well continue shooting with the others. There is no subtle psychological probing to the story, and what is interesting is this consistent pragmatic cynicism that runs through Maupassants fiction. His relative lack of interest in psychological complexity allows for two things - the mastery of short story form, and also revelation of sensibility. A more nuanced psychological writer probably wouldnt have been able to arrive at the world view Maupassant offers, and at the compactness of contained form.

For example, when in 'Guillemot Rock' everybody agrees that the central character should keep shooting, this is immediately accepted as the most sensible thing to do, and no ethical discussion comes out of the story. There is a deliberate flattening of psychology here not too dissimilar to the accusation leveled at Maupassants contemporary, Emile Zola. But where Zola was interested in a certain baseness of physiology, Maupassant is more concerned with the inner logic of social pragmatics. If one claims he doesnt care for psychology, it is that he seems fascinated by what one needs in the social situation. In another story, 'The Signal', a woman ends up casually calling a man up to her apartment after mimicking the gestures of a courtesan. Unable then to get rid of him, she succumbs, and relates the story to a friend. The friend proposes that she neednt feel especially bad - alter all the man was attractive - and she also received a small sum of money. The story concludes with the friend saying she should buy her husband a little present with the cash she received; it's the least she can do, she says.

Again, social pragmatics obliterate any ethical discussion. While it is true in both stories there are hints of soul searching, this proves irrelevant next to the force of societal function. In each instance what can be gained by not hunting or guiltily telling the husband? It is as if the formal precision lies in the containment of the pragmatic. Thus we talk of character over psychology because generally Maupassant presents character not as individualistically distinctive, but societally normalized. What is generally absent from Maupassants work, as it is absent in very different ways from Zolas - and this is where they both differentiate greatly from other key nineteenth Century writers like Poe and Dostoyevsky, no matter the Poe-like aspect of the diary story 'The Horla' - is in the idea of the soul.

This notion of the soul is the further reaches of psychology, and the flipside of societal character. Hence from a a certain point of view Maupassant would seem to be a shallow writer - with neither great exploration of psychology, nor revelation of soul - he remains close to the social surface. Yet this is what makes Maupassant important: the delineations of character contained within the short story form is a little like the social character functioning within behavioural norms and getting what they want out of the situations in which they find themselves. In another story, 'The Graveyard Sisterhood', a woman apparently grieves her late lover. A young man befriends her, hears her story, and takes her for dinner, and they end up making love. Months later, he returns to the graveyard and notices her doing exactly the same thing with another man, and realises this is basically how she makes her living. Maupassant isnt remotely interested in the state of the woman's soul, more in the simplicity of the woman's deceit and the gullibility of the men who fall for it.

It is one of two stories in the collection that actually resembles Milan Kunderas work, notably the stories in Laughable Loves, and more especially still 'The Hitchhikers Game'. But where Kundera is a modern writer in his interest in the evaporation of certitude within two opposing psychologies, Maupassant is a classical writer in the categorical nature of his conclusions. In both 'The Graveyard Sisterhood', and also a later story, 'In the Bedroom', where Maupassant shows a wife demanding her husband pay her for sex, since he has been known to pay many a courtesan for their services, Maupassant concludes the story with the inevitable but entirely understandable irony of the situation: in the former, the supposedly grieving woman can be seen to take other lovers; in the latter the wife makes a logical demand. Kundera ends his story of a couple who start role playing with each other for sexual pleasure with the woman feeling in some way that she has lost her identity. In the process of stripping and role playing for her lover, the character reveals more of herself psychologically than she may have wished, and the boyfriend exposes her to an unlocateable humiliation. Kundera searches out the mystery of psychology as the ostensibly innocuous becomes personally terrifying. Maupassant pushes a certain pragamtics to a logical conclusion. In the first story a woman finds she can prey on men's sentimentality, and in the second a wife realises there is no reason why her husband shouldn't pay for her services if he is so willing to pay for the services of others. As she says, at least by paying her the money stays in the family.

Both stories work off the irony of classic reversals, though the first does so for the purposes of a narrative twist, while the second for a consistent logical throughline. Where 'Graveyard Sisterhood' expects us to be as surprised as the narrator that he has been duped, the second works not with surprise but with a sense of the inevitable, a line of reasoning taken to its entirely plausible conclusion. Yet in each instance both stories feel like classical tales because they are self contained in the world and not produced out of contrary perspectives. Without applied subjectivity, 'The Hitchhiking Game' would have little meaning. The point of the story lies in a certain type of over-reaction, over-sensitivity that Kundera explores. This is why we differentiate between character and psychology. Maupassant is a writer who gives us characters without enough individuality to impose themselves subjectively on the story. Maupassant offers us the tale with no more than sketchy characterisation, thus giving his stories the wonderful containment that makes him such a master of the classical story, and possessing a technical control writers like Maugham can learn from.

Yet surely a pressing question for the modern story is how to offer greater psychological texture without obliterating the short story form. To understand this problem better we can note in Maupassant's short fiction how he delineates character. Usually a character is introduced to us quite externally, with a description that includes their name, their physical characteristics, their general demeanour and their employment. He provides us with their physical and civil status. In such an approach he is entirely in keeping with nineteenth century character description, and indeed we can look even at Zolas's work and see, no matter the distinctive interest in physiology, the nineteenth century demand for descriptive summation. "In he came, a tall, strapping, curly headed, powerfully built man in the full prime of his forty years, his long, pointed unkempt beard made him look like Jesus Christ but a Christ on whose face life had left its mark." (The Earth) "He was a short, rather thickset man, clean shaven and already greying. The heavy jowls, square jaw, flat nose were sallow and expressionless, an effect emphasized by the heavy lids half shut over the big, light coloured eyes." (Le Bete humaine) Generally speaking, in short story form or novel length, character description remains quite similar. The difference is chiefly one of event. In the novel characters get the opportunity to transform through a series of actions, where in the story it chiefly focuses on more or less one incident. The central character's fling with the woman in the 'Graveyard Sisterhood', the character sleeping with a stranger who pays her in 'The Signal'. In the novel the character usually is set but capable of transformation, while in the story the character is set and can only chiefly be surprised. This is partly why so many stories rest on twists, or work with the type of logical throughlines Masupassant often practices. The temporary lover in 'Graveyard Sisterhood' is surprised the female character survives by duping lovers. The husband in 'In the Bedroom' is surprised that his wife will charge him for sex. The woman in 'The Signal' is surprised that she can make love to a stranger and keep the news from her husband. In 'The Hitchhiking Game',the female character isn't surprised by her feelings, though they are less categorical than those in many a Maupassant story. She is devastated by them.

Yet we need to go further into the problem of character versus psychology. Would a story like Maupassant's tale of a dancer who wants to remain young not also be a psychological study, especially considering the relative absence of story? Here in 'The Mask', the narrator watches a dancer having an accident. He realises that the dancer wasn't a young man as he initially thought, but an old man wearing a body suit that made everything about him seem young. He takes the man home to the man's wife, and she tells him about the man's beauty in his youth, his numerous affairs and the day that when she saw he had a grey hair that he would at last be hers. Instead the dancer tried to retain his youth any way that he could, and Maupassant tells a story of misguided vanity while at the same time nevertheless not making the story especially psychological. There is no sense of internal realization, no singular dimension that comes out of the story as there is in Kundera's, as the tale seems less an examination of character, than a cautionary tale about vanity. He remains a character-type like numerous other Maupassant figures.

It would be unfair however to say this typology illustrates Maupassant's weakness as a writer, merely to say it does so in this instance. In such an example, Maupassant's investigation of character doesn't yield new insights into vanity, nor does it move along with the narrative snap of most of the other stories. Again, though, one doesn't want to say Maupassant can tell a story but doesn't have much more to offer. What he provides is a scrutinizing look at man in the social world, and the logic of that world. When the wife asks for money from her husband to sleep with him in 'In the Bedroom', when the man goes on shooting in 'Guillemot Rock' no matter the presence of his son in law's body, when someone wonders what would happen if she called a man to her apartment, in The Signal, the stories skilfully indicate the most plausible action within a certain societal norm. Maupassant's skill is in tweaking these norms, working with the reasoning procedures of the bourgeoisie and subtly scandalizing us by pushing the behaviour that little bit further.

If we look again at 'Graveyard Sisterhood', perhaps here is a woman who once grieved for her lover, but at the same time lacked the financial wherewithal to survive. She is befriended by a man in sympathy, and he provides for her needs however briefly. A week later the same thing happens and so on. The woman gets to visit her dead beau, the temporary lover gets to feel that he is doing a good deed at the same time as being serviced, and from the pragmatic point of view everybody gets what they want. Indeed Maupassant's stories are so given to eschewing the psychological that jealousy (so central to Zola's work) has barely a place in this story collection. Even in what is seen to be his masterpiece, 'Le boulle de suif', the central character, a prostitute, gives her body to a Prussian officer so that a coach full of people can continue on its way. As far as the others are concerned, since 'Boule de suif' was a prostitute anyway, why shouldn't she give her body to an enemy soldier on this occasion as well? Where Boule de suif and her long term friend and admirer see a betrayal of honour, the others reckon she is simply doing her professional duty. A prostitute is supposed to take clients wherever she finds them. In this instance Maupassant works less with the irony of bourgeois pragmatism, than the tragic way in which the character is used by the others. If most of the stories work off ironic pragmatism, here the story, which is the longest in the collection, offers tragic pragmatism. In both instances, though, Maupassant's skill lies in showing social values at work, not getting too close psychologically to the characters.

Again however we return to Kundera, and an interesting speculative comment in The Art of the Novel where he proposes that modern man has been made by the novel, that his sense of individuality coincides with the novel form. But at the same time there is in much nineteenth century fiction not one's individuality expressed but one's social role. Society is stronger than the individual, and it is surely only really with the twentieth century novel, with a few exceptions like Dostoyevsky, that individuality has been the novel's focus. From Dickens' Great Expectations to Austen's Pride and Prejudice, from Middlemarch even to Jude the Obscure, our social place is negotiated, attempted but not especially called into question. In Sartre's work, though, in Camus', in Clarice Lispector's and Peter Handke's, the self no longer expects society to be the locus of their identity. The mind is in danger of dissolving in the face of a reality much greater and more amorphous than the social.

Though, as we've proposed, this is an aspect of Maupassant's late story 'The Horla' that reads like a diary entry, most of the others attend to the demands of the social, with Maupassant questioning society but neither quite in the process probing the psychological specifics of his characters, nor what occupies the space beyond society's mores. In 'The Mask' there is nothing behind the society of which the character is a part, and his vanity is seen for what it is: the inappropriateness of an aging man who will do almost anything to hold on to his youth. In 'The Signal' the woman who cheats on her husband with a stranger, doesn't call her identity or call society into question. Both in 'The Mask' and 'The Signal', the characters are as secure at the beginning of the story as they are at the end of it: deluded in the former instance, perhaps, and dissembling in the latter, but basically the same. What we might choose then to admire in Maupassant's work is the manner in which he reveals society's workings almost in the Georg Lukacs sense, where he praised 19th century realism over 20th century modernism because of the relative objectivity of the 19th century novel's presentation of the world. Now Lukacs does also note in an essay on 'Tolstoy and the Development of Realism', that he believed Maupassant in his novel Une Vie "isolated the psychological problems from the social problems. For Maupassant society was no longer a complex of vital and contradictory relationships between human beings, but only a lifeless setting." However we are suggesting that by modernist standards the attention to psychology is less present that the attention to the social. Lukacs is talking about the absence of the socio-political in Maupassant's novel in relation to its historical setting (before the revolution in 1848), but we are more interested here in the minimising of the psychological. He does not reveal the self, he does not create fresh psychological perceptions in relation to what he shows us, but instead brilliantly stale ones that illustrate the staleness of the narrow society on which he focuses.

Maupassant was generally seen as a misanthropic writer, someone who wrote with a jaundiced eye on social mores. But there have been more pessimistic French novelists than Maupassant, and indeed a twentieth century writer like Celine seems infinitely more bleak in his vision than Maupassant ever was. Yet one can come away from Maupassant's work feeling more despairing, more hopeless in the face of the socially inevitable. A writer like Celine phenonemologizes despair, makes it part of a subjective vision. Maupassant's pessimism is more objective and thus appears less perceptually free, and can seem even aesthetically limited, as though he does no more than echo the social norms. Maupassant's pessimism doesn't only come from the pragmatic irony we find in so many of the stories, but also with this irony a belief that society is what it is. A fellow nineteenth century writer Stateside, Ralph Emerson, could say "if you don't like the world, make it to suit you. All true men have done so before you". Maupassant makes it in the image of what he finds, no matter the prolific work ethic that indicates a frenzy of self/expression, with Maupassant publishing dozens of articles, nearly three hundred stories and six novels in an eleven year period. From a modern perspective Maupassant's heavy work load and yet relatively conventional approach would seem to be a weakness, not least taking into account a recent J. M. Coetzee comment that a writer's purpose is increasingly to be speculative, meditative, enquiring, and also that such an outporing suggests hackwork rather than artistic endeavour. However we can do worse than look at Maupassant, just as we can look at Maugham, and see how a conservativeness of perspective allows for a completeness of form, and at the same time how society is reflected in many ways in this use of form.

Frequently in both Maupassant and Maugham, the irony of form reflects this conservativeness of perspective. In the stories of both there is a belief in the way things are, and that the writer's purpose is to sketch them appropriately. Maugham has admitted he might not have been a great writer but he could see what was in front of his eyes. Like Maupassant he sees what he sees and what he sees is what is there to be seen. This sounds like a tautological given, but that is so often what it happens to be in these writers' works as they don't investigate what is beneath the surface of things. However to have done so would have been of course to endanger the form in which the story is contained, and we may wonder whether just as we can note the significance of an existential perspective in much twentieth century writing, and character as given in the nineteenth, so we can also differentiate between the positivist aspect of Maupassant and Maugham, and the phenomenalist concerns of certain writers. Where positivism insists on trusting only what can be seen, objectively, phenomenology equally insists on the significance of what can be seen by the subjectivity of the observer, the body viewing the perceptual field. One reason why Maupassant can nevertheless be seen as the more important writer isn't only that he is Maugham's predecessor, but especially because Maupassant was more readily reflecting his time than Maugham was reflecting his. It is like a variation on the Lukacs notion of reflecting one's society so that Balzac needn't be politically radical, but he needs at least to be reflecting the moment that can capture bourgeois mores in all their decadence. By the same reckoning a writer can capture his moment in terms of thought and ideas as well, with Maupassant at least of his epoch rather than behind it.

At the same time though maybe the short story form dates less immediately than the novel, and this is why Maupassant and even Maugham are still respected for their shorter pieces rather than their longer works. While the novel was shape-shiftingly radical in the first half of the twentieth century, contracting time into less than twenty four hours in Dublin in Ulysses, expanding it into a cerebral infinity in Remembrance of Things Past, capable of endlessness in The Trial, the story could still work within more assured boundaries, as we find in Joyce's Dubliners, or Fitzgerald and Hemingway's tales, even Kafka and Borges's fables.

Is the novel form an intrinsically more malleable structure than the short story, or are there ways in which the story can be reshaped towards the writer's own ends? There are at least two ways of answering this question. One is to look at a few contemporary short story writers who created radical fiction within the short story form. A collection of stories like The Naked Eye indicates there were plenty of writers in the sixties, taking off from some of the relatively experimental approaches of Borges and Kafka, that shows the story needn't be a priori conformist,` and we have ourselves already talked of Kundera's 'The Hitchhiking Game'.

The second approach is to look at Maupassant's stories themselves and imagine them told differently. A short story like 'The Ruse' is a brilliantly cruel suspense story. An old doctor tells a young patient how he once helped a young woman get out of a difficult situation with a lover who happened to die on her. She phones the doctor and tells him her awful predicament, and the doctor comes and dresses the corpse, the wife and doctor then take him into the drawing room and sit him on the sofa. The husband comes in and the doctor explains the three of them were having a late night chat and the fellow male companion slipped into unconsciousness. The doctor says to the husband that they should lift him into the carriage, and the doctor can attend better to him when he gets him home. When he arrives at the man's house he then certifies him dead. The story ends with the patient wondering why the doctor told her so horrible an anecdote, and the doctor replies, "so as to offer you my services in case of need". The doctor's services including the well being of the bourgeosie in all areas of their lives, even it includes the odd fib in times of crisis. Again we have an example of social pragmatism, but again no psychological subtlety, no existential possibilities, no phenomenological observations, no hint at the soul.

But what if the story were from the young patient's point of view and that she recalls a doctor telling her more or less the story the doctor tells, but now she is in a similar predicament? Her lover lies dead in her bed and her husband is due back not that night but the next morning. She needs to get rid of the body, but she is struck by the smell that starts to come off it, by the look on his face, by the maid she hears moving around downstairs. She wonders about the sperm on her stomach and breasts, and that perhaps she doesn't want to phone the doctor, that she wants her husband to discover the corpse himself after she leaves. She gets up and washes herself, packs and deserts the house. She stops off on the way out of town and tells the doctor that there is a corpse in her bedroom and that he should go and certify that he is dead, and by natural causes. She then casually leaves the town, as though not at all interested whether she will later be arrested for leaving the dead body, or concerned about her husband's likely anger and pain. All she can think about is the smell that began to come off the corpse, and its expression in death. As she exits the town in a carriage, she tries to forget the look and the smell not because she feels especially guilty, but that she wants to remember her lover as the vigorous, handsome figure he was only a few hours before. She realises sitting in the carriage that the dead lover reminds her now too much of the husband, and she asks the coachman to ride ever faster.

Here we would have phenomenologized and psychologized the story. It is no longer an 'objective' tale of what a doctor can do for his patients, as if they are all a mass, with lovers, with maids, and a need to have a doctor sort out their predicaments. It is instead a story about an individual with distinct reactions to each stage of the tale. Early on in Maupassant's story the doctor says, after the patient asks how a woman can love in the midst of lies and treachery, "Oh, that's easy. I can assure you that a woman doesn't think about all those little niceties when she takes it into her head to stray off the straight and narrow path. I would go further and say that no woman is ripe for true love until she has gone through all the promiscuities and disappointments of married life..." As he goes on to tell his anecdote, there is no sense that the woman being told the story, or the story the woman is about, are distinguishable. The only difference is that one committed adultery and the other has yet to do so. How can there be psychology if everyone reacts in basically the same way? Psychology is reduced to behaviour, and here of course we have once again positivism returning in a different guise, with the actions basically observable and consistent. Adultery may be morally unacceptable, but that doesn't make it unusual.

Maupassant's genius in many of the stories is to indicate that the morally unacceptable is also frequently the norm, and this brings to mind some observations by Slavoj Zizek on the culturally accepted versus the culturally real. This is where some element of the culture that is acceptable privately but condemend publicly. "Such a [prvately accepted code] must remain under the cover of night", Zizek says in The Metastasis of Enjoyment, "unacknowledged, unutterable - in public everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence." Yet we're insisting while that is often the case, it is not the same thing as exploring the singularity of a state. The Zizekian observation in the context of the short story can give tales a nice twist of non/conformity without reshaping the form itself. Society expects a certain code but can accept deviations as long as they become if you like inner norms as opposed to outer ones. The outer norm would be that it is a disgrace to have an affair. The inner norm would be that of course everybody has affairs and it would be as naive to think people don't as it would be scandalous to talk too openly about people who do. However this contrast between the inner and outer still doesn't individualize. It is still a norm. Our alternative version of 'A Ruse' would deny the norm and creates subjectivity.

What goes on in such an approach as Maupassant's is determined irony. Zizek's theorizing of the inner and outer norms works wonderfully well in explaining Maupassant's brilliance at the contained short story. From 'A Ruse' to 'In the Bedroom', from 'Guillemot Rock' to 'In The Woods' (where an aging couple return to the frissons of their youth by making love in the woods before getting caught and having to explain themselves), all share this type of irony. It is as though in each instance the characters have to explain their behaviour in its inner rather than outer mode and all will be okay again. It might from a certain point of view (the external social norm) be scandalous, but from the inner social norm it is fine.

It would be unfair to insist most of Maupassant's stories only function in this way, though this element is vital to their success, for they seem part of a deeper pessimism that Roger Colet notes in his introduction. "A pessimist by nature, a pessimist from the influence and example of his friend and mentor Flaubert, and a pessimist out of admiration for the greatest philosopher of his time, Schopenhauer, Maupassant saw avarice and lechery, cruelty and greed, selfishness and hatred at work wherever he turned." These are nothing if not human traits at work, and Maupassant shows not only the deliberate hypocrisy of society in many of the stories in the Zizekian sense, he also shows a cruel disregard for others within this hypocrisy that allows the story to remain a tale, but with a sting rather a twist in it.

One of the finest is 'The Matter with Andre', where a captain has a week long affair with a notary's wife while her husband is in Paris. The problem lies with her young child, who won't stop crying, and all the mother's cooing and caresses still leave the child bawling, and making it impossible for the couple to make love. Eventually the captain gives the child a hard pinch, and this seems to do the trick, and the wife notes the child no longer cries at night and that they can peacefully have sex. However, near the end of the story when the husband returns, he notices the child is covered in horrible bruises. The wife blames the bruises on the completely innocent nurse, who is immediately fired. The story ends with the narrator saying "her behaviour was reported to the town council, and she found it impossible to find another situation." The nurse has played no part in the story until the last few lines, yet she is what gives the story its texture of cruelty. The hapless child becomes the hapless nurse. They are both characters unable finally to take care of themselves in a world of inevitable harshness. The hypocritical lightness of 'The Ruse' or 'The Signal', becomes the despair of a complete degradation of values. In 'The Ruse' and 'The Signal', values are superficially presented and no one is really harmed. The husband need be none the wiser in the latter and the lover is dead in the former. Life continues as though to make a fuss over the truth of the tales would be to miss the point of bourgeois life.

This isn't quite so in 'The Matter with Andre', nor is it so in 'Boule de suif'. In the latter, the social pragmatism lies in the titular character sleeping with a Prussian soldier since she was after all a prostitute, as some of the others note in discussing their plan to persuade her to do it. "The women huddled together, voices lowered, and the discussion became general, each person expressing an opinion. But it was all perfectly respectable. The ladies in particular found delicate turns of phrase and charming euphemisms to express the coarsest ideas." Maupassant offers the story with the determined irony of the lighter ones, but there is also the sting. Boule de suif may be a prostitute, but just as there is honour amongst thieves, Maupassant shows there is honour within the heart of a hooker, and the others expect her to violate this value. While the other women reckon "Seeing that it's that slut's job to go with any man who wants her, I don't think she's any right to refuse one man rather than another", Maupassant wonders who is being dishonoured in the process of Boule de Suif's sacrifice.

While one notes that Maupassant isn't much interested in psychology, there is nevertheless an often nuanced sense of moral values at play. It would be naive to assume that in the lighter tales there has been a degradation of values. 'The Ruse', 'The Signal', 'Guillemot Rock', 'In The Bedroom', 'The Graveyard Sisterhood' are all tales with a twist and a value system that is suspect but not degraded. There is no degradation of values in the process of the telling, but simply a realization of the social norms and naivety or sophistication towards them. This is what the doctor offers in telling the story to the young wife in 'The Ruse'. In 'Boule de suif' and 'The Matter with Andre', as well as in an apparently innocuous story like 'The Piece of String' the degradation is much more apparent.

In the latter a thrifty man notices a piece of string on the ground and promptly picks it up. He may feel slightly ashamed at stooping down to pick something off the ground, but later he's accused of picking up a wallet that has gone missing. Someone observed Hauchecorne bending over, and no one would believe that he picked up nothing more than a piece of string. That evening he "felt ill all night as a result", and though later he would tell everybody he met that he was obviously innocent, nobody quite seemed to believe him. By the end of the story, and within a few months of the incident he takes to his bed and weeks later is dead. Maupassant again gives us an example of a potential trivial matter from a certain point of view being of immense magnitude from another.

But doesn't this slightly contradict our claims that Maupassant isn't interested in subjectivity, even contradict slightly our insistence that Maupassant isn't a writer interested in the soul? Not especially. Maupassant remains generally outside the subjectivity of the self and wants to comment instead on the soullessness of society. To explore a soul is one thing, and this would incorporate anything from Dostoyevsky to Bernanos, with their singular protagonists and the exploration of their states. Hauchecorne has no complex self to explore, and Maupassant sums him up in a few lines. Maupassant doesn't want to examine a character's soul, he wants to sum up instead the social soullessness. This can lead often to no more than minor consequences or no consequences at all, or on occasion to major ones: as in 'A Piece of String, 'The Matter with Andre' and 'Boule de suif'. Either way, he requires no psychological or 'soul complexity' to do so. It is true that occasionally Maupassant explored the psychological (and 'the Horla' is described by Colet as "one of the most terrifying stories of madness...ever written"), but Maupassant is, we've been arguing, a writer not of psychological states but social ones.

Such an approach seems to require a relative superficiality of characterisation that means the story can be well told but the character only sketchily presented. Maupassant still counts as a 'master of his craft', and a modern writer could learn much from Maupassant's control of information, of location, of situation. Yet could one now write like Maupassant and be taken seriously? Is this simple snobbery on the part of the modern reader, or does twenty and twenty first century man require that a singular being passes through events, events Maupassant breezily allows his composite characters to pass through. 'In the Bedroom' could almost be an Alberto Moravia story, but instead of arriving at the ironic cynicism of a wife saying that if she proves a decent lover she might also ask her husband for a rise, even the often criticised Moravia (attacked for his schematism) would surely insist that the husband would at the same go through an internal crisis. In 'The Graveyard Sisterhood', again the central narrative consciousness would be ruptured by his failure to grasp the relationship he seemed to be having with the woman. Would it not call into question his general perception of the world? How can the modern writer still work with twists and stings, yet at the same time indicate that man is much more complex and subtle than Maupassant often allows him to be? How can one learn from a master and accept that it no longer possible to write seriously with quite this type of mastery?


© Tony McKibbin