Friday, February 26, 1999

Yvette And Ten Other Stories

by Guy de Maupassant
translated by Majorie Laurie

"Yvette," a novella.  A courtesan’s daughter, Yvette enraptures a handful of suitors, in particular Servigny; her flippancy masks true innocence, however, and she becomes horrified by the life her mother lives.  An engrossing psychological portrait; the gaps between classes, between generations, between the sexes are made all too clear, helped along by the characters’ unwillingness to acknowledge them overtly.  Even at the end when Servigny seems to have won Yvette’s love, he tells himself no woman is to be trusted; the reader knows it will end with someone hurt.

"Lost At Sea."  A woman’s horribly abusive husband is eventually lost at sea.  Then she buys a parrot that imitates his swearing and abuse.  She beats it to a pulp.  Uh, okay.

"The Olive Grove."  An old Abbé, living as a respected, vigorous man in a small village, is surprised by his lost, illegitimate son.  The gap between their worlds is made explicit: “Between him and this creature, who was his son, he began to realize there lay a trench brimming with moral filth, with a foulness, that is mortal poison to a healthy mind.”  It ends violently.  A stark tale of immorality and moral repercussions.

"The Hostelry."  Two men keep an inn going for the winter, alone with a dog; then one goes out hunting and never returns.  The remaining caretaker, whom the owner’s daughter loves, develops a severe case of cabin fever and goes mad.  A compelling story, though overly depressing.

"A Portrait," a very short story.  A man wonders what his friend’s attraction is to women, until he sees a portrait of his friend’s mother, who appears artless and aloof and beguiling.  Hmmm.

"The Apple Dumplings."  A farmer couple waits as her father wastes away on his deathbed.  They show callousness and selfishness, resenting his extended survival, hoping he’ll die so they can get on with their busy, scant lives.  A very good demonstration of the human tendency to be insensitive and to live for the moment.  “Every man has his turn," it is noted.  “It was their turn, they reflected, to be eating dumplings."

"Shali." A French Navy man goes to India, where he is given, among other gifts, an eight year old girl as a slave.  Disgusted by most of the Raja’s other entertainments, he grows overly fond of her; but she meets a bad end.  A rather horrifying and morbid story which suggests that there are just too many chasms of misunderstanding for people to find love.  If indeed love is the right word for a relation that smacks of pederasty.

"Idle Beauty." A Countess is made pregnant by her husband seven times in eleven years, because, she says, he wants to ruin her looks out of jealousy.  So she tells him one of the children is not his, subjecting him to tortures of worry and resentment.  A tale steeped in anti-Romanticism, claiming (with extended commentary by two observers) that humans deserve more refined aims than the base and natural urge to procreate.  But at the end, when the Count has come round to this view as well, he is gripped by a new “strange emotion” (understanding that his wife has her own dreams and desires independent of his own?) which riles him as much as his “primitive passion of earlier days."  One just can’t win, can one?

"The Murderer,” a five-page story.  It consists of a lawyer’s defense speech for his client, an upstanding man whose murder of his second, perfidious, wife is excused on grounds of righteous passion.  Like a lot of Maupassant’s stories, the putative jolt lies entirely in the event rather than the telling.

"An Encounter,” a brief story.  A Baron separates from his wife because of her treachery; he encounters her years later on a train, seemingly by chance.  Actually, she has planned it, but not to effect a reconciliation: she is having a baby and wishes to avoid scandal.  This is one of Maupassant’s more gratifying stories, although the last lines – "He never saw her again.  Was she lying?  Was she speaking the truth?  He never knew" – seem unlikely given the established fact that they live in a hotbed of Parisian gossip.  Would he really never hear word that his estranged wife, separated or not, had a child?

"The Horla."  A man finds himself under the influence of some supernatural, invisible, and malevolent force, which he calls the Horla.  Its presence is so disturbing that he resolves to kill it.  An early example of the horror genre; Maupassant felt the need to explain the flight of fantasy by pointing out how much of the natural world is invisible to the naked eye.  Quite chilling, especially at the beginning; a good idea well told in diary form.

three stars

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