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January 11, 2006

Short-Fiction Audio Bliss

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

As I walked to work listening to this collection of short stories, I was smiling mirthfully when I wasn't bursting into malicious laughter. I'd forgotten how brilliant and funny a writer Guy de Maupassant can be.


Born in 1850, Maupassant is usually thought of as one of the creators of the modern short story, along with Poe, Chekhov, and the Brothers Grimm. As for his bio, well, apologies: I have no idea how to characterize the class he came from. In any case, he grew up in Normandy the adoring son of a literature-lovin' mom. During years spent toiling as a clerk in Paris, he began writing seriously and started to find his way in the literary world, becoming friendly with the likes of Flaubert, Henry James, and Turgenev. His first published story was a sensation, and his fame and success only grew. Writing came easily and he had a good business sense; the stories and novels poured out, and the money poured in. (In the 1880s, he finished six novels and 300 short stories, as well as mucho incidental writing.) He traveled extensively and enjoyed owning a yacht. He was quite the late-19th century writing/publishing phenomenon. But when he died of complications from spyhillis, he was paranoid, insane, and only 43 years old.

Although Maupassant is considered one of the early masters of the modern short story, almost no stories that are written today show his influence. (Glad to be corrected on this if I'm wrong, by the way.) Today's short fiction is largely divided between genre stuff (horror, mystery, sci-fi) and arty stuff (writing workshop/New Yorker fiction). Poe is the granddaddy of the genre tradition, while Chekhov set the pattern for much of the highbrow short fiction.

Despite his fame and success, Maupassant no longer seems to be looked-to for much. His stories generally aren't Poe-ish. Though he wrote some ghost and horror stories, most of his fiction isn't plot-driven, it doesn't make use of verbal music, and it doesn't rely on sensationalism or spookiness. The characters and the actions in most Maupassant are as plausible and recognizable -- as "realistic" -- as anything in Zola. The language is crystal clear and to the point.

But his stories aren't Chekhovian -- ie., casual-seeming, deceptively slight, and epiphany-heavy -- either. Things really happen. Maupassant's people confront predicaments, take actions, and struggle to get what they want and where they want to go. He isn't trying to capture the ethereal in a net of words.

Maupassant was famous for the witty ways he "turned" his stories -- for his twists, his knottings-and-unknottings, and his kickers. Come to think of it, this may help explain why Maupassant's influence is so hard to detect nowadays. One of his disciples was that lover-of-trick-endings O. Henry. And if there's anyone a contempo short story writer is strictly forbidden to imitate, it's O. Henry -- gimmicky, you know. As though the contempo workshop short story isn't equally as gimmicky, grrr ...

As it turned out, I didn't love the Maupassant stories I just finished for their cleverness. I found the narrative surprises enjoyable enough -- well-done, nicely-executed, etc. I admired them. They provide a lot of fun little flourishy Belle Epoque moments. But I wasn't delighted or wiped out by their devastating ironies.

What I loved the stories for was their spirit, their tone, their pace (they move like the wind), and their psychological incisiveness. Maupassant is amazingly acute about people. In these post-Freudian days we don't often think of psychological fiction as being anything but dark and brooding, determined to dwell on agonies. Maupassant shows how this doesn't have to be the case. He's a merry and wicked observer and dramatizer of people's vanities, greed, passions, and desires. You could almost call him a prankster, if a very suave one.

All of the stories in this small collection are full of moments that are as gasp-provokingly daring as the best humor pieces. Maupassant had a god-given conceptual gift -- a knack for dreaming up the kinds of perverse, no-exit situations that French lit sometimes seems to specialize in: tiny but high-pressure variations on, say, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."

In "The Encounter," for instance, a Baron leaves his much-younger wife, then six years later encounters her again, alone in a train compartment. He'd thought of her as inadequate -- as treacherous and insubstantial. Now, though, she strikes him as ... well, splendid.

What to do? He's in fact still married to her. Perhaps he should be amiable. But he wants her to understand how deeply the encounter is moving him. So perhaps he should be masterly instead? (By which we understand that he's considering overpowering her sexually -- in our terms, raping her.) But no, that probably isn't quite the thing either ... Meanwhile, her imperturbability and serene bloom are amplifying all his feelings of doubt, anxiety, and desire.

But let me shut up and get out of the way for a second. Here's a passage:

He turned to her. "My dear Berthe," he began. "As fate has brought us together again in this curious way after six years of a separation which was perfectly amicable, need we continue to glare at each other like a pair of mortal enemies? Here we are, for better or for worse, shut in together tete a tete. Personally I don't propose to go away. Wouldn't it pleasanter to chat like friends for the rest of the journey?"

"Just as you please," she rejoined calmly.

He was at a loss how to continue. Then, plucking up his courage, he took the seat beside her.

"I see I shall have to play court to you," he said ingratiatingly. "Very well, it will be a pleasure, for you're looking enchanting. You've no idea how wonderfully you've improved in the last six years. There's no woman to whom I owe such a thrill of delight as I felt just now when you slipped off your furs. Really, I could never have believed such a change possible."

"I can't say as much for you," she replied without turning her head to look at him. "You haven't worn at all well."

"How unkind you are," he replied, smiling ruefully and reddening.

"How so?" she said with a glance at him. "I was merely stating a fact. Surely you're not thinking of making love to me? So what does it matter if I admire you or not? But evidently it's a painful subject. Let's talk of something else. What have you been doing all these years?"

Biff! Bash! Pow! Can a tense moment in a relationship be sketched out more swiftly, more definitively, or more juicily than this? Maupassant sets the scene, hits the emotional/psychological targets, then cooly invites us to inspect the carnage. The Baron's vanity and hopes, and the way his desire makes him act roguish but also makes him vulnerable and foolish ... (Gotta love that "smiling ruefully and reddening" -- he's trying, but he's crumbling.) The Baroness' placid iciness, her calm awareness of the effect she's having, and the cruel and remorseless "make him pay" way she's putting her female intuitiveness to work ...

By the way, that's often Maupassant's terrain: infidelity, vanity, pettiness, ambition, status, and the way that social understandings can be torn apart by lust and love.

As for his tone: you may guffaw at passages like the above (I certainly do). But you may also say Ouch. And that's appropriate. Maupassant is funny yet piercing too. The stories blend satire with psychological/emotional penetration and canniness, and set the whole package in high relief against a background of implicitly-understood tragedy.

It's hard to see Maupassant as important if scale is something you accord a lot of weight. Maupassant ain't vast in the George Eliot or Tolstoy sense. He's going to strike no one as soulful, and he isn't drawn to the panoramic, let alone to Big Statements. Yet what a pleasure his fiction can be: high-spirited yet bloody-minded, lucid yet voluptuous, bitter yet sweet, precise yet free ... Hey, did I ever mention that part of what I love about French art is the chance it gives me to rhapsodize in ooo-lala, I-am-such-an-aesthete ways?

There's a lot to be learned from him too. What a technical virtuoso. It's a blast following his strategies and attacks -- his writing "moves": the way the story's center of consciousness moves around; where and why the camera (so to speak) edges closer in or backs farther away; what information is withheld and what information is disclosed; and what he chooses to tell and what he chooses to show.

I confess that I did find myself wishing that Maupassant were as much of a god-to-be-imitated in today's writing world as Poe and Chekhov still are. They're tremendous, but so is he. Some historians trace a line of descent through from Maupassant to Somerset Maugham; works of Maupassant's were turned into movies by Jean Renoir and Max Ophuls. But where does the sophisticated-yet-accessible, narrative-yet-nongenre line go from there? It's something I wish were more with us today.

If you crave worlds to lose yourself in, heroes to identify with, and social issues (or ideas) to mull over, then forget Maupassant. And if you like avant-garde precursors, he's not your boy. But if you enjoy concision and satire, and if you love savoring the mixed moods of such films as "Sideways" and the movies of Bertrand Blier (scroll down a bit), you might very well have a good time.

I wrote here about how I generally find the booklength-ness of so much on-the-page fiction tiresome. I write probably too often about the pleasures of listening to books on tape; the masochistic are invited to type "audiobook" into the search box in the lefthand column of this blog.

The stories on this particular audiobook are read by the late British Shakespearean Anthony Quayle. Quayle does something I don't often like: He "acts" the stories as though they were dramatic (and not literary) material. Normally I find this approach to be a disaster, but here I found it wonderfully effective. Was it because Quayle maintained such a graceful balance? He retained a bit of the narrator's mischief even when giving earnest voice to the characters. I'm not sure, and perhaps I'm rationalizing. But Quayle's work did strike me as one of the most brilliant audiobook readings I've ever listened to.



posted by Michael at January 11, 2006


I know of at least one modern writer who was influenced by GdM (if you count 30's of the last century as "modern"); he was very proud of it.
Try to find (in audiobook if you prefer) the short story by Isaak Babel, Guy de Maupassant. You'll like it.

Posted by: Tat on January 11, 2006 9:20 PM

Hello Michael
What an excellent post: well thought through, well written, full of inisghts, and about something new to me, too. (what a serious gaping hole in my education -- i didnt know anything about Maupassant except his name, why, obviously i shall have to correct the problem). blogs seem to be such news driven drivel -- it seems that if it isnt current somewhere else, it cannot be blogged about. how nice to read about a different sort of news -- your discoveries, your spiritual life, the books you read and what you think about them. many thanks

Posted by: gawain on January 12, 2006 3:30 AM

Great bit of writing on a writer not written enough about, Michael. As you are strolling the Gotham streets and chortling, I wonder how many people believe you're Serius-ly listening to H. Stern (When will HIS 15 minutes of fame be up?!?!?), instead of a much funnier, no, wittier, person in the form of Mssr. Maupassant?
You've covered him fully in a short bit of space. Great job.

Posted by: Darkov on January 12, 2006 8:40 AM

Flaubert and deMaupassant owe a lot to Balzac and Stendhal, two authors much overlooked these days. I especially love the way they keep things moving, as you said. For them a narrative is much more than just a "stream of consciousness". It's a story, darn it. Perhaps the most notable 20th century example is Raymond Chandler, one of my gods.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on January 12, 2006 9:50 AM

I have all 13 volumes of his short stories downloaded on my ereader .

He's another writer that will become more popular as ebook readers become more widely available. Ebook readers provide the easiest way to access public domain writers like de Maupassant. Btw, it now looks like this will be the year of the dedicated ebook reader. 4 dedicated devices will be out by this summer (including one by Sony). Sticker price for all is about $300-350, but I predict the price on all will drop to $200 by Christmas.

Boy, are you right about coming up with contemporary followers of this writer; there ain't any! The twist and plot developments seem more akin to sci fi or macabre stories (think Ray Bradbury or J.C. Oates), though you can't call de Maupassant fantastic at all.

My memory of his stories (and it's been a while) is that they are melodramatic, dialogue-driven and not particularly introspective. If he were around today, do you think he'd be writing in another genre?

Posted by: Robert Nagle on January 12, 2006 10:50 AM

I'd forgotten how brilliant and funny a writer Guy de Maupassant can be. .

Now that's a comment only made by ivy leaguers at Two Blowhards...not exactly water cooler conversation!! :) Oh're right...Maupassant...charming, charming.

Posted by: annette on January 12, 2006 10:58 AM

Could some of his tone relate to the placedness of everyone in 19th century society? You can't have a finely tuned fiction of manners in a society filled with people who don't know quite what manner to take in a given situation.

Posted by: ricpic on January 12, 2006 11:51 AM

Tatyana -- Thanks, I really should get around to reading Isaak Babel. I just checked Amazon -- nothing of his is on audio, rats.

Gawain -- Thanks! And thanks for stopping by and joining in. I'm enjoying exploring your blog -- classy stuff!

DarkoV -- When I'm walking around NYC headphoned into something audio that's making me laugh, I usually get "Uh-oh, this guy's insane" looks. Or so I usually think. But maybe you're right: maybe people think I'm listening to Stern. It's a funny world these days, what with so many people wired into a cellphone or an iPod. You never have any sense where anyone's mind is.

Robert S. -- That was a great crew of writers, wasn't it? What an era. Here's hoping more contempo writers go back to them and pick up some tips about pacing and tone.

Robert N. -- Wow, I had no idea so much was cyber-available. What a cornucopia. I think you've mentioned it before, but what device are you doing your e-reading on? A Palm? A notebook? Sounds like you find it a more-than-OK way to read. I'm an ebook-reading skeptic myself, but maybe I'm wrong ...

Annette -- That was a pretty pretentious way to kick off a posting, wasn't it? I should do a better job of watching out for that. Oh, what the heck: I was a French major for two minutes many decades ago. But don't you wish more water-cooler conversation were about stuff like this? I do, anyway. I kind of picture this blog as a place to indulge in the kind of water-cooler conversations I'd like to have. Thrilled a few people drop by and join in.

Ricpic -- That's a really brilliant question. Are there people doing worthwhile comedies of manners these days? I like a few of A.R. Gurney's plays -- he deals with WASPs, who still seem to retain some of the old forms. And I love John Guare's "Six Degrees," but that was pretty one-of-a-kind. Things are so formless these days ... How do you satirize them? Maybe you satirize the formlessness (and people's responses to it). But is that then comedy of manners? A comedy of no-manners? Hmm.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2006 12:14 PM

I first encountered Guy de Maupassant in a ghost story book I was given for my 10th birthday. Also included were some stories by Poe. My favourite was 'Vera' by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam.

I love reading posts like this...brings me back to the dream-state of remembering my first encounters with favourite writers as a little kid in an unknown, uncynical, and unsnobby landscape.

The excerpt you included reminded me of Somerset Maugham, and then when you went on to mention him, well, I felt so darned smart!

I'll definitely be taking a closer look at Maupassant. Thanks so much for this.

Posted by: Peggy Nature on January 12, 2006 1:57 PM

NPR accompanies me through my days, even out here in the wilderness where the only way to get PBS is by cable or satellite, neither of which I can afford. When it's Sunday, I do nothing in the middle of the day but listen to stories read aloud: first, "Theme and Variations" which comes from Texas and mixes thematically appropriate music with stories and then "Selected Shorts" which comes from New York. The latter uses professional actors to much advantage.

The stories are all over the map and chronology. Obscure, well-known, cutting edge or historical. Like any anthology, they're great ways to look around and there is MUCH more out there than the daily print media would make you think. I think that both programs have their own websites where you can download programs. My NPR station is, which streams. (They have listeners in Siberia, Brazil, etc.)

Michael, I LOVE this kind of informal essay that veers back and forth between fancy stuff and slang! Thanks so much!

And I appreciate Maupassant even more now that I'm playing with nanofiction and trying to pack as much plot as possible into 55 words. He knew how to do that.

Was it you who recommended "Narrative Design, Working with Imagination, Craft and Form" by Madison Smartt Bell with the cover photo of an author writing with a fountain pen hooked up to an IV feeder? It's a great book -- gentle and pointed at the same time. He points out that writing workshops, based on the criticism of craft only, do not serve the heart and cram everyone into the same slick, shallow template. His approach is twelve stories-- half professional and half student -- which he patiently unravels line by line. (A ravelation! I rave!)

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 12, 2006 2:08 PM

Absolutely...I think it's great you offer up these conversations on Two Blowhards!! They make life more interesting! Certainly water coolers would be much more fun if they were more like Two Blowhards. But its just a sentence you don't hear every day!

Posted by: annette on January 12, 2006 4:04 PM

I have read several books of GdM short stories. I agree with you every bit, Michael. What a wonderful storyteller. If I am remebering correctly, some or quite a few, of his stories begin with someone telling a friend the story. This technique certainly worked with me. I felt like the friend he was talking too. The stories are intimately told, and the listener (the fictional character in the story) seems to be told this story for intimate little reasons.

There is a quaint line told by Jean Reno at the end of "French Kiss" when Jean Reno is talking to his old friend played by Kevin Kline. Jean Reno knows a young woman has sacrifced a great deal for Kevin without Kevin's knowing it. He says to Kevin, "I know a good love story. Would you like to hear it?" (That line sounds really good with a deep male french accent.) While that line ended this movie, something like that line STARTS many of GdM's stories. "Sure I would like to hear more. Please go on, tell me," I say to GdM as I read. I feel as if I am sipping a brandy, cigar in the ashtray, and I snuggle a little deeper into the leather armchair across from him and wait for him to continue. These stories transport me indeed, to the salon of a very witty, clever man with a very unique perspective who I thing of as my intimate friend.

Fine post, M de B. I have to go and read that Bell Epoque site. Thanks for that link too.

I love reading this site. Thanks for "cooly invites us to inspect the carnage" - I just liked that bit especially.

Posted by: bridget on January 12, 2006 4:26 PM

Robert, thanks for the link. I think I know what I want as next New Year' present.
(accidentally, there are 13 volumes of GdM' short stories you linked to; Babel, in his story I mentioned above, refers to the bookshelf with collected works of GdM in 29 volumes...are you being sold an abridged version?)

I'm surprised at the reaction of commenters to this post Maupassant is considered a standard teenage fare in Russia - not as recommended school reading, of course. (It tickles me, too: I might even pass as a well-read individual mentioning GdM in learned company. Heh!)

I attribute it to the general tradition of francophilia (rather than anglophilia): in any library you can easier find books by Dumas, GdM (or Moris Druon) than Isherwood and Capote, f.ex. Speaking of Dumas: how many 10 yr's know 3 Musketeers is a book, and not A book, but ther are 3 additional books in the series (10 years since, , Vicomte de Bragelonne?

Posted by: Tatyana on January 12, 2006 4:43 PM

You and Bridget have described Maupassantīs charm very well for me - thatīs it, exactly. He and Somerset Maugham were my two favorite writers when I was around 17. Both are not particularly admired by academy or serious writers in general, but I never could really understand why. There are some writers who have great charm on the page (Maugham certainly has it), and I fear they are never too respected (just in the way that, say, actors who have a lot of charm are not respected as they deserve).

And then thereīs Seymour Glass words on Maupassant in Salingerīs Hapworth 16, 1924:

"I do not trust you, Monsieur de Maupassant! I do not trust you or any other monumental author who thrives, day in, day out, on lowly irony! My inexcusable ill-will freely extends to you as well, Anatole France, great ironist! My brother and I, as well as myriad human readers, come to you in superb faith and you give us a slap in the face! If that is the best you can do, have the rudimentary courtesy to kill yourselves or kindly burn your magnificent pens!"

But then again Seymour was seven when he said that.

Posted by: Alexandre on January 13, 2006 5:09 AM

Check out "The Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume 1" at The narrator is awesome. The best I've ever heard.

Posted by: Bob Grier on January 13, 2006 4:44 PM

Hemingway was another famous fan of Guy's.

Posted by: the patriarch on January 13, 2006 5:02 PM

Michael: the public domain translations are adequate, though not wonderful.

Ebook readers, I use an ebookwise 1150, which is great, but if you were buying now I would wait until the summer to buy an ebook reader. 3 ebook devices are soon to hit the ebook market, and hopefully they can be discounted quickly from their list price of $350. When these readers start approaching $200, that's when everybody's ears are going to perk up.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on January 17, 2006 5:29 PM

Tatyana: re: 29 volumes vs. 13 volumes. The 13 volumes are public domain versions. That means I didn't pay a dime for any of them. (You can download them off this site). I have a feeling that they are close to being complete.

12 volumes/29 volumes. Let's just say 12 volumes will keep me happy for a few years.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on January 17, 2006 5:32 PM

Great post. I'm a Maupassant addict too. I remember I used to lie in bed on sunny Saturday mornings with a hangover reading them collection by collection in French. Quite a few of them would come equipped with an introduction from some eminent contemporary critic warning the reader not to enjoy the contents of the book too much. Among the reasons for this disfavour: Maupassant's French was too easy for foreigners!

I think the 29 volumes might refer to Maupassant's complete works. IIRC he published 15 collections of short stories during his lifetime and there were at least two posthumous ones. Add to that six novels (three of which are well worth reading), three travel books, miscellaneous journalism, verse (Maupassant started out trying to be a poet, I think), letters etc. and you get a substantial body of work.

Posted by: J.Cassian on January 18, 2006 4:43 AM

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