Short Story Day Eleven – The Piece of String

11. The Piece of String
Guy de Maupassant

This is day Eleven of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

This weekend I went on a long bike ride, from North Dallas, down through White Rock and downtown, across the Jefferson Viaduct bike lanes into Oak Cliff and then down to Bishop Arts… then back.

Along the route, I stopped off at Klyde Warren Park for a rest (and a beer) and, as is my new habit, I read a bit in the Dallas Morning News reading area. I picked up a book I’ve picked up before, Volume I of Somerset Maugham’s collected stories.

This time I read the preface, which was as interesting as the stories themselves. He talked about how he writes – including the notes he took on a South Seas voyage about some fellow travelers that ended up as the story Rain.

Then he wrote eloquently and at length about the differences between two classic short story writers, Chekov and Guy de Maupassant.

I do not know that anyone but Chekov has so poignantly been able to represent spirit communing with spirit. It is this that makes one feel that Maupassant in comparison is obvious and vulgar. The strange, the terrible thing is that, looking at man in their different ways, these two great writers, Maupassant and Chekov, saw eye to eye. One was content to look upon the flesh, while the other, more nobly and subtly, surveyed the spirit; but they agreed that life was tedious and insignificant and that men were base, unintelligent and pitiful.

Maupassant’s stories are good stories. The anecdote is interesting apart from the narration so that it would gain attention if it were told over the dinner table; and that seems to me a very great merit indeed…. These stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They do not wander along an uncertain line so that you cannot see whither they are leading, but follow without hesitation, from exposition to climax, a bold and vigorous curve.

On the face of it, it is easier to write stories like Chekhov’s than stories like Maupassant’s. To invent a story interesting in itself apart from the telling is a difficult thing, the power to do it is a gift of nature, it cannot be acquired by taking thought, and it is a gift that few people have. Chekhov had many gifts but not this one. If you try to tell one of his stories you will find that there is nothing to tell. The anecdote, stripped of its trimmings, is insignificant and often inane. It was grand for people who wanted to write a story and couldn’t think of a plot to discover that you could very well manage without one. If you could take two or three persons, describe their mutual relations and leave it at that, why then it wasn’t hard to write a story: and if you could flatter yourself that this really was art, what could be more charming?

We have already read Chekhov this month. Looking at that story – we see Maugham’s point. Nothing really happen’s in Gooseberries – there are simply three men, caught by a rainstorm, telling each other some stories. They aren’t even very good stories. And it keeps raining.

Yet it is still genius.

So what about Maupassant? His stories have a plot – you could tell them around a dinner table in your own voice and they would be interesting. His style is considered vulgar and cheap in some circles… but as Maugham says above – it’s really hard to do well.

And it is still genius.

In the public square of Goderville there was a crowd, a throng of human beings and animals mixed together. The horns of the cattle, the tall hats, with long nap, of the rich peasant and the headgear of the peasant women rose above the surface of the assembly. And the clamorous, shrill, screaming voices made a continuous and savage din which sometimes was dominated by the robust lungs of some countryman’s laugh or the long lowing of a cow tied to the wall of a house.

All that smacked of the stable, the dairy and the dirt heap, hay and sweat, giving forth that unpleasant odor, human and animal, peculiar to the people of the field.
—-The Piece of String, by Guy de Maupassant

Short Story Day 1 – The Fall of Edward Barnard

1. – The Fall of Edward Barnard by W. Somerset Maugham

Over the years, I had not read very much… not anything, really, by W. Somerset Maugham. I did sit down with The Razor’s Edge once, a few decades ago, but couldn’t get very far into it. Although he wrote right at the edge of the modern era, his prose was too stifled and stuffy for my tastes. I set it aside after a few pages and didn’t revisit Maugham, though I knew this was a mistake – there had to be worth there, he is too well known and lauded for me to ignore.

This last weekend, I rode my bike into the crystal towers of downtown Dallas… intending to hang out there a bit before riding back up north. I went over to Klyde Warren Park, bought some lunch from a food truck, and settled in to rest a bit before pedalling home. I realized that I had forgotten my Kindle and discovered I wanted something to read. After a bit of frustration I remembered that the park had a reading area, complete with shelves full of books.

I walked over and perused the selection, eventually picking up a copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s Complete Short Stories – in a couple of volumes. I sat down and read a couple. There was a deliciously evil little tale set in two times and locations – A Woman of Fifty… and a very short work set in Guatemala about a Nicaraguan revolutionary on the run called The Man With the Scar.

I really enjoyed both of these stories. I realized that the stylized writing is employed by Maugham as a device to emphasize the wild irony of the stories beneath. He is not writing about proper society, but about the turbulent chaos that lies beneath and beyond… and that is a subject that fascinates me.

Those two little tales gave me enough rest to ride home and then I procured a selection of Maugham’s stories to read… more in depth. I started with Rain – a juicy story about the conflict between a strict missionary and a woman of ill repute while both are stranded in a cheap hotel in Pago Pago. It is arguably the best known of his short stories and has been made into a handful of films.

It was crackerjack. It impressed me enough for me to elevate the next story in the collection, The Fall of Edward Barnard to the first of my June Month of the Short Story daily selections.

The Fall of Edward Barnard is very similar to Rain – it is sort of the flip side of the same story, though with less horrific consequences (it even has an almost happy ending – though terrible in its own happy way). If you have the time read both… and then compare and contrast.

They concern the conflict between the European/American style – the ambitious, religious, strict, repressed, overbearing way of looking at life and the world with the relaxed, sensual, permissive way of the primitive South Sea Islands. Again, the archaic prose is used to good effect – be sure and don’t let that stop your reading or enjoyment; fight through the language (Word of the day: quixotry) until you get to the point where the author relents and lets loose a little.

So now I have added another classic author to my personal pantheon. It is interesting in that he is not overly careful about maintaining a strict point of view or even consistent tone – he lets his prose go where it needs to to tell the story. When I write, I sweat blood trying to make sure I don’t reveal facts or ideas that are not available to my point of view character at the time the story is unfolding…. Perhaps I need to relax a bit and let the story tell itself.

Something to think about.

“I think of Chicago now and I see a dark, grey city, all stone–it is like a prison–and a ceaseless turmoil. And what does all that activity amount to? Does one get there the best out of life? Is that what we come into the world for, to hurry to an office, and work hour after hour till night, then hurry home and dine and go to a theatre? Is that how I must spend my youth? Youth lasts so short a time, Bateman. And when I am old, what have I to look forward to? To hurry from my home in the morning to my office and work hour after hour till night, and then hurry home again, and dine and go to a theatre? That may be worth while if you make a fortune; I don’t know, it depends on your nature; but if you don’t, is it worth while then? I want to make more out of my life than that, Bateman.”
—-W. Somerset Maugham, The Fall of Edward Barnard