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