Let’s talk about Guy de Maupassant, because he was born today in 1850 and because—why not? He’s Guy de Maupassant. As our own Lorin Stein wrote in 2010,
In a career that spanned barely a decade—the 1880s and early 1890s—Maupassant produced some 300 stories, 200 articles, three travel books, a collection of poems, three plays, and six novels, and the bulk of this production was consumed with the pursuit of illicit sex. His specialty was the conte leste, a kind of bawdy comic story we have very little of in English after Chaucer (think Boccaccio or The Arabian Nights). Maupassant modernized this tradition, testing the boundaries of what was permissible even in the Paris tabloids, where many of his stories first appeared. He was the best-selling writer of his generation.
Maupassant’s early story “Boule de Suif,” from 1880, remains a hallmark and a natural starting point. It’s about a prostitute whose refrain, like Bartleby’s, is that she would prefer not to—in this case, a Prussian officer asks repeatedly for the pleasure of her intimate company, and she invariably denies him. Unlike Bartleby, though, Boule de Suif must eventually give in, not by any defect of will but because of peer pressure.
This Prussian guy, you see, has detained her and several of her countrymen at a local inn. He’ll only allow the group to leave if Boule de Suif (or “Dumpling,” should that translation suit you, or “Butterball,” or most literally “Ball of Fat”) surrenders to his advances. And so her fellow travelers, all of whom disdain her for her occupation, find themselves begging her to succumb.
From this simple conceit, Maupassant wrings a whole novel’s supply of tragicomic tension. “Boule de Suif” is prototypical Maupassant: sexual but not psychosexual, a distinction that can seem counterintuitive after Freud and modernism. To quote Lorin again:
What most troubled and delighted Maupassant’s readers was his erotic identification with women. He saw them as sexual objects, and he saw himself as a sexual object … As he had it, even a genius couldn’t write about sensuality if he wasn’t inclined that way himself. The reverse held too. In the aesthetic battles of the day between the “psychological” and the “objective” novel, Maupassant took a hard objectivist line. For most of his career he was wary of looking too deeply into characters’ motivations. “The man who goes in for pure psychology can only substitute himself for all his characters,” Maupassant wrote, “for it is impossible for him to change his own organs, which are the only intermediaries between the outside world and ourselves.” Better, he thought, to report what people do and say, and say to themselves, than to ask what makes them tick.
And what a report we get in “Boule”—I read it a little less than a decade ago, and what stuck with me, more than any of the sexual politics, was Maupassant’s vivid descriptive powers. Surviving foremost in my mind was a paragraph about Cornudet, one of Boule de Suif’s companions—a total blowhard whose beard, I remembered, was the same color as the beer he liked to swill. I just revisited the passage and found it no less striking:
Then they took their places round a high soup tureen, from which issued an odor of cabbage. In spite of this coincidence, the supper was cheerful. The cider was good; the Loiseaus and the nuns drank it from motives of economy. The others ordered wine; Cornudet demanded beer. He had his own fashion of uncorking the bottle and making the beer foam, gazing at it as he inclined his glass and then raised it to a position between the lamp and his eye that he might judge of its color. When he drank, his great beard, which matched the color of his favorite beverage, seemed to tremble with affection; his eyes positively squinted in the endeavor not to lose sight of the beloved glass, and he looked for all the world as if he were fulfilling the only function for which he was born. He seemed to have established in his mind an affinity between the two great passions of his life—pale ale and revolution—and assuredly he could not taste the one without dreaming of the other.
It will come as no surprise, given the whiff of contempt emanating from those words, that Cornudet behaves like a complete prick in the story’s brutal conclusion, after Boule de Suif has done her duty. In a devastating, morose span of description, she finds herself shunned by the same crowd that urged her on, the same bunch whose liberation she’s secured. They’re all riding out on a stagecoach, and here comes Cornudet again:
Then Cornudet, who was digesting his eggs, stretched his long legs under the opposite seat, threw himself back, folded his arms, smiled like a man who had just thought of a good joke, and began to whistle the Marseillaise.
The faces of his neighbors clouded; the popular air evidently did not find favor with them; they grew nervous and irritable, and seemed ready to howl as a dog does at the sound of a barrel-organ. Cornudet saw the discomfort he was creating, and whistled the louder; sometimes he even hummed the words … and all the way to Dieppe, during the long, dreary hours of the journey, first in the gathering dusk, then in the thick darkness, raising his voice above the rumbling of the vehicle, Cornudet continued with fierce obstinacy his vengeful and monotonous whistling, forcing his weary and exasperated-hearers to follow the song from end to end, to recall every word of every line, as each was repeated over and over again with untiring persistency.
And Boule de Suif still wept, and sometimes a sob she could not restrain was heard in the darkness between two verses of the song.
A simple phrase like “digesting his eggs” conjures, in this sinister context, a mess of hideous gastrointestinal burbles. And how casually distressing to specify that Cornudet took the trouble to whistle more loudly against the noise of the coach, and that Boule de Suif’s sobs could be made out in the interstices.
Read all of “Boule de Suif” here, translated from the French.