Revisited is a new series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. For the first edition, Sloane Crosley revisits Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace.”
In order to discover Guy de Maupassant, I had to read James Joyce first, which is logical only in the sense that you have to fly over Ireland to get to France. As far as I can tell, James Joyce has little to do with Guy de Maupassant. There are some loose parallels between the story “Clay” and “The Necklace” (beautiful woman entrenched in tedium simmers with frustration), both gentleman had solid mustaches, and both had syphilis. But the last is a condition that hardly qualifies as bonding fodder; syphilis is the dead-male-writer equivalent of spelling your name correctly on the SATs. And yet, thanks to a sinfully underqualified eighth-grade English teacher, these two authors are inextricably linked in my memory.
First, she made a mess of Dubliners. Her analysis of “The Dead”? Sad. Snowy. Next. “Eveline”? Train travel. Ladies. Next. If there is a difference between distillation and laziness, that class was the measurement. Maybe this lady just had somewhere else to be. Maybe a tryst in the teacher’s lounge, ripping HANG IN THERE kitten posters from the wall with her fingernails. I mean, eighth-grade English probably leaves something to be desired for the people who teach it. All I know is that she rushed through the story discussions at a speed that surprised even the juvenile delinquents among us. It was her analysis of “Araby” that really did me in. “Araby” is the story of boy with a crush on an older girl. He tells her he’ll be attending a county fair, she responds by asking him for a souvenir. Thrilled by the errand, he finally finds the perfect gift. But when the woman running the stall smiles at him and offers to help, he says no, thank you, and walks away.
“So you see,” concluded my teacher, “sometimes these Joyce stories have no meaning and that’s the point.”
That was most definitely not the point. Maybe if you’re an amateur nihilist employed by the public-school system, it’s the point. But any bunch of teenagers in the world with unrequited crushes on each other will understand that story: When the woman manning the stall turns on the charm, our hero realizes that his actual crush was only being polite, not flirtatious. The flame is extinguished, replaced by the smoke of embarrassment. I had not yet seen Annie Hall, but if I had, I would have wished James Joyce to walk into the classroom and reenact the Marshall McLuhan scene. “Araby” immediately became precious to me, this little literary object that needed protecting. (Ah, the hubris of the teenage mind—fear not, James, I’ll save you!) So when the syllabus called for the mauling of some French guy named Guy de Maupassant, I worried.
For the first time in my life, I read ahead. I started with “The Necklace” (because it was shorter), followed by the chilling “Boule de Suif.” I remember being shocked by the endings of both, by their almost unbearably perfect twists. I remember the pages themselves, the size of them. I like to think I remember the font, though I almost certainly don’t. But I can still see myself, sitting on my bed, agape, feeling as if I had just witnessed a magic trick. I read “The Necklace” again. I had the urge to keep the Maupassant stories for myself, to figure them out on my own, to let their author speak directly to me. Why, that sly poster-tearing minx. She turned out to be one of the best teachers I’d ever had. She forced me to fall in love with stories despite her unabashed disinterest in them.
Her analysis of “Boule de Suif?” Prostitution. War.
I’ll take it from here, thanks.
As an adult, my issue is that the power these stories—and that of “The Necklace” in particular—is fading. Part of this is because time passes and first loves fade. But it’s also because of the choices I’ve made. For the past few years, I have thought about little else. I used “The Necklace” as inspiration for a novel. I took it apart, turned it around and linked it back together. The main characters of The Clasp follow a chain of false goals, just like the semisympathetic heroine of “The Necklace.” Then, just to really grind my first impressions of the story into the dirt, I did a bunch of interviews about it in which I swapped remembrance for recounting. I spoke about this object that had meant so much to me until it meant nothing at all. Naturally, I was okay with this exchange. I got a whole book out of it. Plenty of other fish to fetishize.
It took a chance reading of another short story to rescue it. During a January snowstorm, I stumbled across Issac Babel’s “Guy de Maupassant.” For a person who walks around claiming to be such a Maupassant fanatic, it’s a little ridiculous that I had never read this story. It’s about a young man in Russia who seduces a rich benefactor by translating Maupassant and then comes home to read about the gruesome end of the man himself (the VD was the least horrifying aspect of Maupassant death). Sex. Society. French things. Sure, it molested all of those bases. But the story is really about the fine line between life and death, between high art and total crap. “A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can only turn it once, not twice.” Reading “Guy de Maupassant” took me back to the pure love I felt for the short stories I read as a teenager, well before it occurred to me to co-opt one of them for my own fiction.
After I finished the Babel story, I walked across the room, pulled an anthology off the shelf, and flipped to “The Necklace.” I read it—really read it—as if I had never read it before. Vanity. Loss. Paris. Actually, not a terrible interpretation.
Sloane Crosley’s novel The Clasp is out in paperback this month.