Monday, February 28, 2011

book review: A Day in the Country and Other Stories by Guy De Maupassant

This collection of short stories might have plenty of variety but it is all written with great mastery of a form that eludes some writers.

Here the reader's attention is grabbed through a number of different ways including thriller, ghost story as well as insights into the social world of 19th century French life.

To pick out a selection from the first third of the book to give a flavour is not too difficult.

Simon's Dad is a heart warming tale of a boy seeking a father to end the bullying at school and as a result ending years of shame and pain for his mother by landing his mother a husband. You find your heart swelling at the end of the story as Simon informs his bullies that their days of targeting him are over.

Then you get a change in mood with the story that gives the title to the collection, A Day in the Country, providing a girl from a shopkeeping family with a moment of love that she can never forget. Her bawdy mother and ineffectual father are used brilliantly to illustrate the difference between those working in the suburbs and country folk.

That difference between the country and the city is also picked up in the story Riding Out which sees a man keen to show his family he can ride knocking down an old woman as he loses control of his steed in central Paris.

If there was a theme to the first third of the collection it might have been countryside and the second has stories that make various references to money. The Necklace describes the costs that borrowing and losing a necklace have on one couple only for them to discover at the end of a decade spent clearing their debts that it wasn't worth a great deal of money.

Penny pinching is on display again in The Umbrella where a woman wants her husband to have a good umbrella but is not prepared to pay for that. As his work colleagues ruin the cheap ones that he turns up to work with she would rather claim on the insurance than pay out for a proper umbrella.

That ability to pierce a side of someone's character is on display again with Bed 29 where a proud and vain solider is unable to show compassion for an old lover struck down with syphillis. Happy to be seen with her when she was beautiful he has no words of comfort for her when she is ill.

The last third of the book contains some of the longer and darker stories. The Little Roque Girl is an account of the discovery of a murdered girl and then the unravelling of the Major's mind. Responsible for her rape and death he finally loses his mind after being haunted by her ghost.

Our Spot is also fairly dark showing off the agression of a couple that lose their fishing spot on the river bank. Their anger at losing out results in the death of the rival fisherman but as the court case recounts the anger and death is more by accident and the fisherman is aquitted.

A great collection of stories that provoke various reactions but come from a writer clearly able to turn his pen at will to deliver stories of very quality.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Hi Simon,
Nice review. Overall, it's a nice collection isn't it? And like you say, very varied. I had the occasional problem with the translator (David Coward?) making French peasants sound like West Country bumpkins, but it only mildly annoyed me, so that's OK :).

I'd point you to my own reviews (I reviewed all of the stories individually), but with RobAroundBooks being down right now, I can't. Regardless, I think we more or less agree on the collection as a whole.

My favourite in the collection? Well aside from The Horla which I'd read already, I enjoyed Old Milon. Maupassant, as you'll know, always like to have a pop at the 'damn Prussians', and this story is as patriotic and as full of propaganda as any I've read from him. A great choice for the collection!

Country Living is another favourite. This story is, in my mind, a masterpiece in short storytelling, and it should stand as an example of a perfectly engineered short story.

The Little Roque Girl isn't so much a favourite as a story which unsettled me greatly. I just thought it was very Edgar Allen Poe in its style and very dark (although not as Edgar Allen Poe and as dark as The Horla of course).

I also 'enjoyed' Bed 29, not only for the 'fall from grace' reason that you point out, but with Maupassant being a syphilis sufferer too, I'm always intrigued when he brings the subject up in his stories.

For 'lump in the throat' entertainment - something which I think Maupassant is a master of - I'm torn between the one you mention - Simon's Dad, A Farm's Girl Story, and The Christening. I found all of these tales to profoundly emotionally charged.

Anyway, I'm harping on Simon aren't I? Sorry, I just get a little too waggy tailed at times. Just wanted to share my thoughts on the collection with somebody else who's actually read it.
Warmest regards