I picked up a copy of Contes du jour et de la nuit at our local San Jose second-hand bookstore, Recycle Books, and have been enjoying reading one of the early masters of the short story form. In some ways it is interesting to see how much the form has evolved.
The themes in the stories are surprisingly (to me) relatively simple. (For the five stories I have read so far.) L’Aveu is about the miserliness of bourgeois peasants, as a young woman trades sex for free transport of her farm products. Rose must have been a daring tale in its time, about a mysterious maid-in-waiting of a noble lady, ending with a classic short story “rueful look out the window”. Le Crime au père Boniface is a “aren’t peasants fun” type story. Le Père is a very sentimental story of anonymity in urban life. La parure is the well-known story of the diamond necklace lost at the grand ball.
I had thought de Maupassant somewhat more complex in tone and construction. Presumably he was tremendous innovator at the time, but hard for someone like me to evaluate his place in the timeline of the form. Here’s Charles May with some very good analysis (especially of the horror stories):
However, Maupassant’s real place as a writer belongs with such innovators of the short-story form as Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Ambrose Bierce, and O. Henry. Too often, whereas such writers as Turgenev and Chekhov are admired for their so-called lyricism and realistic vignettes, writers such as Bierce and O. Henry are scorned for their so-called cheap narrative tricks. Maupassant falls somewhere in between. On the one hand, he indeed mastered the ability to create the tight little ironic story that depends, as all short stories do, on the impact of the ending, but on the other hand he also had the ability, like Chekhov, to focus keenly on a limited number of characters in a luminous situation. The Soviet short-story writer Isaac Babel has perhaps paid the ultimate tribute to Maupassant in his story “Guy de Maupassant” by noting how Maupassant knew the power of a period placed in just the right place.
The French vocabulary is a challenge for even a pretty fluent reader like me, with unusual words in practically every sentence. Easy to guess meaning from the context, but still one worries that maybe the whole story is hinging on nuance in the meaning of a word!