By Chris Power
“He is a better writer than you think,” Malcolm Lowry once said of Guy de Maupassant. This comment, made to David Markson, indicates the conundrum Maupassant presents to readers. A hugely influential writer of short stories, the sheer mass of his extremely uneven body of work – 300 stories, 200 articles, six novels, two plays, and three travel books churned out between 1880 and 1891 – can obscure his genius like clouds around an alp. Yet while many of those 300 stories fail to rise beyond the anecdotal, nearly a quarter are very good, and within them stands a core of indisputable classics. It shouldn’t be doubted that Maupassant is one of the most important short-story writers to have lived.
It was to the detriment of Maupassant’s work – although not his bank balance – that his career coincided with a demand from French newspapers for stories of around 1-2,000 words. Jostling with news and faits divers, these stories were by necessity laconic and attention-grabbing, and Maupassant, whose severe economy was a model for Hemingway, had a great facility for producing them. The irony, however, is that Maupassant’s best works are much longer. The spareness, learned in his youth from the poet Louis Bouilhet, is still there – as in the opening of “Hautot & Son” (1889), where, as Sean O’Faolain writes, “the scene is brilliantly and swiftly painted, with three lines for the countryside and six for the sportsmen” – but the stories’ scope helps avoid the glibness that can mar his shorter work.
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