I found a few unaccounted-for minutes the other night, and picked up a short read I’d been meaning to get to: the short stories of Guy de Maupassant. [Recommended by Hemingway.]
Set in the Franco-Prussian war, this story sees a group of ten citizens of Rouen fleeing Prussian occupation in a stagecoach for Le Havre. They are a mixed group representing a neat cross-section of French society: a merchant couple; a bourgeoisie couple; a count & countess; a Democratic revolutionary; a courtesan; and two nuns. They settle into polite chatting in the stagecoach along social lines, with all turning their noses up at the courtesan. But as the journey goes longer than expected and they are unable to find an inn to serve them lunch or dinner, the courtesan produces a large basket filled with delicacies, and everyone thaws. They make nice with her, and eat her food. The title Boule de Suif is generally translated as “Dumpling” or “Butterball” or the like (I believe, more literally, it is “ball of fat”) and refers to the courtesan:
Short and round, fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, looking like rows of shorts sausages; with a shiny, tightly-stretched skin and an enormous bust filling out the bodice of her dress, she was yet attractive and much sought after, owing to her fresh and pleasing appearance.
But upon arrival at their overnight lodging, they are held up: the Prussian soldier in charge forbids they continue on their journey until the courtesan will provide her services to him. She refuses, being a patriotic and proud Frenchwoman. And the group seethes: their travels are being held up and, as they point out, this is her business anyway, isn’t it? Why shouldn’t a whore be a whore with a Prussian as well as any other man? They wheedle, exhort, and command – even the nuns – until she is broken down and does the deed and they continue on their way. In the final scene, the socially elevated ladies turn their shoulder away from her again. And everyone has remembered to pack a lunch except Boule de Suif, and no one offers to share with her.
This is a masterfully executed short story, and I can see why Hemingway admired it. The human element is heartbreaking. It is painful to see the defeat of Boule de Suif’s pride and principles; it is maddening to see the disgraceful behavior of the socially superior characters. It is also a neatly devised statement on social class: the merchant and bourgeoisie couples are greedy and grabbing, clearly willing to place their allegiance with whomever will leave them to their profits; the count and countess are weak and craven; the nuns are unchristian in their failure to share food with a hungry courtesan; and the revolutionary is a lecherous drunk. The courtesan is the most patriotic, brave, and principled of the group.
The writing style is enjoyable, too, and again I can see where Hemingway was influenced. Just look at this first sentence:
For several days in succession fragments of a defeated army had passed through the town.
and tell me you don’t see Hemingway there. The meter or rhythm alone reminds me of him; obviously the subject matter as well.
I am rusty in my close-reading skills. I recall a poem I read in high school, for English class, that we picked apart line by line and word by word, finding three and four layers of meaning therein. It was The Black Lace Fan by Eavan Boland, and I really enjoyed the lesson. I think this short story would bear the same sort of close scrutiny. Or, it can be enjoyed as a quick read.
Highly recommended, and I hope I find time for the rest of the stories in this volume soon.