If Guy de Maupassant lived and wrote stories or novels today, his name would appear on The New York Times best-seller lists many weeks out of a year. As it was, in the late 1800s, his stories were best-sellers from the time the first one, “Boule de Suif,” appeared in a collection with five other previously unknown authors, until he died, mentally ill, at the young age of 42 in 1893.
But don’t let the best-seller title sway you from reading Maupassant. I tend to avoid modern-day best-sellers, but I probably shouldn’t. I see why Guy de Maupassant was so popular: he writes incredibly well.
I’ve only read about 40 of Maupassant’s stories thus far (out of a book with 270), so these are all preliminary thoughts. As I’m still reading his stories, I’ll share my favorites by Maupassant and my HTR&W thoughts in a subsequent post.
Since I recently read Chekhov’s stories, I can’t help but compare the two writers. Apparently, most people compare them. In the introduction to the volume I’m reading, Dr. Artine Artinian discusses at length why Maupassant is better than Chekhov. I don’t think I can assign one as better than the other; they are just very different.
Maupassant’s writing style is a stark contrast to Chekhov’s (read my discussion of Chekhov’s stories here). I loved Chekhov’s writing and style: it was thoughtful despite being (I suppose you could say) verbose. He explores the characters’ emotional states and their thoughts. Maupassant is much more concise. He also relies on dialog more than Chekhov seemed to, so his stories moved more quickly. But Maupassant’s stories are still beautifully written. He captures the essence of the setting in few words and makes it complete.
Maupassant’s subject matter is also a stark contrast to Chekhov. Both writers focus on the lives of everyday people, focusing on everyday matters. But while Chekhov wrote his stories with the ever-present political situation of various classes of people (money and station seemed to be a theme), Maupassant wrote with under-lying carnal desires in mind. In other words, he wrote about sex, greed, love, misunderstandings, and lying, among other things. The characters in his stories care most about themselves. Chekhov’s stories were more concerned with how people relate with each other. In a sense, Chekhov’s characters felt more sensitive. Maupassant’s characters are more “human.”
In searching for a recommended translation, I stumbled upon an Amazon reviewer who wasn’t too impressed with Maupassant. He/she says:
The real reason that everyone makes such a big deal about Maupassant is because he mostly wrote about sex. His stories are entertaining but not extraordinary…
He’s right, and he’s wrong. Yes, Maupassant mostly wrote about sex. But I believe that Maupassant’s writing has a hint of extraordinary. Some stories are simply masterpieces. I believe Maupassant deserves the credit he received.
As I said, I haven’t read every story in this collection of stories by Maupassant. But when I read stories like these I am glad that I don’t have a rating system on my blog. How could I assign a “score” to these painfully beautiful stories after I assigned a “score” to Chekhov’s painfully beautiful stories? I am glad I read both authors, but I can’t begin to “grade” them.
If there is one author I’d read again someday, it would probably be Chekhov and not Maupassant. But that doesn’t mean that Maupassant isn’t as good or that I find his stories “worse.” Also, don’t judge a book by its cover: I’m liking Maupassant despite its stench.
In the end, Maupassant’s stories feel modern in writing style and subject matter. Therefore, you (personally) may relate to them more than you would to the underlying politics in Chekhov’s peasant Russia. I guess you could say that Maupassant is the average “Guy.” That helped him become the best-seller he deservedly was.
Questions for you:
- Which writing style do you prefer to read: verbose beauty or concise beauty?
- If you’ve read Maupassant’s stories, do you think they’re “all about sex” or is there something else deeper in them?
- Do you assign “scores” or ratings to books or stories you read? Why do you assign ratings? How do you determine which rating to assign?
Is he the one who wrote “The Necklace”?
I love verbose and concise beauty, as long as there’s beauty involved. 🙂 I’m in the middle of Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence right now and the verbose way that man plays with words is intoxicating. Then there’s someone like Ishiguro, who has a ‘plain’ style that completely enchants me with its quietness.
On my ‘books read’ list, I do give between one and five stars to each book I finish. It’s not at all scientific though, and it’s not a comparative system. It’s how that isolated reading experience was. So I gave five stars to War and Peace and to Wicked Lovely, which is a YA urban fanasy book, because they were both wonderful, wonderful reading experiences that I want to re-live. Make sense?
Eva, Yes, he wrote “The Necklace,” which I enjoyed. I wouldn’t call it his best, although it is the most well-known. Thanks for explaining how you “rate” books. I still don’t think I’ll be trying to rate my reads, but that does make sense.
I’ve never wanted to read Maupassant before, but you make him sound interesting. Probably won’t read the entirety of him short stories, though.
I don’t rate books – I’d be way too picky on the details, I’d need an up and down and side to side rating system, haha!
And in general, I prefer concise beauty, rather than poetic.
This is a wonderful post! I’ve never read Maupassant before, but my tolerance for sex in a book is completely dependent upon the novel. What might be considered gratuitous to me in one place might go completely unnoticed in another. Does that make sense?
I don’t rate my reviews on my blog. I have a hard time doing that because I’m not sure what I’m rating them against. Against my ultimate novel ever? Against other books in the same category? I just write what I feel at the time and leave it at that.
Oh, and that would be concise beauty for me. I’m reading Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin right now and there have been more paragraphs that run more than two pages long than I can count. I’m not loving that at all.
Amanda, I don’t think I’m going to read all of them either! I’ll just read Maupassant until I get bored. I’ll have a post in probably two weeks with my favorites. I like the idea of up and down and side to side ratings!
Literate Housewife: The interesting thing about Maupassant is that while his stories often are about sex and prostitutes and such, they have little sex in them. If only modern-day writers could take that lesson to heart: it is possible to write about sex (as they say, “sex sells”) and still not make it gratuitous!
Not having a reference point for rating my reading is also my problem. I don’t know where to start. Nothing would get a perfect score because everything has some problem with it! And yet, almost everything has something good too!
I think I like concise beauty more than verbose beauty, although like other people have said it depends a lot on the author. I think I’m more drawn to conciseness in poetry — Billy Collins, an American poet, uses really simple and particular words as he writes, and I really admire how much he meaning can attach to a single word in a poem. I tend to dislike poets like T.S. Eliot, who I think is very verbose, probably because I find the poetry a little tedious.
Luckily, I enjoy verbose beauty AND concise beauty. It just depends on my mood. If I HAD to choose just one, I would probably choose concise beauty.
I haven’t read any Maupassant, but I’m going to at least sample him based on your reviews.
I rate the books I read on a 5-star scale. I’ll be the first to admit that the system is a little unworkable. It’s hard to compare oranges or apples. Plus, I tend to be a little harder on an author or a book if I’ve been set up to expect greatness (prize winners, classics, etc.). Still, use the rating system to give readers an idea of whether I think they should read the book or not.
I just want to add that your posts are so thought-provoking and fun to read.
Kim, thanks for your thoughts. I’ll have to see what I think about poetry when I start in on it! I’m undecided as to which I prefer in short stories!
Jessica, I’ll have a list of favorite stories when I’m “finished” with Maupassant!
I enjoy both types of beauty in writing. Maupassant I found (read for French A level at school) depressing and self obsessive and the sex was the only highlight then! On the subject of sex, the type of sex writing I really enjoy is Theodore Storm – “Immensee” comes to mind as my favourite by him. Rating system, not really, I only keep books if I know I’ll read them again, otherwise they go on a pile and get taken to a charity shop, where I often buy more.
Juliette, I’ll have to reread Maupassant and see what I think now. It’s been two years. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll have to try Storm.