I read this short story by Guy de Maupassant because I have plans to watch the film with a friend of mine who’s also learning French.
The film appears to have an interesting little history. According to Wikipedia:
Partie de campagne is a 1936 French featurette written and directed by Jean Renoir. It was released as A Day in the Country in the United States. The film is based on the short story “Une partie de campagne” (1881) by Guy de Maupassant, who was a friend of Renoir’s father, the renowned painter Auguste Renoir. It chronicles a love affair over a single summer afternoon in 1860 along the banks of the Seine. Renoir never finished filming due to weather problems, but producer Pierre Braunberger turned the material into a release in 1946, ten years after it was shot. Joseph Burstyn released the film in the U.S. in 1950.
It seems a slight story to turn into an 80 minute film: it’s only about 4000 words and it only took 15 minutes to read, if that. But as always with Maupassant, there’s always more to it than that.
Monsieur Dufour, an ironmonger in Paris, takes his family for a long-desired day in the country to celebrate Madame Dufour’s birthday. He borrows the milkman’s wagon; Grandma, Dufour’s daughter Henriette and the apprentice come too. Their sentimental expectations are disappointed soon after Madame Dufour exclaims her delight at being in the countryside at last:
The sun was beginning to burn their faces, the dust got into their eyes, and on either side of the road there stretched an interminable tract of bare, ugly country with an unpleasant odour. One might have thought that it had been ravaged by a pestilence, which had even attacked the buildings, for skeletons of dilapidated and deserted houses, or small cottages, which were left in an unfinished state, because the contractors had not been paid, reared their four roofless walls on each side. Here and there tall factory chimneys rose up from the barren soil. The only vegetation on that putrid land, where the spring breezes wafted an odour of petroleum and slate, blended with another odour that was even less agreeable. (Guy de Maupassant, Original Short Stories — Volume 12 . Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition, Loc. 63.)
But things improve as they cross the Seine again and when they reach Bezons they stop at a roadside inn for lunch. Some testiness in the Dufour relationship is subtly revealed: “Well, Madame Dufour, will this suit you? Will you make up your mind at last?” he says, and she takes her own sweet time to consider it. Her stout appearance and superabundant bosom forced up by her straining corsets to her double chin have already been noted; and whereas Henriette attracts the interest of some young men when she launches herself from a swing with a pretty show of leg and hair blowing free when her hat comes off, alas, Madame Dufour can’t get herself off the ground. If you look at the DVD cover at Wikipedia she doesn’t seem as chubby as all that, but the text is quite explicit:
Sitting in the other swing, Madame Dufour kept saying in a monotonous voice: “Cyprian, come and swing me; do come and swing me, Cyprian!” At last he went, and turning up his shirt sleeves, as if undertaking a hard piece of work, with much difficulty he set his wife in motion […] and her whole figure shook like a jelly on a dish. (Loc. 87)
Maupassant pre-dates the concept of fat-shaming.
The two young men who have been watching Henriette take the opportunity to start a conversation when they offer the Dufours their table. Attired in boating costumes, they are contrasted with the yellow-haired apprentice though it’s not explicit. Since he and Dufour get drunk, he doesn’t get much of a mention in any of what follows, not until the end of the story:
They were sun-browned and their thin cotton jerseys, with short sleeves, showed their bare arms, which were as strong as a blacksmith’s. They were two strong, athletic fellows, who showed in all their movements that elasticity and grace of limb which can only be acquired by exercise and which is so different to the deformity with which monotonous heavy work stamps the mechanic. (Loc.111)
The young men offer to take the ladies up the river in their boats. Henri (who has the good fortune to have a name similar to Henriette’s) wangles it so that he rows the pretty young girl while the other made a martyr of himself and took the mother.
Well, the unexpected twist is that Henriette is indignant about Henri’s advances, and she calls a hostile halt to the flirtation. Returning to the inn…
…they walked rapidly, side by side, without speaking or touching each other, for they seemed to have become irreconcilable enemies, as if disgust and hatred had arisen between them. (Loc 183)…
…while the ‘martyr’ turns out to have had an unexpected pleasure:
By and by they heard a noise behind a bush, and the stout lady appeared, looking rather confused, and her companion’s face was wrinkled with smiles which he could not check. (Loc. 183)
The family goes back to Paris, farewelling the young men with only a sigh and a tear. When two months later, Henri calls in at the shop, he learns that Henriette is married: the apprentice has joined the business. And in case we needed confirmation of Madame Dufour’s interest in his friend, there is this exchange.
He was going out, feeling very unhappy, though scarcely knowing why, when Madame called him back. “And how is your friend?” she asked rather shyly. “He is very well, thank you.” “Please give him our compliments, and beg him to come and call, when he is in the neighbourhood.” She then added: “Tell him it will give me great pleasure.” “I will be sure to do so. Adieu!” “Do not say that; come again very soon.” (Loc. 206)
A year later, he returns to the scene of his abortive dalliance, to find Henriette sitting sadly on the grass, while by her side, still in his shirt sleeves, the young man with the yellow hair was sleeping soundly, like some animal. They share nostalgic memories of that day:
…when he told her that he was very fond of that spot, and went there frequently on Sundays to indulge in memories, she looked into his eyes for a long time. “I too, think of it,” she replied. “Come, my dear,” her husband said, with a yawn. “I think it is time for us to be going.” (Loc. 206)
I gather from the summary at Wikipedia that the film takes liberties with this story, and we shall have to see if it has the same mildly cynical tone. But FWIW, I think this short story has a similar preoccupation to Maupassant’s 1889 novel Like Death which I reviewed here. In that novel happiness is thwarted by the ambition to make a good marriage in Paris; in this short story Henriette (who we can assume is an Dufour’s only heir) is herself complicit in rejecting happiness in order to keep the young apprentice in the family business.
Author: Guy de Maupassant
Title: Original Short Stories Vol 12
Publisher: Freebie Kindle Edition, probably sourced from The Entire Original Maupassant Short Stories at Project Gutenberg 2004. I haven’t been able to find the first date of publication for this story.
There is a more modern translation by David Coward available in the Oxford World’s Classics edition A Day in the Country and Other Stories. As always with this series, it has perfectly appropriate cover art for its title story. Available from Fishpond: A Day in the Country and Other Stories (Oxford World’s Classics)
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He packs so much in to such a small space. A familiar 19C theme, of course: a marriage of commercial convenience that produces ennui and regret.
Yes, I must read more of these stories… it’s why I set up this website, but I’ve neglected it badly.
I was just thinking the other day that I hadn’t read any Maupassant for a while. Having read all his short stories available in English I can still look forward to his novels that I haven’t yet read and, of course, re-reading his short stories. I haven’t seen the Renoir film.
I’ve only read one of his novels, it was a recent translation from NYRB. I wonder if they have released any others?