Having belatedly discovered that Marina Sofia has been posting for #FrenchFebruary I scoured the TBR for something I could read quickly so that I could contribute. I don’t know who to thank for my purchase of Guy de Maupassant’s Butterball (‘Boule de suif’) but it is a perfect little novella to share. With the added bonus that I can use it to make a contribution to my long-neglected collaborative Marvellous Maupassant site.
Butterball was first published as part of the collection known as Les soirées de Médan by authors Émile Zola; Joris-Karl Huysmans; Henri Céard; Léon Hennique; Paul Alexis and Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893). The authors were all associated with French Naturalism (of which Zola is the best known exponent) and all six stories all concern the Franco-Prussian War. As Wikipedia explains:
The aim of the collection was to promote the ideals of Naturalism, by treating the events of the Franco-Prussian War in a realistic and often unheroic way, in contrast to officially approved patriotic views of the war.
Well, Butterball certainly does that!
It’s a satire of bourgeois hypocrisy set in the wake of the occupation of Rouen by Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). It begins with streets deserted and shops closed as the inhabitants await the arrival of the Prussians. Hasty preparations are made to secure vital interests, and strategic relationships covertly emerge when Prussian officers billet themselves in the comfort of bourgeois homes. And so it is that before dawn a carriage is able to set out for Dieppe without interference.
When the sun rises the passengers are able to see who their companions are. They are a microcosm of bourgeois French society: two nuns; a wine merchant and his wife; a wealthy cotton merchant and his wife; a count and countess; and the terror of respectable folk, the Democrat Cornudet who has spent his inheritance in anticipation of The Republic.
And there is Elisabeth Rousset.
The woman, one of the so-called ‘women of easy virtue’, was famous for her precocious corpulence, which had earned her the nickname of Butterball. She was small, round all over, as fat as lard, with puffed-up fingers congested at the joints so they looked like strings of short sausages; with a glossy, taut skin, and a huge and prominent bosom straining out from beneath her dress, she nonetheless remained an appetising and much sought-after prospect, so fresh that she was a pleasure to see. (p.14)
In the Introduction, Andrew Browne discusses the way Butterball is characterised. In the 21st century this characterisation makes us feel uncomfortable because of our awareness of fat-shaming, and I think he has tried to address that but I’m not entirely convinced by his argument. It seems anachronistic to ascribe it to feminism.
Fat is a feminist issue. Why else does Maupassant make the prostitute in one of his most famous stories, ‘Butterball’, excessively well endowed with feminine tissue? This is a story about food, sex, and politics, and about the impossibility of separating them out or establishing a secure order of priority between them. Which comes first, need (the need to eat, the need to stave off or compromise with an occupying military force if one is to survive), or desire (the desire for other bodies, the more symbolic desire for recognition of oneself as a full person)? (p.xiii)
(He also discusses in some detail the multiple allusions that her name has in the French, less crude and more symbolic than the English Brown has chosen to use.)
FWIW I think the characterisation is meant to represent abundance, generosity, enjoyment of life, and a rejection of strait-laced hypocrisy.
The company sniffs in disapproval, overcoming their disdain only when she offers to share her picnic basket. The weather is foul, and the snow has delayed their journey by hours: they are all hungry though only one of them needs to effect a graceful faint before succumbing to these ‘tainted’ provisions. But their real test, brilliantly satirised by Maupassant, comes when the carriage has to stop for the night at an inn, and the Prussian officer presiding there refuses to let them travel onward unless he can have a night with the whore.
Butterball refuses. Unlike the rest of them, she is no collaborator, and the novella shows how brittle their solidarity is when their own self-interest is at stake.
My Hesperus edition comes with a Foreword by Germaine Greer and an Introduction by translator Andrew Brown. (It’s full of spoilers, so defer reading it until after reading the story.) The cover image isn’t credited, and while it’s apt, I prefer the saucy wench and the Prussian officer on the cover of the 1907 edition that I found at Wikipedia.
There are five other short stories in this collection:
- The Confession (La confession)
- First Snow (La Première neige)
- Rose (Rose)
- The Dowry (La Dot)
- Bed 29. (Le Lit 29)
Links to all of these at Project Gutenberg can be found at Marvellous Maupassant.
You can also read Jonathan’s thoughts about Boule de suif here. He read a different translation, which judging by the excerpt that we have both chosen, I prefer to Brown’s. (I didn’t much like his translation of Zola’s The Dream (Le Rêve) either.)
Image credit: ‘Boule de suif’ cover of the 1907 edition from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Boule_de_Suif.jpg
Author: Guy de Maupassant
Title: Butterball (‘Boule de suif’)
Foreword by Germaine Greer
Introduction and translation by Andrew Brown
Design by Fraser Muggeridge
Publisher: Hesperus Books, 2003, first published in in the collective collection Les soirées de Médan in 1880, first published together in French as ‘Boule de suif’ in 1901
ISBN: 9781843910473, pbk., French flaps, 106 pages.
Source: Personal library, purchased from Wormhole Books
This review is cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.