“A Parisian Bourgeois’ Sundays and Other Stories” by Guy de Maupassant

Maupassant_Parisian-Bourgeois-fcXC-700pxI found this book on my library’s catalogue and when I found out what it contained I was amazed that I hadn’t heard of it. It was only published in 1997, by Peter Owen, and it contains many stories that are unavailable elsewhere in English. The stories are translated by Marlo Johnston; she also translated a version of Sur l’eau (Afloat) for Peter Owen.

The collection contains fifteen stories – a list can be found on the Short Story Collections page. Two of the stories, A Parisian Bourgeois’ Sundays and The Rondoli Sisters take up nearly a hundred pages, whilst the other thirteen stories vary between five and ten pages each. In the introduction it is stated that twelve of the stories hadn’t been published in English before so this makes it very attractive for the English Maupassant fan. With each story there is some useful information on the original French title, publication date and whether there have been other English translations. From these notes the publishers state that The Avenger, The Rondoli Sisters and The Donkey are the only stories that had been published before but the stories A Parisian Bourgeois’ Sundays, Yveline Samoris and From Paris to Heyst do appear in the Project Gutenberg collection as Sundays of a Bourgeois, Yvette Samoris and The Trip of Le Horla respectively. Also, the story Doctors and Patients (Malades et médecins) seems to be a re-working of an earlier story called An Old Man (Un Vieux) which is in the Penguin collection called Selected Short Stories. Still, it’s great to have these stories in a new translation, especially with a story like The Rondoli Sisters; the publishers state that ‘it is one of those stories which suffered from Anglo-Saxon prudery, and the correct words were never used to describe the Italian girl, nor was her particular animal sensuality shown as Maupassant intended.’

So the book kicks off with A Parisian Bourgeois’ Sundays which is a very funny story involving the fifty-two year old clerk, M. Patissot, who has led a sedentary life. After a panic attack his doctor prescribes ‘plenty of exercise’ and the rest of the story consists of his attempts each Sunday to do this by taking walks in the country, going fishing, making friends, and by the end of the story getting involved in public meetings. The story doesn’t really go anywhere but the reader should just enjoy the situations that M. Patissot finds himself in. I won’t go into further details as Guy’s post can be found here.

The Rondoli Sisters is one of Maupassant’s best stories. It is narrated by Pierre Jouvenet who recounts a trip to Italy in 1874. He is a reluctant traveller who doesn’t enjoy the disturbance to his routine; he finds it all ‘tiring and pointless’. The biggest horror is sleeping in hotel beds, especially when he considers all the people that have slept in that very bed.

I cannot lift the sheet of a bed in a hotel without a shiver of disgust. What was done in it the previous night? What unclean, repulsive people have slept on these mattresses? I think of all the fearful people one jostles every day, the ugly hunchbacks, the pimply skin, the black hands that make you think of the feet, and the rest. I think of encounters with people who assail your nose with the sickening smells of garlic and humanity. I think of the misshapen, the purulent, the sweating invalids, all the ugliness and dirtiness of man.

And, amusingly, it goes on. To alleviate his horror of travel he takes along a friend of his, Paul Pavilly, who is obsessed, but not very successful, with women.

The train journey is uneventful until they reach Marseille, when an attractive, but sullen, girl of about twenty joins their carriage. Paul is immediately obsessed by her and tries to get her to talk but is unsuccesful. It turns out that the girl is Italian and since only Pierre knows the language Paul pesters Pierre to keep trying to get the girl to talk. Virtually all they can get out of her are shrugs and ‘What do I care?’ but she does take up their offer of food. When they’ve reached Genoa, their destination, things suddenly change:

   Then, suddenly, she asked me, ‘Do you want me to come with you?’
   I was struck with such stupefaction that I did not understand.
   ‘What, with us? What do you mean?’
   She repeated, in a more and more furious tone, ‘Do you want me to go with you straight away?’
   ‘That suits me; but where would you like to go? Where do you want me to take you?’
   She shrugged her shoulders with supreme indifference.
   ‘Wherever you like! It’s all the same to me.’
   Twice she repeated: ‘Che mi fa?
   ‘Well…if we’re going to a hotel?’
   She said most contemptuously, ‘Well then. let’s go to a hotel.’

Comically Paul is now panic-stricken whereas Pierre is quite amused. Things only get worse when the girl, whom they now know is called Francesca Rondoli, seems to prefer Pierre to Paul. I won’t reveal any more of the story but it is very funny and quite risqué. I compared some parts of the story with the version on Project Gutenburg and I can see what the translator meant about ‘Anglo-Saxon prudery’, as almost any mention of sex is glossed over or missed out, so it’s best to read this version if possible.

The Donkey ends the collection and is a bit of a shock after the previous stories. It’s about two unscrupulous and casually sadistic characters called Chicot and Mailloche. They’re in their boat fishing and poaching rabbits when they see a woman pulling an old donkey along a footpath. She’s taking the donkey to be slaughtered but Chicot offers her some money for it there and then. But what would they want with an old donkey? Well, if you’re a bit queasy about reading about animal cruelty you probably won’t want to read this one. They then go off to an inn and con the innkeeper. It is actually a brilliant story, brilliantly told, but it’s probably more shocking these days than when it was published.

The remaining stories are mostly those that have never before been translated into English. They’re mostly shorter pieces but interesting nonetheless. There is a story about a young Napoleon who narrowly escaped death at the hands of Corsican monarchists, a story about farting in bed, a story about kept women & kept men and several others.

This is cross-posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.