Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Vanity of Vanities

The short story is possibly my favourite literary medium. From an early age I was enchanted by folktales and myths of all sorts, those involving the doings of gods, ogres, giants and witches. I still am! From these the passage to the short story was easy.

I’ve read so many over the years, counting Franz Kafka, Graham Greene, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anton Chekhov, Isaac Babel, Alphonse Daudet, Yevgeny Zamyatin, William Somerset Maugham and Ivan Bunin high among the greatest artists in the form. I should also mention Jorge Luis Borges, though his short fictions are in a unique class of their own and I’m just beginning to discover the work of William Trevor. But the writer I return to time and time again is the superlative Guy de Maupassant, a magician in word and image.

There is a deceptive lightness to his work, a kind belle epoch effervescence that only serves to hide some darker undercurrents and the most heart-breaking forms of irony. He uses words in the same way that the Impressionists used paint, with ease and a sureness of touch, but in such a way that the cynicism, the pessimistic tone is made all the greater. This is fiction as Arthur Schopenhauer might have written fiction, depicting the world as a battle, where pain and anguish are self-inflicted, where defeat is inevitable and the universe indifferent. The Will has its own devices; we are merely its instruments.

But still Maupassant with a taut, exact style, one that he absorbed from Gustav Flaubert, his literary mentor, paints some astonishing cameos. There is Le Horla, either one of the most terrifying horror stories ever written, or a dissertation in mental decay, it is difficult to tell which. There are tales of riverbanks and whores, of Prussian brutes and French audacity, though not from the people one would expect; there are tales of determination even in defeat, and there are tales of heart-breaking defeat.

And everywhere there is irony, and yet more irony, as if humanity exists for the amusement of the gods. Nowhere is this better illustrated in The Necklace, A Day in the Country and Country Living, the latter with a particularly bitter twist. Vanity of vanities, sayeth the preacher. Vanity of vanities, says Guy de Maupassant.


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  2. I can't be sure if he read Schopenhauer or not but his fiction is a distlliation of pessimistic philosophy. The odd thing is it is not, generally speaking, at all gloomy; funny, ironic, tragic, yes, but not gloomy.

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  4. My definition of gloom? Let me see now. Almost any play written by Ibsen or Strindberg; almost any movie directed by Bergman. It's all Scandinavian!

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  6. Hello Ana. I had to study a book of Maupassant's stories in French class at school ... many of us enjoyed them though we would have been biased against them as schoolwork. They were stunningly good stories.

    Joyce's Dubliners is a fine collection, as you will know; other Irish notables, apart from Trevor, include Liam O'Flaherty, Elizabeth Bowen, Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain.

    I too loved folktales and myths of all sorts as a child, but I rarely read short stories now.

  7. Brendano, yes, I love Joyce and Dubliners is a fine collection, though I don't think of him principally as a writer of short stories. I admire the other writers you mention also, people I've come across in anthologies, the Penguin one being particularly good. Trevor is really a new discovery for me. I should also have mentioned Oscar Wilde, though again I do not think of him as chiefly as a writer of short stories. Having said that I think he may very well be the first Irish writer I read in the medium, setting folk tales to one side. I read The Happy Prince and The Friendly Giant when I was about six years old. I wept buckets over both!

    I hope your site is going well. :-)

  8. It's going OK, Ana, thanks. I don't have time to write much new stuff (or much to say, perhaps), so I'm recycling some old blogs and poems. The number of views seems to vary wildly from day to day.

    It's nice to have complete control, I must say.

  9. You bet! Actually, I have to add something to a point I made above. Joyce for me is not principally a writer of short stories but neither for that matter is Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham or Franz Kafka. :-)