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.