Thursday, November 29, 2012

Just Finished: Two Short Story Collections

I like to read short stories, possibly because I do a lot of my reading over meals, and a story is about the right length for, say, lunch.  If I pick up something longer, sometimes I don't want to put it down, and will keep reading long after lunch is over and the kids and I need to get back to work.

So I recently read two collections back to back:  first The Lady With the Dog and Other Stories, by Chekhov, and then Selected Short Stories by Maupassant.  These two authors turned out to be interesting to read together, because they are superficially alike, but very different in mood. 

Both Chekhov and Maupassant lived, and set their stories, in 19th-century Europe.  Both create characters with family, romantic, and professional concerns.  Sometimes there is a war going on in the background (this is Europe after all).  Both view their characters unsentimentally, and both do some skewering of hypocrisy.

The difference that struck me, as I said, was in the mood--Chekhov feels more dramatic, sometimes pushing the envelopes of plot and character toward mysticism or madness (which is always enjoyable!).  Maupassant is, by comparison, deadpan, although no less effective.  He simply puts forth some characters and some actions, and lets events follow their course, and at the end of the story I'm amused, or shocked, or impressed at what his Normans (he sometimes mentions "the Norman mind") have done.

To take Chekhov at his most extreme, in "The Black Monk" a man is haunted by a legendary specter who drives him into megalomania.  Whether this specter exists outside the man's mind or not isn't clear, but the man enjoys its visits:
Hardly had he recalled the legend and pictured in his imagination the dark apparition he had seen in the rye field, when, from behind a pine tree exactly opposite, there came out noiselessly, without the slightest rustle, a man of medium height with uncovered grey head, all in black, and barefooted like a beggar, and his black eyebrows stood out conspicuously on his pale, death-like face.  Nodding his head graciously, this beggar or pilgrim came noiselessly to the seat and sat down, and Kovrin recognized him as the black monk.  
The story is of a man losing his family through his growing egoism, but it's not ordinary egoism--it's mad, phantom-fed egoism.  

Maupassant, on the other hand, is down to earth.  In "Boule de Suif," a group of people traveling in France are detained by an occupying German officer, who will not let them proceed unless one of their number, a prostitute, agrees to sleep with him.  She refuses, and they support her, but as they are kept longer and longer from their journey, they begin to resent her refusal.  They finally decide that she is holding them up out of selfishness.  With many self-serving rationalizations, they discuss ways of convincing her to sacrifice herself for them:
Loiseau was raging, and wanted to hand over the hussy to the enemy bound hand and foot.  But the Comte, scion of three generations of ambassadors and himself looking every inch a diplomat, favoured the use of tact.  "We have got to convince her," he said.  
These characters are ordinary human monsters.

In their different ways, Chekhov and Maupassant have given me several weeks of great lunchtime reading. 

Classics Club

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