Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

THE WORLD OF BOOKS: The Odd Number*


 

[The Odd Number, Thirteen Tales by Guy de Maupassant, 12mo.  Price $1.00.  New York: Harper Bros.]

 

No one who would learn the evasive art of constructing a good short story can afford to neglect the little master-pieces which Monsieur Guy de Maupassant has given us.  The volume before me contains thirteen of these, very effectively done into English by Mr. Jonathan Sturges, and gracefully introduced to our notice by Mr. Henry James.  Those who are so unfortunate as to be debarred from knowing M. de Maupassant's work in the original, are here enabled to acquaint themselves with many of those qualities which have won him his rich and enviable reputation.  These translations reproduce for us the flawless clarity, the definiteness of outline, the satisfying unity and simplicity of structure, the wonderful combination of brevity with adequate fullness of detail, which we have learned to look for in this writer's work.  Therefore, they are salutary models for our own authors, who are wont to carry so much superfluous and retarding toggery with them when they set out to run the race for fame.

For some years M. de Maupassant has been producing these wonderful vignettes of life at the rate of almost one a week.  He has been, I believe, under contract of some sort to do this; and in such a case, with his manuscript sold before-hand, and with the creative faculties kept so unremittingly at work, it is not strange that he frequently falls below his own standard.  Yet it is wonderful to note the high average he maintains, showing the thoroughness of his mastery.  According to his own confession he early adopted the principle that "to prove that you have a first rate talent you must have a first rate style."  M. de Maupassant is an artist who has acquired complete control of the vehicle in which he works.  His achievement depends upon his conception, his inspiration, for he knows that whatever he may have to express, he is sure of being able to express it.  This confident strength, this absence of fumbling, manifest themselves plainly in the translations before us,—which, by the way, though they are fair specimens of de Maupassant's best in this field, are no better than scores of others that might have been selected.  Hence this collection may be regarded as faithfully representative.

After one has delighted in the crisp and novel flavor of these sketches, he will still be far short of appreciating de Maupassant's full power.  What perhaps cannot be reproduced in translation is the style—the gleaming brilliancy, the firm decisiveness, the captivating chute de phrase.  Even a certain amount of the rich, yet transparent, color which glorifies de Maupassant's papers, as it does those of his wonderful contemporary, the author of Madame Chrysantheme, seems to escape in the process of decanting.  I may mention here that M. de Maupassant and Pierre Loti represent the youngest generation of accepted masters in French literature.  They are yet young in their thirties.

It is a strange, sharply accentuated life that we come in contact with in these tales.  Such transcripts from unfamiliar life—life unfamiliar to the educated classes even in France—as "The Piece of Thread" and "Little Soldier," are so emphatic in outline and color that, after a short time, they fit themselves into the memory like a part of one's own past experience.  They stand out with almost the same sort of perspective—which arises, I think, from the skill with which M. de Maupassant has emphasized the salient points of his subject, while deliberately throwing out the minor incidents and color—tones which, if admitted, might have tended to level the scene.  It would be difficult to convey a definite idea of the distinguishing flavor of the book without quoting one or more of the tales, which space peremptorily forbids; but to one who wishes a fresh and piquant literary relish, in the way of fiction, I would say—try M. de Maupassant.  If you must have him in English, then get this altogether admirable translation by Mr. Sturges.  The volume is a charming piece of bookmaking, with clear type and a luxurious page.

 


"The World of Books: The Odd Number," Progress 2:100 (Saint John, N.B.), 29 March 1890, 6 [back]