Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Do-Something-Everyday: Tales in Foreign Lands

Boule de Suif
Do-Something-Everyday, April 6, 2016

In an odd coincidence, the last two weeks I read three novels all set in foreign countries (relative to the U.S.). They also had few other things in common: one is an English translation of stories by a French novelist, another one is about an American translator of Portuguese novels by a Brazilian author and the third one is an English language novel set in a former French colony in the Caribbean. The three books are: The Necklace and Other Stories: Maupassant for Modern Times, translated by Sandra Smith; Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey and, Peacekeeping by Misha Berlinski. The last two are 21st century American novelists while Guy De Maupassant was a late nineteenth century French author. I will be posting a review of each starting with the best first.

I was first introduced to Maupassant via a South Indian movie adaptation of his famous novella Boule de Suif. Later after I had moved to the U.S., I read the English language version of it in a fat volume that included all of his 300+ short stories. That was a while ago. Recent events in Paris and in Western Europe have rekindled my youthful interest in European literature and when I saw the above-mentioned book on the recent arrivals section at my library, I was curious if these stories would hold my interest still. Most did. Even though the stories are set in 19th century France, many of them feel real and true almost 150 years later.

Maupassant’s stories are well known for their surprising plot twists and often leave you wondering “what if”. Take the Necklace (La Parure), for example, which ends with a surprise revelation that the diamond necklace that Madame Forestier loaned to Madame Loisel was really a fake. Now that both women know it was a genuine diamond necklace that Madame Loisel returned to Madame Forestier, would she ask for it back? Would Madame Forestier’s initial honesty extend to giving it back to the rightful owner? I wonder what that conversation would have been like. 

In the Question of Latin (Le Question du Latin), when a former Latin teacher, now a prosperous grocer, exclaims “Oh! Good Lord, Latin, Latin, Latin. A man can’t live on Latin alone!”, could Maupassant have imagined that 150 years later that question would be extended to English literature, Art History, Music, Anthropology and all other disciplines unconnected to commerce? 

Finally, his most famous Boule de Suif (Boule de Suif). It is a good story but surprisingly also a trite one. In making Boule de Suif, a generous, patriotic, sensitive prostitute misused by her hypocritical fellow passengers, the real hero of the story, Maupassant had succumbed to the male fantasy of a hooker with a heart of gold. In the one hundred fifty years since he wrote that story we have seen many versions of that trope (a trope that found its cinematic apotheosis in Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman). In the post-feminist era, this is one story that does not hold up well.

To sum up. In the skilled translation of Sandra Smith, Maupassant’s stories get a fresh modern update. Give them a try. 

Next week: A review of Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey.

I have posted several photos of Santa Fe Folk Art Museum on this blog post. Click here to view them.

Thanks for visiting.