Sadly, I only really started buying books of short stories after starting to write them myself a couple of years ago. Since then I’ve really discovered the many and varied delights of short stories. The one exception was a a collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant I purchased second hand over ten years ago, which I’ve just finished reading again.
I was first pointed in the direction of Maupassant by my Granddad Smith, who himself used to write short stories (he was a bit more successful than me – some of his were read out on BBC Radio Lancashire). One time when he came to stay with us he bought a Penguin Short of Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, which he lent to me.
The Necklace is. It’s probably the Frenchman’s famous story – it follows the story of a minor civil servant who, taking his wife to a ball, borrows a necklace for her to wear as she has no jewels of her own to wear. When the evening arrives she attracts much favourable attention. De Maupassant spins a compelling tale, and ultimately manages to fit an entire lifetime into the seven pages. I’m guessing one of the reasons that it has endured so well is that it fits most people’s conception of a good short story as it finishes with a twist. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading it, you can check it out here.
There are some real gems in the collection I have. But the one which I now like the best is Boule de Suif. Set during the occupation of Rouen by Prussians, it follows a coach of 10 people journeying to Le Havre. The travellers each come from different parts of French society, and one of them is a notorious courtesan named Boule de Suif (I understand this translates roughly as Dumpling, or Butterball – I’ll leave you to guess why). The other passengers find her presence scandalous because of her profession, but are forced to reassess their initial opinion in the wake of her generosity with a hamper, as they themselves are ill-prepared for the journey.
This isn’t the end of the story, and I won’t divulge any further plot points in case you want to read it (you can find it here). It’s certainly not as neat as The Necklace, but the twist at the end is in a way even more devastating, because it draws attention to how flawed and cruel human nature can be. He shows a real confidence in handling so many characters within a short story, but ultimately it is his ability to draw characters that still resonate today that still makes his works worth reading.