Monday, September 28, 2015

`How Strange and Unpredictable Life Is!'

I can date with unlikely accuracy the first and last time I read Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”: this time of year, early in the seventh grade, in 1964. It was in our English Lit textbook along with such war horses as O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf,” Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Bret Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man without a Country.” I stood at a bookish, man-child cusp, still reading science fiction but dabbling in Kafka and Camus. It was all a brave new world, this literary culture – a tarted-up way of saying “fashion” or “orthodoxy of opinion.” I didn’t yet know I wasn’t supposed to enjoy such things, but I was already cowed by critics and ripe for snobbery.

Just published is The Necklace and Other Stories (W.W. Norton), unnecessarily subtitled Maupassant for Modern Times (can one imagine a Maupassant for Bronze Age Times?), translated by Sandra Smith. Do you remember the story? Nabokov makes fun of it in Ada, and has Mlle. Larivière write an Anti-terra version of Maupassant’s story titled “La Rivière de Diamants.” I wasn’t prepared to dislike and, eventually, feel sorry for Madame Mathilde Loisel (and her heroically forebearing husband). The opening line in Smith’s version reads like the first sentence of a fairy tale (that most moralistic of forms): “She was one of those pretty, charming young women born into a working-class family, as if by some error of fate.” She might be Emma Bovary’s déclassé cousin. The story is virtually all plot, which is probably why sophisticates are offended. It’s a story, compulsively readable, a morality tale, and there isn’t a lot to say about it. Annotations are redundant. Maupassant concludes the story’s penultimate section like this:

“What would have happened if she hadn’t lost that necklace? Who knows? Who can know? How strange and unpredictable life is!”

“How little it takes to make or break us!”

That line – “How strange and unpredictable life is!” – might serve as a thumbnail précis of every good story ever written, from Homer to Naipaul.  When reading Maupassant, we look to our own experience of life for a gloss, not a critic or reference book. We lose a lot by getting too sophisticated for our britches. Next I’ll read “Boule de Suif,” in which Smith amusingly translates the title character’s name as “Butterball.” And I haven’t read any O. Henry stories in two years, though I’m not ready for “The Man without a Country.”

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