Butterball, by Guy de Maupassant
I wasn’t blown away by my first de Maupassant, I enjoyed it but found it a bit obvious. I’m a sucker though for a Hesperus Press edition, and when I saw Guy Savage review a Hesperus collection of de Maupassant stories I knew I had to get it.
Butterball is a six story collection, with Butterball also being the title of the first story. The stories vary from excellent to very good and thematically the whole collection fits together nicely. These are stories of appetite and passion and of how desire subverts and is subverted by social norms. They’re also huge fun and very well written. Here’s a little excerpt from the title story which I rather liked:
An uninterrupted curtain of white snowflakes glimmered ceaselessly as it fell to the earth; it effaced shapes and covered everything with a foamy, icy powder; and in the great silence of the city, calm and buried under the winter weather, all that could be heard was this indescribable, vague, floating whisper, the noise of falling snow, more of a sensation than a noise, the intermingling of light atoms that seemed to be filling the whole of space and blanketing the world.
Butterball itself is set during the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. A group of citizens are given permission by the Prussians to leave an occupied town by coach. The passengers are mostly wealthy and respectable, a pair of nobles, rich bourgois and their wives, a trio of nuns. They include too though a left-wing revolutionary by the name of Cornudet and a famed prostitute known as Butterball. Here’s a description:
She was small, round all over, as fat as lard, with puffed-up fingers congested at the joints so they looked like strings of short sausages; with a glossy, taut skin, and a huge and prominent bosom straining out from beneath her dress, she nonetheless remained an appetising and much sought-after prospect, so fresh that she was a pleasure to see. Her face was a russet apple, a peony bud about to flower; above, two magnificent black eyes opened wide, shaded by great thick eyelashes that cast a shadow all around; and below, a charming mouth, with pursed lips all moist for kissing, well furnished with gleaming microscopic baby teeth.
At first, when they realise who and what Butterball is, the good people of the coach are scandalised. They ostracise her. She is not a fit person for their company. The journey is long and cold though, and it soon becomes apparent that only Butterball has thought to bring provisions. As hunger mounts, Butterball shares what she has and propriety soon gives way to desire. Appetite has undermined the social order, and has let prostitute and gentry talk freely to each other.
Problems arise when the coach stops at an inn which has been commandeered by a Prussian officer. He wants Butterball, but she refuses him for although a prostitute she is a patriotic woman and unwilling to have sex with the enemy. The company are now all friends, and Butterball’s defiance impresses them all.
The difficulty is, the coach can only continue if the Prussian permits it, and it soon becomes apparent that he won’t permit it unless Butterball gives in. At first her refusal was a heroic gesture of French solidarity, but now it means that the other passengers might be seriously inconvienced and delayed.
So they started to plot.
The women came together in a huddle, they lowered their voices, and the discussion became more general, as everyone gave their opinion. In fact, it was all handled decorously. The ladies in particular invented the most delicate turns of phrase and charming subtleties of expression to say the most indecent things. A stranger would not have understood a word, so carefully did they observe the linguistic proprieties. But the thin glaze of modesty in which every woman of the world is coated merely covers the surface, and they came into their own in this risqué adventure, and enjoyed themselves to the full when it came to it, feeling altogether in their element, and pawing at love with the sensuality of a greedy chef preparing at someone else’s dinner.
Isn’t that the most marvellously scathing paragraph?
Butterball is a story of hypocrisy, greed and self-justification. The passengers are divided on lines of sex, of politics and of class and throughout the story their alliances shift accordingly. When their own interests are threatened though, all these differences fall away and they unite as one against Butterball.
This is also a story suffused with appetite. Butterball, like her provisions, is ultimately another object for consumption, another choice morsel. Hunger drives the passengers to befriend Butterball, and another sort of hunger drives them away from her.
Butterball’s companions have variously position, piety, revolutionary sentiment. Each of them is what some part of society would hold up as an example of what is proper and good. In the end though, their hearts as frozen as the landscape de Maupassant places them in and their doctrines and moralities when challenged are no more substantial than snowflakes.
Butterball is a tremendously accomplished short story. It’s far though from the only one at that level in this collection. Guy describes the impressive Bed 29 over at his blog so I won’t dwell on that here, I would like though to speak a little about First Snow.
Several of the stories in this collection are about about passion, lust and sex – Butterball itself, The Confession (slight but wonderfully cynical), Rose (a sexually ambiguous tale), The Dowry (where desire leads to ruin) and Bed 29. First Snow is a different beast, desire is vital here too but it is not sexual desire that is at issue.
In First Snow a young woman is enjoying the seaside near Cannes. She is dying, but happy. She reflects:
She will exist no more. All the things of life will continue for others. It will be all over for her, all over for good. She will exist no more. She smiles, and breathes, as deep as she can with her sickly lungs, the aromatic odours coming from the gardens.
That repetition of “She will exist no more” makes me shiver even as I write it. Just as food is a key metaphor in Butterball, so cold is here and that is a very cold paragraph. Why she will exist no more though, and why she is smiling, that is where the chill of this story truly lies.
I won’t spoil it by giving any hints, but like Butterball it’s a satisfying and beautifully crafted piece of work. As I said above, the first short story I read by de Maupassant didn’t blow me away. Having read these though it’s clear to me that he’s a master of the form and I fully understand why others have recommended him to me so highly.
It’s remarkable how much de Maupassant packs into each of these stories and how economical and subtle his style is. It’s remarkable too how explicit many of these stories are. Like a 1940s movie, de Maupassant shows very little directly, but leaves little doubt what’s going on. He knows that what’s really interesting about sex (in art, anyway) isn’t the act, but the desire and the consequences.
Butterball is translated by the always excellent Andrew Brown, whom I now consider a name to watch out for. It’s fair to say that if I had doubts about whether to read a book or not I’d be a lot more tempted if I heard that he had translated it.