‘Guy de Maupassant’ by Isaac Babel

Guy de Maupassant by Isaac Babel, 1932

The magic trick:

Building a story around three Guy de Maupassant’s stories

After spending the year traveling around the world, organizing our stories by country, we’re up to something a little bit different this week.

We start with the Isaac Babel classic “Guy De Maupassant” today and then spend the rest of the week breaking down the three Guy de Maupassant’s stories it references.

It’s easy to assume that Nabokov was a fan of this story. He certainly would get a kick out of the “spot-the-reference” intellectual tomfoolery Babel employs. Borges too, for sure.

Babel is telling the story of a man (maybe himself?) who is lifted out of poverty by a job translating the works of Guy de Maupassant with a rich woman.

He references three stories in particular, and of course their plots and themes align perfectly with the story Babel is telling.

It would be a neat thing – assembling a new story on the blocks of three older tales – if the result was merely clever or only homage.

But somehow Babel transcends with this story. The story of his translator is interesting and engrossing enough on its own even if you don’t care about the Maupassant references. Meanwhile, the Maupassant stories are not simply Babel’s showing off how much he knows and loves French literature. They serve to bring forward the story’s themes: the richness and even lust that can attach to one’s love of literature.

Plus it’s funny. It’s a funny story.

There’s so much here.

And that’s quite a trick on Babel’s (and Maupassant’s) part.

The selection:

We were served coffee in little blue cups, and we began to translate “Idyll.” Who can forget the tale of the hungry young carpenter sucking milk from the overflowing breasts of the fat wet-nurse. This took place on a train going from Nice to Marseilles, on a sultry midday in the land of roses, the motherland of roses where flower plantations stretch down to the shores of the sea.

I left the Benderskys’ with a twenty-five-ruble advance. That evening our commune in Peski got as drunk as a flock of inebriated geese. We scooped up the finest caviar and chased it down with liverwurst. Heated by liquor, I began ranting against Tolstoy.

“He got frightened, our count did! He lacked courage! It was fear that made him turn to religion! Frightened of the cold, of old age, the count knitted himself a jersey out of faith!”

“Go on,” Kazantsev said, wagging his birdlike head.

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