Butterball by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve been on a roll lately with Maupassant, and when I saw this Hesperus edition of Butterball, a collection of Maupassant stories sitting on my shelf, well I just couldn’t resist. This edition is translated by Andrew Brown and includes a foreword by Germaine Greer. There are six Maupassant stories here:

Butterball (sometimes known as Boule de Soif), The Confession, First Snow, Rose, The Dowry and Bed 29. For me, the best stories were Butterball and Bed 29. While all 6 stories show tremendous empathy for the lot of women (from the high-born to the lowly peasant girl), both Butterball and Bed 29 are stories that take place during the Franco-Prussian war and very specifically examine the fate of prostitutes.

When Butterball begins, the French army has beaten an ignoble retreat and the civilian population is left to face the invading Prussians. The civilians, for the most part, have more or less minded their own business while war waged around them. Now the “debris” of the French army is gone, and the citizens of Rouen wonder–with some trepidation–just what their fate will be when the Prussians arrive. In one passage, Maupassant compares the invading army to some natural disaster:

“Commands, shouted out in an unknown guttural tongue, rose along the houses which seemed dead and deserted, while from behind the closed shutters, eyes peeped out at these victorious men, masters of the city, of the fortunes and lives in it, by ‘right of conquest’. The inhabitants in their darkened rooms were struck by the panic induced by natural cataclysms, by those murderous upheavals of the earth, against which all wisdom and all strength are useless. For the same sensation reappears each time that the established order of things is overturned, when security no longer exists and all that was protected by the laws of men or those of nature finds itself at the mercy of a fierce and mindless brutality. The earthquake that crushes an entire populace beneath their collapsing houses; the overflowing river which rolls along in its torrent drowned peasants with the carcasses of cattle and the beams torn from rooftops; or the glorious army massacring those who put up any resistance, leading the others away as prisoners, pillaging in the name of the sabre and giving thanks to a god with the sound of the cannon – all are so many terrible scourges which confound any belief in eternal justice, any trust that we have learnt to place in Heaven’s protection and man’s reason.”

A handful of Rouen residents are granted permission to leave the city, and so early one morning a stagecoach prepares for departure. Most of the passengers are leaving for business reasons but they are fully prepared to flee to England if necessary. The passengers are people who would normally not socialize: wine merchants M. and Mme Loiseau, an extremely affluent mill owner and his wife M. and Mme Carre-Lamadon,  the aristocratic Count and Countess Hubert, two nuns, a rather odd character called Cornudet and a prostitute whose “precocious corpulence … earned her the nickname of Butterball.”

“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.”

The so-called respectable passengers are of course disgusted to find themselves sharing the same coach with such a  creature. At first, their collective outrage at being forced to share the same air as Butterball causes the passengers to attempt to be friendly with one another while pointedly cutting Butterball out of the social loop. But then the trip winds on, it’s freezing cold and no one has thought to bring any food along for the trip–no one except Butterball. Obviously a woman who loves food, Butterball is very well prepared and her picnic basket breaks down the social barriers that seemed unbreachable.

The coach stops at an inn, and there a young Prussian officer refuses to let the travellers continue on their journey until Butterball grants him her favours. While Butterball, a committed Bonapartist declines, claiming her patriotism to France, the passengers become increasingly annoyed with her. Their logic is that after all, she wouldn’t be doing anything she hasn’t done thousands of times before….

Bed 29 concerns Captain Epivent, an officer who’s his own greatest fan. For his insufferable vanity and superficial nature, he reminds me very much of Bel Ami. Maupassant describes Epivent:

“When Captain Epivent went by in the street, all the women turned round. He really presented the perfect example of a handsome officer of the hussars. So he was always parading and strutting up and down, filled with pride and preoccupied with his thighs, his waist, his moustache. And they were superb, too, moustache, waist and thighs. The first was blond, very prominent, falling martially onto his lip in a fine wave the colour of ripe hay, but slender, meticulously curled, and swooping down on either side of his mouth in two powerful bristling sweeps that positively swaggered. His waist was as slender as if he had been wearing a corset, while a powerful masculine torso, broad chest thrown out, rose above it. His thighs were admirable, the thighs of a gymnast, a dancer; every ripple of their muscular flesh showed through the tight-fitting fabric of his red trousers.”

Maupassant makes the point however, that while Epivent appears to be a superb specimen in uniform, in civilian clothes, “he made no more of an impression than a shop assistant.” Captain Epivent is, of course, successful with women, and when he’s stationed in Rouen, “the kept women of the town” engage in a “real struggle, a race, as to who would snap him up.” The victor is La Belle Irma–the mistress of a rich factory owner, and she transfers her attentions from her wealthy keeper to Epivent. But after a teary, romantic farewell, Epivent goes off to battle….

These two stories focus on the behaviour of fictional characters towards prostitutes. In Butterball, the hypocrisy of the corpulent prostitute’s  fellow passengers is evident very quickly in the story–the coach may be full of French people fleeing from the Prussians, but it’s only Butterball’s food that convinces the hypocritical passengers that they will talk to her. Later, the passengers are collectively happy to pimp her out to the Prussian officer. With Butterball in the coach and also at the inn, all the other passengers–regardless of class or religion combine forces to sniff their disapproval of a woman they think is beneath contempt.  The subversive Cornudet is the exception but then he too wants to bed Butterball.

In Bed 29, the vanity of Captain Epivent both draws him to Irma and then later repels him. At first she’s a prize, then a burden, and finally she’s a mechanism for other officers who seek revenge against Epivent.

In creating these two women, Butterball and Irma, Maupassant also provokes the reader’s morality. With the passengers stuck at the inn pressuring Butterball to comply, moral arguments appear, then sink, but still remain submerged under the surface of the text. Similarly in Bed 29, should Irma’s version of events be believed or not? Both of these tales present situations that induce certain decisions with subsequent questions of morality. We question not only the behaviour of the characters towards prostitutes but also face our own morality as we respond to these wonderful stories.

One point I’d like to bring up: we know that Maupassant died of syphilis in a private asylum. I’d taken it for granted that he was infected in the usual fashion. In the introduction, Germaine Greer notes that “it would seem that both sons [Herve and Guy] were infected with syphilis at birth.”  This does make sense given that both Guy and his brother Herve showed signs of syphilis very early, but other sources says that Maupassant was infected by a prostitute. My intro to Afloat for example, states that Maupassant “had resources to brothels and street women. The result was inevitable: he contracted syphilis, that scourge of the nineteenth century.” I suppose it doesn’t matter in one sense, and yet in another speculative way, perhaps it is important.

On another note, the foreword also lists the identities of the real passengers in Butterball and even gives the identity of the real prostitute, Adrienne Annonciade Legay. Translator Andrew Brown’s intro is excellent–translators don’t seem to get much acknowledgment, so I’d like to plug in a word here for his excellent literary criticism.

I’d like to give a ‘thanks’ to Nick who leaves comments here. He left a comment on my review of Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. I noted that I wasn’t in a big hurry to read another, but then realised that I wasn’t in a hurry to read this Maupassant collection that was sitting on my shelf. So I thought about this, and realised that I wasn’t in a hurry to read books that I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about yet neither was I in a hurry to read something I would probably love! I asked myself, ‘well what are you going to read then? The stuff in the middle? What if you are flatten by a bus tomorrow?’  That observation made, I reached for the Maupassant…. So thanks Nick for making me think about that.

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13 Comments

Filed under Maupassant, Guy de

13 responses to “Butterball by Guy de Maupassant

  1. Well, if Flaubert’s letters to him, his protege, are to be believed, he spent a lot of time with whores when he should (according to F.) have been writing!

    BTW, do you know the book The Discovery of France by Robb? If not, you will certainly find it worth a look. For any reader of the non-Parisian novels of Balzac and Zola, it’s an eye-opener.

  2. I don’t think that it’s the least in doubt that Maupassant frequented prostitutes, but this was the first time I’d heard of the possibility that he might have been infected at birth. I even went through the intros of several novels sitting here on the shelf and they all gave the ‘contamination by prostitute’ version, so this latest was a revelation. I read that he was showing signs of skin lesions in 1876 when he was 26. I don’t know the timeline of the disease or when he showed the first signs, but I found this comment in the foreword interesting.

    Bed 29 deals with the subject of syphilis directly but I won’t say more than that.

    No I haven’t heard of Robb’s book so that is something else to pursue. I don’t read as much non-fiction as I’d like to. Hoping to correct that this year. Thanks for the tip.

    • Oh, then you definitely need to look at the Robb book. I find it amazing, and I’m sure it will affect your thinking about literary depictions of peasants, the provincial townsmen, etc. etc.

  3. It sounds like something I should have read before La Terre

  4. I remember the Butterball story well – and it was good to be reminded of its wry social comment. I wonder who is writing short stories today which will be remembered so many years on. I usually find modern collections a bit of a disappointment

  5. Maupassant must have loved women–yes, I know he frequented prostitutes, but this selection impressed me with his humanitarian attitude.

  6. I’ve placed an order for it. It sounds fascinating, well written and clever in its juxtapositions. Looking forward to it.

  7. Forgot to say, the fact it’s a Hesperus doesn’t hurt either.

  8. I have a half a shelf of Hesperus I need to read…
    I would say based on observations of your reading tastes, that you will really enjoy Butterball

  9. Pingback: Furthermore she was said to be full of the most inestimable talents. « Pechorin’s Journal

  10. ruskee

    It sounds as though Germaine Greer may not have researched the congenital syphilis claim in any depth. If Maupassant demonstrated signs of syphilitic rash at age 26, then he must have caught the disease a relatively short time beforehand, presumably from a prostitute. The characteristic skin rash of syphilis appears early in the course of the disease unlike other features such as wide unstable gait, deteriorating eyesight and dementia which develop many years later.

    • The argument of congenital syphilis was new for me, and of course there are stories of Maupassant visiting brothels so it’s natural to assume he contracted it that way. Either way it happened, I wish he’d left more work behind as he’s a great favourite. Thanks for the comment

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