I first heard of Issac Babel (1894-1940-Odessa, Russia), perhaps the greatest post Czarist Russian short story writers, in a book by one of the great 20th century short story writers, Frank O/Connor in which he says one of Babel's best short stories is about the great French master of the short story, Guy de Maupassant. Babel is best known for his collection of short stories Odessa Tales. Babel had a very interesting life cut short in a purge of Stalin even though Babel was a loyal communist. (There is a very informative article on Babel HERE). I think part of O'Connor's view of the sort of "cosmic irony" of the life of de Maupassant is echoed in this story.
"Guy de Maupassant", told in the first person, is set in 1916 in Petersburg (St Petersburg) Russia. A great deal is packed in this short work (no translator credit is given-it was written in Russian). As it opens the destitute narrator moves into the house of a friend who loves Spanish literature and culture. The narrator does not have a kopeck to his name but says he decided long ago that he would rather starve than work in an office as as clerk. His landlord tells him that the wife of a friend of his is an extreme de Maupassant devotee and needs someone to help her translate his work into Russian.
As we enter the home of the woman Babel creates a culture for us in the description of the home. Just as you will find in many of the short stories of de Maupassant, there is a fetish like obsession with female breasts in this story. The narrator says "who can forget the story "The Idyll" where a woman breast feeds a hungry carpenter on a train".
A lot of the suppressed excitement of this story is in the contrast of the life styles of narrator and the woman he is working for (her husband is the owner of a big publishing company) and the bond they find in their love of de Maupassant. You can get a pretty good feel for the story from these lines.
"The Benderskys lived on the third floor. The door was opened by a maid in a white cap and pointed breasts. She led me into a living room, decorated in old Slavic style. Blue paintings by Roerich, prehistoric rocks and monsters, hung on the walls. Ancient icons stood on little stands in the corners. The maid with the pointed breasts moved ceremoniously about the room. She was well built, nearsighted, haughty. Debauchery had congealed in her gray, wide-open eyes. Her movements were indolent. I thought how she must thrash about with savage agility when she made love. The brocade curtain that hung over the door swayed. A black-haired, pink-eyed woman, bearing her large breasts before her, came into the living room. It took me no more than a moment to see that Benderskaya was one of those ravishing breed of Jewesses from Kiev or Poltava, from the sated towns of the steppes that abounded with acacias and chestnut trees. "
This description gains power, I think, now because we know what will happen to the world described in this story. One also feels an ambivalence in the story between Babel's wish to see the culture depicted in this story preserved and his ideological devotion to communism.
You can read the story online Here,
There is a lot more in this very compressed story than I have covered. There is some fun scenes with the translator and the woman he works for. It is for sure worth the few minutes it will take you to read it.
The final paragraph of the story is a description of how de Muapassant ended his life, driven mad by syphilis and locked in a mental hospital. It is very powerful.