The Penguin Book of French Short Stories: Vol I 
edited by Patrick McGuinness.
Penguin Classics, 483 pp., £30, October 2022, 978 0 241 46199 0
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The Penguin Book of French Short Stories: Vol II 
edited by Patrick McGuinness.
Penguin Classics, 352 pp., £30, October 2022, 978 0 241 46205 8
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Maurice Blanchot​ , represented in this anthology by the opaque and mesmerising ‘The Madness of the Day’ (1949), wrote that a story is not the relation of an event but the event itself. It seems true that short stories are often less easy to summarise than novels, with no need to tidy loose ends, or even any obligation to end, and that their content often communicates something other than their subject, as if, at certain levels of compression, brevity starts to tell its own story. Blanchot had in mind the récit, one of many possible terms in French, along with conte or nouvelle or histoire, or romance or chronique or historiette, or simply texte, or even prose. The nomenclature is revealing. Unlike the novel, the short story has no self-evident canon, is full of exceptions, and its official history seems to need the reassurance of those novelists – Stendhal, Dumas, Balzac, Hugo, Zola – who tried their hand at storytelling.

This anthology is the latest Penguin national showcase (volumes of Italian, Spanish and British stories have already appeared). It opens with a group of tales from the late 15th century, often seen as the first French literary works in prose, which are in some relation to an older metrical tradition of tale cycles. Patrick McGuinness offers a few examples of late medieval knockabout, from the taproom end of the spectrum: fabliaux largely fixated on the battle of the sexes: conjugal romps, bed-switches, husband murder. So, a dullard gets married with no knowledge of the facts of life and is duped into exercising his conjugal duties; followed by a bed-switch involving more dupery (taken from Philippe de Laon’s One Hundred New Tales); followed by a moralité about a vengeful wife who murders and dismembers her husband (by François de Rosset). A more refined example of romance (a cloudy category), from a later century, Isabelle de Charrière’s ‘The Nobleman’, is still plot-heavy and without psychological nuance. Charles Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’ seems at home in this cardboard company.

Perhaps not all tales are short stories. These early examples are rudimentary as to motive and situation. McGuinness’s wide-angle introduction (the same in both volumes) argues that the literary short story is a genre, but also ‘just one strand of narrative in a world saturated with stories’. This approach leaves his two-volume format distended but less roomy (so much ground to cover) than the one-volume Oxford Book of French Short Stories (2002), edited by Elizabeth Fallaize, which opens three centuries later and shares half a dozen entries with the Penguin anthology. The forward march of one story per author suggests a canon in the making, or at least a genealogy, but McGuinness has more pluralist emphases in mind. He also believes that stories are continuous with everyday life, rather than persons from Porlock, as so many good stories turn out to be.

The Enlightenment conte philosophique is one plausible starting point, midway between McGuinness and Fallaize’s beginnings, for the literary short story in France. It is here that the reader is first brought into the frame, as a sceptical presence, and the narrator is established as a voice – and the commerce between them can begin. Brevity acquired new powers, allied to quickness and lightness. Paul Valéry described Voltaire’s contes as ‘those peerless miracles of rapidity, energy and terrible fantasy … nimble and cruel works, where satire, opera, ballet and ideology are joined in an irresistible rhythm’. Some of the Penguin contes seem locked into the same preoccupations as earlier tales. Diderot’s ‘This Is Not a Story’ charts the parallel fortunes of two ill-starred couples, each involving a radical disparity of affection – therefore not a fiction, we are told, since what it describes is all too true. In Madame de Lafayette’s ‘La Comtesse de Tende’ an unfaithful wife sacrifices herself willingly on the altar of her aristocratic husband’s glacial self-esteem. But the latter at least shows what might be achieved in giving narrative form to moral abstractions. La Rochefoucauld taught Madame de Lafayette that a tale should think on its feet and feel with its head. His own maxims are examples of condensed storytelling. ‘Unfaithfulness is always forgotten and never forgiven’ – Madame de Lafayette – provides a basis for many libertine wayward-heart-and-head fictions.

The conte philosophique explored ‘the way things are’ (the title of one of Voltaire’s tales) rather than romance-derived idealisations; the Ancien Régime story that captures like no other the empirical exploration of desire is Vivant Denon’s ‘No Tomorrow’, published anonymously in 1777, five years before Les Liaisons dangereuses, and one of the best things in this anthology. At twenty pages long, its spacious recessions and ingenuities of plot are those of a novel, but delivered with the speed of a card-trick. Here is the opening:

I was desperately in love with the Comtesse de ––; I was twenty years old and I was naive. She deceived me, I got angry, she left me. I was naive, I missed her. I was twenty years old, she forgave me, and, because I was twenty years old, because I was naive – still deceived, but no longer abandoned – I thought myself to be the best-loved lover, and therefore the happiest of men.

The allegro con brio sets the pace for the events of a single night – ‘the night of’, so to speak – told in deep retrospect, but preserving the breathless immediacy of the present moment. The youthful narrator waits for his mistress at the Opéra but runs into one of her friends, Mme de T––, who whisks him off at the interval to her estranged husband’s estate outside Paris. Like a pair of butterflies, the couple engage in a pas de deux, pursued through various moonlit settings, from outdoor pavilion to a mirrored cabinet secret. There is no tomorrow. But Mme de T–– had not expected to tangle with the young chevalier and now her real lover (stalking the shadows of the story) has been cuckolded. Something has changed, and not even Mme de T–– can claim to control the workings of circumstance. It is a libertine truth that you cannot rehearse a performance. Unable to make sense of what he has experienced, the initiate has learned instead to be a philosopher, and to trust the wisdom of pleasure.

The lights are always turned up in the theatre of the conte philosophique. A Voltairean aside such as ‘Mélinade (the name of the lady, which I had my reasons for withholding, not having thought of it until now)’ is every bit as unaccommodating as Samuel Beckett’s ‘and for other reasons better not wasted on cunts like you’. Voltaire regarded the short tale as a duel with the reader, and a form of complicity. He went out of his way to disparage the ‘littleness’ of the form, and to ridicule all fiction, as fables without a philosophy. But he also wanted to write stories, and to make storytelling respectable. Proust wrote that the conte philosophique was a genre in which ‘ideas are substitutes for griefs’. Voltaire’s science fiction fable ‘Micromégas’, a parable about scale, is the Penguin anthology’s great success story in this new vein. A group of natural philosophers on their way home from the Arctic Circle have a close encounter with a pair of vast Lockean-minded aliens who are on their own fact-finding mission to planet Earth. The question is whether the encounter of small with large will reveal anything of interest, or if aliens are merely a version of us, and here a version of elsewhere.

Flaubert admired Candide extravagantly (even claiming to have translated it into English) because it showed that the con brio of a story could regulate the economy of a novel, that brevity has nothing to do with length. This understanding seems to have gone into hiding for a century, the era of the fictional grandes machines. Several of the big names in the anthology add reputational heft to the proceedings, but little else. The first is the Marquis de Sade, with a tale of cross-dressing and crossed desires – an unlikely homily, in which unnatural love asserts its rights before ceding meekly to the dictates of nature and society. The last is Proust, with a matching tale, ‘The Mysterious Correspondent’, in which the married protagonist, Françoise, receives anonymous letters that turn out to be from her constant companion, Christiane, who is wasting away from unrequited love. Françoise discovers the truth. But should she reciprocate, to save her friend’s life? The doctor advises yes, the confessor says no, her friend dies, the story ends. The masquerade is pallid and inconsequential, its audacities curiously listless. It is one of a group of tales on transgressive themes that Proust wrote in the 1890s but left unpublished, because he knew better than his editors. Its placement as the last story in the first volume doesn’t help. It might have been better in the cases of Sade and Proust to concede their unsuitability for present purposes.

Novelists decant large into small, often without the requisite foreshortenings of story, so that the subject matter neither shapes nor is shaped by the constraints. The prose of these stories is left to look after itself. Victor Hugo contributes a prison tale, elaborating on the facts of a celebrated case, which turns into a public lecture on the subject of capital punishment. ‘A Dead Man’s Story Told by Himself’ by Alexandre Dumas is a Hoffmannesque exercise in which the narrator dies (of erotic obsession) and is taken under the wing of a garrulous Satan before being returned to earth: ‘Then I awoke, for it was all nothing but a dream.’ Balzac uses an out-of-the-way destination – a desert – to explore an extreme setting and its psychology. The Douanier Rousseau panther that befriends a French soldier lost in the Egyptian desert might be a mirage, an emanation of a place described as ‘God without mankind’. The short story becomes the natural home for anomaly, with enough space to depict an exception but not a norm.

Stendhal is a special case, though not on account of the story included here. His novels were riskily unplanned, but he dutifully plotted out ‘Vanina Vanini, as he told Balzac – and it shows. Set in Italy during the Risorgimento, it is the story of two lovers, an aristocratic Italian girl and a wounded revolutionary, whom she discovers concealed in her father’s palazzo. The result is fatally broad-brush, like an opera libretto, or its own synopsis – a potboiler of birth, blood, pride, money, political intrigue, revolt, disguise, erotic frustration, weapons, honour, blackmail, betrayal, remorse, marriage and (headiest of all, for Stendhal) incarceration.

Like Laforgue or Nerval or Colette, Stendhal is a limit case because his fiction strays into and emerges from fugitive personal spaces: diaries, letters, travel narratives. His oeuvres intimes are stories without shells, and his attempt to overcome the plotlessness of life is their frequent theme. ‘Les Privilèges’, a miniature about his wished-for transformation into someone other than Stendhal, is worth all the tonnage of ‘Vanina Vanini’. Stendhal draws up a contract with God, a regime of taboos, freedoms, sexual opportunities, interdictions, checks and balances, including the wish (at times) to be an animal. It is a Code Napoléon of desire written on the back of an envelope. But it is also that rare thing, for its period: a short story.

The Penguin anthology doesn’t explore varieties of story in which a fictive (rather than autobiographical) self is being shaped. Nerval is missing and should be here. The wished-for text isn’t ‘Pandora’, though that would be a logical enough choice, and the right length. Rather, a few sections from Les Nuits d’octobre, his account of several nights wandering Paris and its environs, published as a feuilleton in 1852, which dismantles the new claims of realism to a verisimilitude free of invention. Nerval’s version of his wanderings is exact (providing an unsurpassed documentary record of Les Halles as a quartier) but also hallucinatory, including, for example, a passing freak show featuring a woman who has the fleece of a merino instead of human hair. His first-person is exemplary in its self-effacement, and it enabled him to give fictional form to memoir, or to introduce memoir into fiction, generating idiopathic short narratives that feel no need to assert their credentials.

The ordering of the two volumes – by date of birth – results in some curious placings (the introduction doesn’t discuss how the volumes were put together). An ordering by publication date or on occasion by elective affinity might have offered more insight, especially for the very short texts. The policy of one choice per author contributes to the sense of a sampler – ‘now let’s try some Sagan’ – and doesn’t allow for hubbub and cross-purpose. Barbey d’Aurevilly’s brilliantly perverse and nostalgic rococo retrospect, ‘Don Juan’s Crowning Love-Affair’, published when he was 66, appears a little early, cut off from the moment into which it was written. Similarly, ‘Un coeur simple’ enters earlier than its 1877 publication might indicate – when Flaubert was 56. ‘Un coeur simple’ is the first conte cruel, and opens onto two and a half decades of lethal brevities, so attuned in purpose as to seem like a collective venture, produced by a group of intricately linked minor masters. (The ensemble effect was well explored by Stephen Romer’s Oxford anthology of French Decadent Tales, half a dozen of which are included here.)

Flaubert’s story is a vastly superior life form to most of what precedes or comes after it. Its heroine is a servant, Félicité, one of the excluded whom Frank O’Connor invoked in discussing the genre (‘the short story has never had a hero. What it has instead is a submerged population group’). Flaubert describes the arc of her life – a canvas as broad as a novel – with extreme concision. Large nuances are registered in brief compass: ‘As a result of a chill she had an attack of quinsy, and soon afterwards an earache. Three years later she was deaf … Her little circle of ideas grew still narrower; the peal of church bells and the lowing of cattle ceased to exist for her.’ Each sentence arrests the narrative, but each is the whole in microcosm. It acquires a further and stranger dimension when a parrot joins the household (‘His name was Loulou’) and becomes its intermittent centre of awareness, and the story’s climacteric device.

The Penguin anthology is itself a menagerie. Aside from Loulou there are two panthers (Balzac, Rachilde), two snakes (Cingria, Duras), a tame she-wolf (Renée Vivien), a large supine sow who is also perhaps a naked woman (an exercise in Belgian Gothic by Thomas Owen), an acrobatic goldfish (Garcin) whose underwater antics intercede between a father and son; there are the placid apes who come at sunset to assist in the sinister recreational proceedings of Monique Wittig’s dystopian ‘The Garden’; and there is the obscurely tenacious tick that contributes to the course of events in Henri Thomas’s story about a French private on the German border during the early days of the Second World War – a potential deserter whose tick-bite is his inner apologist. Or there is the young woman who periodically reverts to a hirsute beast in Virginie Despentes’s torrid first-person rewrite of Robert Louis Stevenson (its title winningly translated as ‘Hairs on Me’). The creatures are present because short stories make it their business to speculate about an otherness they do not have time to investigate, and animals are far-reaching analogies. They are in addition part of a spectrum of lowered subjectivity that permeates the fin-de-siècle contributions.

Despite its distilled atmospheres and aristocratic gestures of retreat, one feature of Décadence was the willingness of its various princes of subjectivity to lower their sights and inhabit the cramped imaginative quarters of modern life, partly because they were themselves on their uppers. (One of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s odder jobs was to sit in the waiting room of an alienist called Dr Latino and pose as a cured madman to impress the clientele, or rather the relatives.) Thus the interest in bachelors and clerks, and in correspondent states of inertia, solitude and anomie. Functionaries are part of the submerged population and a province of the short story – in Russia or America as much as in France.

Huysmans worked for three decades in the Ministry of the Interior. In ‘Monsieur Bougran’s Retirement’ (written in 1888 but not published until 1964) a cashiered ministerial clerk has his apartment decorated to duplicate his office and hires a former assistant to bring him each morning the correspondence he posted to himself the day before, full of draft reports in murderous officialese. The story takes on a harrowing specific density, beyond the needs of plot: Huysmans understood the daemonic aspect of routine – ‘how to forget a profession that pierced you to the marrow, possessed you entirely, to the very depths of your being?’ – as does Gilles Ortlieb a century later in his ‘Portrait of Saxl’, a fastidious but elliptical partial portrait of that most baffling of intimates, the office colleague.

The Penguin anthology​ is fond of stories with agendas, and tends to steer away from realistic behaviour. This binary or dualistic bent is evident in the neatness of the plotting, and (clearest of all) in the endings, with their anxious habits of closure. Flaubert thought the ending of Candide unimprovable – ‘and now we must cultivate our garden’ – because it is as stupid as life itself, which has an end but no endings. The Penguin anthology prefers stories that conclude, particularly with a death, as do half of the stories here.

There is wife murder (‘Bluebeard’), death in childbirth (Madame de Lafayette), death from wasting diseases (Rodenbach, Proust), or from grief (Desbordes-Valmore). Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s ‘Véra’ appears to have died in the course of orgasm and Proust’s mysterious correspondent dies of same-sexual privation. There is death by apoplexy as a result of the stresses of an overtaxed fantasy life (Monsieur Bougran), death by tragic clairvoyance (Charles Nodier’s visionary rustic simpleton, who sees the execution of Marie Antoinette written in the skies), or death by apotheosis, however qualified: Charles Dantzig’s terminally ill narrator acting out his first-person extinction in real time, cruising the autoroutes, his last words ‘Me, me, me, me!’ And Flaubert’s Félicité, of course, whose dying vision is of the godhead as a parrot. There are other endings involving animals: the panther as victim (killed by the French soldier in Balzac’s story) or as executioner (Rachilde’s steamy recreation of Christians and big cats in late antiquity). Or there is Renée Vivien’s heroine who, rather than face shipwreck alone, prefers to go down locked in the embrace of her tame wolf, its paws on her shoulder (‘Together, they disappeared beneath the waves’).

Five of the stories end with an execution. Other emergency exits are death at the hands of a statue (Mérimée) and Zola’s ‘Death by Advertising’, proof that even dead things can kill. Zola’s story is a noisy parable on the evils of publicity that charts the progress of a well-off bachelor in thrall to the patent medicines and inventions bruited by newspapers and billboards, to the point of procuring his own early death by a thousand cures (and a state-of-the-art exploding coffin). ‘The First Emotion’ by Octave Mirbeau concerns an office clerk of narrowed outlook who is persuaded only by reading Le Petit Journal that the new thing he sees blocking the sky each day on his way to work actually exists and is called the Eiffel Tower. The drollery of this conceit says far more about the life-in-death of the workplace and the reality effect of the press than Zola’s manifesto, in which the victim is run over by the story itself.

Nothing expresses so clearly the uncertain status of the short story in the French 19th century as the fact that novelists from Hugo onwards treated it as a soapbox, or as a safe space for fantasy. Gautier’s Orientalist tale of a pharaoh’s daughter, who appears after thirty centuries to reclaim her lost foot, is another dream vision, though nicely done. Other stories walk through walls. In three instances (Aymé, Apollinaire, Sternberg) this device is the active ingredient, and in two of the stories the dematerialised or chameleon protagonist ends by getting stuck.

Not all of the stories aspire to make-believe, however. Jules Renard’s contribution (from the opening of his Histoires naturelles) is an imagist manifesto for the art of waiting, followed by a stab of insight when Renard catches whatever tries to escape his attentions. But the theory is less sturdy or subtle than Renard’s practice, present on every splintery page of his Journal. Other stories seem to be documentaries. Didier Daeninckx’s ‘Youth, Suburb of Life’ (2012) offers single-paragraph case histories of fractured or diminished lives from the Paris banlieues, strung together by a moral as pointed as Hugo’s: ‘I look at them all and tell myself that one dream could fulfil all their dreams. And that dream consists of a single word: equality.’ There are some exercises in life writing, as in ‘Family Portrait’ by Maryse Condé, from a collection subtitled ‘True Stories from My Childhood’, about her experiences of visiting postwar Paris from Guadeloupe, and the subtle exclusions which had to be negotiated. Or there is Patrick Modiano’s ‘The Hat’, a wartime page torn from his family album, which keeps forensically close to the facts, atmospheric in its precision – one of several versions of his mother that Modiano explored in his writing. It is hard to see what is happening here beyond fleshed-out testimony; the narrative rings true, but not as fiction.

In ‘Green Sealing Wax’, also a ‘true story from childhood’, Colette is brazenly autobiographical but creates a heady fictional self, which is something different. Ostensibly a Balzacian provincial episode (fiery Spanish ex-postmistress, older husband, poison, forged will, suspicions, revelation, lunatic asylum), the real subject is coming of age: ‘Torpor is a far graver peril for a girl of fifteen than all the usual excited giggling and blushing and clumsy attempts at flirtation.’ The recording consciousness floods the tale it has to tell. Colette writes of two realities, with a slender rope bridge thrown across (the forged will was sealed with green wax stolen from the Colette household), and the result is rich with confusions of perspective, as if the frame sits inside the picture.

Many of the stories rush towards their destinations or circle an idée fixe, offering an example of deviance or an investigation into special outgrowths of feeling: the sexual adventurer who recruits his short-lived mistresses from the ranks of pallid bourgeois consumptives (Jean Lorrain), or the male hysteric who insists that his utterly docile mistress has been unfaithful (Emmanuel Bove). Maupassant’s ‘La Horla’ is a degenerationist ghost story about a higher life-force waiting politely in the wings, which signals its presence by interposing itself between the narrator and the mirror, blocking his view of himself. It is a nouvelle à thèse, rather than a piece from Maupassant’s naturalistic repertoire (three hundred stories written inside a decade). Nothing fascinated that age more than the paranormal. ‘Véra’, the story chosen from Villiers, explores the growing conviction of a newly bereaved husband that his young wife is alive, if absent – ‘she thinks she is dead,’ but her clothes and jewellery know better. Awaiting her return, they lie where they fell, still warm, convincing her husband that she can be brought into being, if only he awakes his faith. But the story requires that he live in a world where no one else lives.

Those stories in which fantasy – or lurid realities – are given freest rein are often the most prescriptive. A characteristic offering, from Léon Daudet, involves a descent into a deep grotto to visit a museum of frozen tears, ‘the vestiges of eyes’, each of which reflects the image of the weeper: tears of lovers, tears of ennui, remorse, dread, terror, and an exhibit of false tears. Marcel Schwob’s ‘The Sans-Gueule’ (‘The Faceless’) concerns two soldiers disfigured beyond recognition in the war of 1870, found side by side on the battlefield ‘like two pieces of human clay’. Patched up by surgery, but speechless as well as faceless, they are brought home by a woman who knows that one of them is her husband, but not which. (The story is from Schwob’s 1891 collection Coeur double – presumably by way of riposte to Flaubert’s ‘Un coeur simple’.) Schwob’s story is a work of precocity, but here as elsewhere, less dramatic and perhaps more resonant choices were available. His story ‘The Brothel’, for instance, an inconclusive sketch of a shuttered house: gazed on distractedly during the day by children playing in the street, but seen steadily through the narrative eye as a place of dozing horrors. The story is gothic in mood, but has a plainness and tact. Sometimes, in these pages, one wishes for what Henry James (apropos of Poe) called ‘the indispensable history of somebody’s normal relation to something’.

The best​ of the stories stand out because they slip the noose and allow contingency into their version of things. Henri Thomas’s ‘The Offensive’ recounts a banal episode at the start of the Second World War, in a forest on the Franco-German border, told from the vantage of post-Occupation Paris. The protagonist is a straggler, full of self-pity, disliked and suspected by his Corsican sergeant, who finds himself astray inside German lines, half-hoping to become a prisoner of war, when an altogether different story kicks in:

He stumbled into something which made him leap back. Then moving very slowly, with his face close to the ground, he looked to see what it was. A huge cable, clearly visible in the darkness, made its way down the slope and became lost in the depths of the ravine, which it must have crossed and come up the other side.

It could not have been a mine; it would have exploded. It was the cable for the German field telephone. Claude grasped it in both hands and felt its wrinkled casing.

He cuts the cable and returns to his unit, aware that he needs approbation even more than a quiet life. As he subsequently explains, back in Paris, basking in his girlfriend’s admiration: ‘Oh, my duties, I was never too clear exactly what they were. You know, one makes things up as one goes along in such cases. I might just as easily have deserted.’ The inconclusiveness of the story is present from the outset.

Charles-Albert Cingria’s prose walkabout, ‘The Grass Snake’, is a comparable feat. Its subject is a water snake that lives under a large flat stone near a lakeside castle, and is a much loved local personality, though a figure of naked terror to unsuspecting swimmers, who ‘run away in contorted, liquid postures, like the late Greco-Roman bas-reliefs from South-East Asia you find in museums’. In a context where so much proceeds along dolly tracks, Cingria writes with no end in view, in the throwaway vein of Robert Walser, his fellow Swiss and contemporary.

Or there is the strange and excellent ‘Revelation’ (2004) by the French-Senegalese writer Marie Ndiaye, a story which lays out its wares and then steps away. A woman and her grown-up but childlike son trudge through sodden countryside to board a bus for Rouen. The mother buys a return ticket for herself and a one-way ticket for the son, whom she intends to entrust – or perhaps abandon – to an institution, a fate she has concealed from him. The story is no more than an alignment of poor weather, a bus, a mother and son, a driver and a few other passengers. It is too short for the ‘revelation’ of its title to be made clear. But the son knows, as do the other travellers, who share an understanding of the situation from which the mother seems excluded. But to summarise the story is to replace it with another, and this is one place in the anthology where not-telling is allowed to stake its claim.

If some of the stories here are staged, so to speak, not all are schematic. Assia Djebar’s ‘There Is No Exile’ is set in two adjacent apartments in Algiers during the civil war: the unforced day-long mourning of a child’s death unfolds in one apartment while a coercive marriage proposal takes place in the other. Two unrelated events are placed in apposition, and something slowly emerges, as if the story is listening rather than speaking. The mourning women have no voice, but they have voices, which when raised in grief have an unassailable sovereignty.

The anthology dates this story to a collection published in 1980, but it was written in 1959, during the Algerian war of independence. The other French Algerian story included, Leïla Sebbar’s ‘Women of Algiers, Women of Shame’, was written half a century later, though here it keeps close company with the earlier story, in anthology time. In Sebbar’s story it isn’t clear who is speaking – a preacher perhaps, inside a museum, possibly the Louvre, who incites his listeners to seek out and destroy Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, painted shortly after the French conquest. (Delacroix was able to sketch the harem because the master, a local civil servant, was persuaded by his French superior to open his home; before 1830 the visit would not have been possible.) Sebbar’s story is fierce but its hectoring grows less and less plausible because it doesn’t fulfil the first principle of monologue: it doesn’t conjure a voice whose knowledge includes ignorance.

In ‘What I Saw’, the stricken speaker of Emmanuel Bove’s monologue, published in 1928, is tortured by a glimpse of his girlfriend kissing another man in a passing taxi (‘It was her. I saw her’). As Barthes wrote, ‘in the amorous realm, the most painful wounds are inflicted more often by what one sees than by what one knows.’ The short story has since the 18th century accommodated different pieces of evidence that cannot be reconciled. The Uncanny is another word for it, and Goethe meant something of the kind when he defined the novella as an ‘unerhörte Begebenheit’ (‘an unheard of occurrence’).

Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Monologue’ is an unpunctuated stream of invective muttered by a woman alone in an apartment on New Year’s Eve who ruminates on her life and on those who have wronged her. Beauvoir attempts to give compassionate voice to the voiceless, but her preface to the group of stories from which this is taken is curiously innocent. She informs the reader that she set out to compose a ‘paraphrenic monologue’: in other words, to simulate the symptoms of a subject caught in a spiral of delusion. The result is a story that remains external and engineered because the monologue speaks for the speaking subject, as a bundle of symptoms construable and at home inside language.

Maurice Blanchot’s monologue ‘The Madness of the Day’ incongruously precedes Beauvoir and is spoken by a voice on the very edge of prose, sceptical of any attempt to narrate, questioning if we are here in order to tell stories about ourselves and if we are constituted as subjects only by the capacity to do so. The narrator finds himself in the hands of medical authorities who demand that he tell his story. He recites a litany of what seem to be salient occurrences, all of which are inexplicable. He is interrupted and asked to try again, and this time to find the right words. So he starts to tell us what he has already told them:

I had been asked: Tell us ‘just exactly’ what happened. A story? I began: I am not learned; I am not ignorant. I have known joys. That is saying too little. I told them the whole story and they listened, it seems to me, with interest, at least in the beginning. But the end was a surprise to all of us. ‘That was the beginning,’ they said. ‘Now get down to the facts.’ How so? The story was over! I had to acknowledge that I was not capable of forming a story out of these events.

His final plea – ‘stories, never again’ – imagines what calling a halt (itself another kind of story, of course) might read like. Perhaps like one of Beckett’s early French récits, such as the first-person voice of Textes pour rien, written at more or less the same time. Here, too, a narrator faces the same imperatives, and experiences the same refusals to recall: ‘No need of a story, a story is not compulsory, just a life, that’s the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself.’

Beckett is among those missing from this anthology. His immediate postwar nouvelles were the first pieces of prose he wrote in French: the manuscript of ‘The End’/‘La Fin’ (1946) began in English and ended in French. This story, or ‘The Expelled’, from the same year – ‘I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another’ – were surely plausible candidates: stories in which nothing happens but which draw us on irresistibly. As with Flaubert, seventy years earlier, a new kind of compression has made its appearance, a voice of errancy and indigence. As it is, Blanchot stands in isolation, not least because much of the 20th-century material here has such low expectations of its readers. There are other omissions, notably Camus. The inclusion of a story from his sequence Exile and the Kingdom (1957) – ‘The Guest’, in particular – would have given resonance to the inclusions by Djebar and Sebbar, both of whom grew up in Algeria under colonial rule and then moved to France, as Camus had a generation earlier.

Much of what​ is adventurous in French storytelling has its origins, whether directly or obliquely, in the prose poem – more of an impulse than a fixed form – which emerged in the 1840s and followed its own course thereafter, at its most vital when it has nothing to do with poetic prose or with heightened forms of expression. In À Rebours, des Esseintes singles it out as his preferred literary form (‘the novel condensed into a page or two’). Mallarmé’s ‘The Pipe’, for example, which is included here, recalls in fewer than 350 words a London winter that returns to haunt the speaker as he settles down to smoke and write. Cast as an anecdote, it condenses an entire landscape of troubled memory into an immediate scene of writing. Poe’s tales – or perhaps the regime of translating them – influenced the speciation of Baudelaire’s prose poems, posthumously collected as Le Spleen de Paris, which arise directly out of the nouvelle. Their debt to Poe consists in a combination of compression and ambivalence, a preference for voice over image, digression over plot, and an eerie, lurching karaoke, full of spasmodic shifts, from lethargy to violence, from reverie to rage, from inner to outer weather. Even now, they seem disenfranchised. Most of the work in Le Spleen de Paris first appeared in the pages of newspapers (which is entirely of a piece with Baudelaire’s loathing of the press): the prose poem could be described, if not defined, as a poem in which the line-breaks are decided by the compositor. It jostles for space and is jostled, and for every print appearance it assumes a different shape on the page.

Many of Baudelaire’s prose poems are sudden stories. They are hard to represent by one example, because their rhetorical resources are as plain as day but their import is shifting and unstable. McGuinness’s single choice from the fifty items in Le Spleen de Paris – ‘Assommons les pauvres!’ (‘Let’s Beat Up the Poor’) – is perhaps the most abstract of all Baudelaire’s prose poems. Its speaker describes an experiment: on his way into a tavern, in a deserted area, he administers an unpremeditated kicking to an undeserving beggar, in the hope of turning him into a deserving beggar by instilling a lesson in equality (‘One is equal to another only if he can prove it’). When the latter unexpectedly rises to the occasion and responds vigorously in kind, the battered demagogue joyfully shares his purse with him. The poem alludes to what Baudelaire called the ‘intoxications’ of 1848, seventeen years earlier, when he had aligned himself with the people, but the signal is now confused: is he reaffirming his commitment to violent struggle, or writing a farewell note? Without context, it’s an especially puzzling choice, given how many of the prose poems are feats of storytelling.

The fait divers (‘news in brief’) shadows French fiction, long and short, from the mid-19th century onwards. The kernel of Madame Bovary was a provincial newspaper item about the suicide of Delphine Delamare, a Rouennais housewife, by cyanide poisoning; Hugo’s ‘Claude Gueux’ was based on a news story; Schwob’s ‘Les Sans-Gueule’ was a news item at one remove, lifted from the Goncourt Journal. All of which fits with the fin-de-siècle appetite for twice-told tales, its search for inauthenticity.

The fait divers came into its own, as the final reductio of all storytelling, with Félix Fénéon’s ‘Nouvelles en trois lignes’ – ‘stories’ in both journalistic and writerly senses – which appeared in the Parisian broadsheet Le Matin between May and December 1906 (not, as McGuinness tells us, between 1903 and 1937). Twenty-eight are included in the Penguin anthology, the only instance of an author being represented by more than one item, although ‘author’ does not quite fit the case. Fénéon, who was working for Le Matin, took advantage of the news-gathering capabilities of the Edison telegraph to rearrange minor news items as objets trouvés, with sardonic care but minimal alteration, as if to illustrate Valéry’s remark that modern man wants ‘the sensation of a story without the boredom of its conveyance’. The authorlessness expressed something of Fénéon’s own reticence:

There was a gas explosion at the home of M. Larrieux, in Bordeaux. He was injured. His mother-in-law’s hair caught fire. The ceiling collapsed.

Often the stories bite at their tails:

Swimming instructor Renard, whose pupils were disporting themselves in the Marne, at Charenton, entered the water – and drowned.

Peremptoriness or inconsequence are here properties of events, and facts have a Flaubertian obduracy: the mourner who collapses and dies on the way to the cemetery; the fine linen of the drowned woman fished out of the Seine at the Pont de Saint-Cloud which bears the monogram ‘M.B.F.’. Names and dates, times and places – as laconic as police reports – are essential to the miniaturising. It mattered that each nouvelle should take up three lines of newsprint, an instruction ignored by the Penguin anthology, which sets them out as two lines of prose, which they are not, or not quite. Fénéon was a newspaperman and accustomed to the daily drama of making things fit, of getting into three lines whatever could not be got into the bourgeois scheme of things.

All twelve hundred of his tiny movie stills appeared in groups, as a feuilleton, over the course of several months: the choices are often of expressionist ferocity, personal and political, in line with his anarchistic vision. As a book of bad ends, the nouvelles increase the anthology’s death count by a fair margin (murder, suicide, hanging, shooting, drowning, asphyxiation, electrocution, attacks and shootings, poisonings and acid-throwings, the automobile or train or tram as weapons of mass destruction, the follies of church and state). The year 1906 appears strewn with corpses.

The fin-de-siècle storytellers in the anthology, who rightly take up the final third of the first volume (Huysmans, Villiers, Schwob, Mirbeau, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Jean Richepin, Jean Lorrain) were given a new lease of life by the idea that all tellings are retellings and that there is nothing new under the storytelling sun – itself a received idea. Flaubert’s copying clerks Bouvard and Pécuchet posthumously survey the literary scene like Notre-Dame gargoyles. The recycling of parody and pastiche was a staple of the cabaret and the daily currency of newspapers, part of the va-et-vient between short forms and the periodical press, ubiquitous as an aspect of French pedagogy and an approved form of literary consumption, often advertised as a time-saving condensation of the original.

Rather than his posthumously exhumed stories, it is Proust’s pastiches that are properly transgressive, provoked by the Affaire Lemoine – one more fait divers, concerning a celebrated diamond fraudster whose trial gripped Paris for several months in 1908. Proust wrote a series of brief accounts of the affair in the styles of Balzac, Flaubert, Renan, the Goncourt brothers, Saint-Simon and others, in a variety of prose genres, faux stories with a dazzling mimetic reach into their originals. They appeared as a feuilleton in the literary supplement of Le Figaro in February and March 1908 – in groupings, to encourage the connoisseurship of comparison. The inclusion of Proust’s Flaubert or Balzac would have added greatly to the Penguin anthology’s community spirit.

If Proust made pastiche respectable, Laforgue had already written nouvelles which take parody for granted as a form of primary creation. Laforgue wrote two prose travesties of Hamlet, and McGuinness has chosen the lesser version, ‘Apropos of Hamlet’, a dialogue of sorts, based on Laforgue’s actual pilgrimage to Denmark and set in Elsinore on the rainy New Year’s Day of 1886. It is a perverse choice, possibly the only thing Laforgue wrote that is without interest. It would have made more sense to include something from Moralités légendaires, his retellings of myths and legend, ‘worn-out stories’ in an age of irony. Laforgue thought of them as nouvelles, and so should we. They include his other ‘Hamlet’, a full-dress burlesque (subtitled ‘The Consequences of Filial Piety’) which casts the Dane as a neurasthenic fop and possible interloper (half-brother of Yorick, according to the gravediggers). This Hamlet suffers from Schopenhauerian disenchantment and oceanic mood-swings and is fluent in free association: Hamlet on the couch, a literary invalid waiting for his analyst to be invented.

The noises off​ become louder in the second volume, which is devoted to the century in which narrative was bent into new shapes – by Alfred Jarry, Robert Desnos, Pierre Reverdy, Henri Michaux, Max Jacob and others. All of them shared the conviction that poetry no longer held a monopoly on compression, and that narrative could be used for purposes other than telling a story. As George Balanchine said, when told his ballets were too abstract: ‘How much story do you want?’ France has been the home to many new ways of thinking about narrative, few of which disturb these pages. Notably absent are Francis Ponge, whose infra-narratives about oysters or rain or pebbles would have subtly altered the surrounding environment and added to the welcome sum of non-human presences, and Michaux, whose omission leaves the pared-back little tale by his fellow Belgian fantasist Jacques Sternberg less situated than it would otherwise have been. What would Michaux have brought? Stories that are not so much short as short-circuited, spontaneously combustive, exercises in self-interruption and dispossession, moving between genres as much as places (Ecuador, Asia, Brazil), and whose investigations and ethnographical esprit anticipate Raymond Queneau. Not ‘works’ in any finished sense, but a chain reaction of occasions, co-ordinates of a self both extrovert and hidden, dispersed by travel or by the many voices of mescaline.

As for Queneau, a few of his Exercices de style would have been a good addition. Published in 1947, the Exercices consists of 99 variants of the same story, under different rhetorical lights, each occupying a brief paragraph. The ur-story is scrupulously nondescript: a narrator describes seeing a man on a crowded bus who complains of being jostled by a fellow passenger; two hours later, he sees the same man in conversation in front of the Gare St-Lazare, where a colleague is telling him that he needs a button sewn on his coat. Exercices de style was extremely influential, not least on Georges Perec (who appears later in the anthology). But this anthology opts for a multiple-choice interactive text by Queneau, a sample of Oulipo-lite, arid and pleased with itself, whose title, ‘A Tale for Your Shaping’, invites the response: ‘No thanks.’

Nathalie Sarraute’s limpid tropismes (‘inner movements’) are not here, nor the further investigations of Alain Robbe-Grillet. His 1962 story ‘La Plage’ is a good example, its present tense rinsed of all affect. Three children walk along a stretch of empty beach; nothing happens, but the nothing is full of incident. The trance-like récits of the nouveau roman surely marked a moment of some note, but the mid-20th century is represented here by Boris Vian (an arch erotic caper around the topic of artificial intelligence) and Françoise Sagan (a bourgeois bedroom and golf-course farce, in which a wife discovers her sexual rival to be, yes, another man).

Ponge asked: ‘What would I give to become an apple? Not a lot. I want to make something which has as much reality as the apple, but in its own way – made with words.’ The greatest failure of the Penguin anthology lies in its ways with words. Many of the stories are driven by what McGuinness calls ‘the pressure of an imminent ending’, and they rarely look back; there are few places in which the larger implications of a story are expressed locally in more concentrated form. The plots are overworked but the prose sleepwalks, a matter of routine conveyance, or scene-shifting. Many of the translations are less than adequate. The anthology is a mix of registers, determined by the availability of existing versions, some of which are a century old. There is also a fairly high incidence of casual error, of the does-it-matter variety, but cumulatively discouraging. As to larger questions of idiom, given its reliance on existing translations, Penguin might have bothered to revise or revisit where necessary, rather than pass on old solecisms to new readers like counterfeit fivers. Moreover, the couple of dozen translations commissioned for the anthology have an air of struggling not with French but with English. It seems a pity that the more able translators were not persuaded to do more, giving idiomatic stability across very different registers.

Laforgue described Hamlet as ‘our ancestor of tomorrow’, which anticipates Borges on the workings of literary influence: you wouldn’t connect Kafka’s precursors with each other were it not for Kafka, who therefore precedes them. A different but related conundrum plays out in Perec’s ‘The Winter Journey’, written to order for a publisher’s catalogue in 1979, which is one of the anthology’s success stories. A young literature teacher, Vincent Degrael, staying at a country house in Normandy in August 1939, explores the bookshelves and finds a slim volume by an unknown author, Hugo Vernier, entitled The Winter Journey. As Degrael reads, he hears echoes, and eventually it occurs to him that the unknown work is a tissue of thefts, drawing on the full range of fin-de-siècle writing – ‘a deliberate homage, unconscious copying, wilful pastiche’ – or an original work consisting entirely of quotations. His suspicions are aroused, and he begins feverishly to cross-check dates, from memory, only to realise that in every instance The Winter Journey, published in 1864, preceded, by a narrow or wide margin, the works it seemed to plagiarise. In which case …

Perec catches a sense of déjà lu as one of the period atmospheres. As Baudelaire wrote to Théophile Thoré in 1864, ‘The first time I opened a book by Poe, I saw with horror and rapture, not only subjects I had dreamed of, but actual SENTENCES I had formed, and which he had set down twenty years earlier.’ Perec’s fable about literary influence is a winter’s tale for an anthologist, though less resonant in the context of the Penguin anthology, where the stories do not talk to each other, and so much is excluded in trying to gesture towards everything.

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