"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 24, 2012

"The Maison Tellier" by Guy de Maupassant (Book Review)

The Maison Tellier was written in 1881 by Guy de Maupassant, the French master of the short story. It is set in an environment often visited by De Maupassant, that of prostitutes. The story is about a group of women working in a small brothel in a French provincial town, where this type of business is accepted as perfectly normal. It even performs an important and necessary social and psychological function among the men of the town. The business is run by Madame Tellier, who inherited it. Downstairs is a common room for the blue collar clients, served by two of the girls and a bouncer, and upstairs is a salon where the fine gentlemen of the town - including a judge and the local doctor - gather around Madame Tellier herself and the best three of her girls.

One Saturday evening, the establishment is inexplicably closed, what leads to heated arguments among the gentlemen of the town - they almost quarrel. Some are especially disappointed as the Saturday evening was the only time they could get away from their family. Among the "blue collars" the sexual frustration is even greater, and leads to a fist fight. The closing of the brothel for just one night upsets the whole social order of the small town.

What has happened? Madame Tellier has received an invitation to come to the First Communion celebration of her niece Constance, whose godmother she is. Constance is the only daughter of her brother, a carpenter living in a small village, a full day trip by train away. She ends up deciding to close down her house and take all the ladies with her to the communion. On Saturday night they will lodge at her brother's house and they will return later on the Sunday, after lunch.

That is the setting, which is contained in the first part of the story. The second part gives a humorous description of the train journey - they meet a merchant selling garters and he gives them away for free when he is allowed to fit them with his own hands to their legs - and of the stay in the countryside. In their colorful finery, they attract a lot of attention, but nobody in the village suspects their occupation. During the communion, one of the prostitutes starts crying, others follow and finally the whole church is snickering. The priest sees that as a sign of divine inspiration - while in reality it was from regret at seeing such a pure young virgin...

During the lunch, wine flows freely and the brother makes an impulsive though goodhearted pass at one of the ladies, but Madame Tellier allows no such folly. They travel back and in the evening again open the Maison Tellier, to the great relief of the almost desperate male population of the town, who come in great numbers and keep partying until deep in the night.

This story has been beautifully filmed by Max Ophuls in Le Plaisir. This is a film about three stories of De Maupassant, besides the present one also The Mask and The Model. Among these, The Maison Tellier is the most important, taking up about half of the film. Ophuls follows De Maupassant closely as the storyline is concerned, but changes many details. For one thing, he looks with a gentle sense of humor at the prostitutes, while De Maupassant wrote in a more satirical vein. Ophuls is full of sympathy for other human beings, especially unhappy ones. His is a poetic and sumptuous treatment of the story, full of kindness.

French original.