Aug 052015


Today is the birthday (1850) of Henri-René-Albert-Guy de Maupassant. He was born at the Château de Miromesnil near Dieppe in the Seine-Inférieure (now Seine-Maritime) department in France. He was the first son of Laure Le Poittevin and Gustave de Maupassant, both from prosperous bourgeois families. When Maupassant was 11 and his brother Hervé was five, his mother risked social disgrace to obtain a legal separation from her husband.

After the separation, Laure Le Poittevin kept custody of her two sons. With his father’s absence, Maupassant’s mother became the most influential figure in his life. She was an exceptionally well-read woman and was very fond of classical literature, particularly Shakespeare. Until the age of thirteen, Guy happily lived with his mother, at Étretat, in the Villa des Verguies, where he grew very fond of fishing and outdoor activities. At age thirteen, his mother placed Maupassant and his brother as day boarders in a private school, the Institution Leroy-Petit, in Rouen. From this early formal education he retained a marked hostility to religion, and to judge from verses composed around this time he deplored the ecclesiastical atmosphere, its ritual and discipline. Finding the place to be unbearable, he finally got himself expelled in his next-to-last year. [Note to self: one day write a post on all brilliant people who thought it a smart move to get expelled from school.]


In 1867 Maupassant met Gustave Flaubert through his mother. Next year, in autumn, he was sent to the Lycée Pierre-Corneille in Rouen where he proved to be a good scholar, writing poetry and taking a prominent part in theatricals. In October 1868, at the age of 18, he saved the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne from drowning off the coast of Étretat

The Franco-Prussian War broke out soon after his graduation from college in 1870; he enlisted as a volunteer. Many of his short stories take place in the context of that war. In 1871, he left Normandy and moved to Paris where he spent ten years as a clerk in the Navy Department. During this time his only recreation and relaxation was boating on the Seine on Sundays and holidays.

Flaubert took him under his protection and acted as a kind of literary guardian to him, guiding his debut in journalism and literature. At Flaubert’s home he met Émile Zola and the Russian novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev, as well as many of the proponents of the realist and naturalist schools. He wrote and played himself in a comedy in 1875 (with the benediction of Flaubert), “À la feuille de rose, maison turque.” In 1878, he was transferred to the Ministry of Public Instruction and became a contributing editor to several leading newspapers such as Le Figaro, Gil Blas, Le Gaulois and l’Écho de Paris. He devoted his spare time to writing novels and short stories.


In 1880 he published what is considered his first masterpiece, “Boule de Suif”, which met with instant and tremendous success. Flaubert characterized it as “a masterpiece that will endure.” This was Maupassant’s first piece of short fiction set during the Franco-Prussian War, and was followed by short stories such as “Deux Amis”, “Mother Savage”, and “Mademoiselle Fifi”. The decade from 1880 to 1891 was the most fertile period of Maupassant’s life. Made famous by his first short story, he worked methodically and produced two or sometimes four volumes annually. His talent and practical business sense made him rich.

In 1881 he published his first volume of short stories under the title of La Maison Tellier; it reached its 12th edition within two years. In 1883 he finished his first novel, Une Vie (translated into English as A Woman’s Life), 25,000 copies of which were sold in less than a year. His second novel Bel Ami, which came out in 1885, had 37 printings in four months. His editor, Havard, commissioned him to write more stories, and Maupassant continued to produce them efficiently and frequently. At this time he wrote what many consider to be his greatest novel, Pierre et Jean.


With a natural aversion to society, he loved retirement, solitude, and meditation. He traveled extensively in Algeria, Italy, England, Brittany, Sicily, Auvergne, and from each voyage brought back a new volume. He cruised on his private yacht Bel-Ami, named after his novel. This life did not prevent him from making friends among the literary celebrities of his day: Alexandre Dumas, fils had a paternal affection for him; at Aix-les-Bains he met Hippolyte Taine and became devoted to the philosopher-historian.

Maupassant was one of a number of 19th-century Parisians, including Charles Gounod, Alexandre Dumas, fils, and Charles Garnier, who did not care for the Eiffel Tower. He often ate lunch in the restaurant at its base, not out of preference for the food but because it was only there that he could avoid seeing its otherwise unavoidable profile. He and 46 other Parisian literary and artistic notables attached their names to an elaborately irate letter of protest against the tower’s construction, written to the Minister of Public Works.

In his later years he developed a constant desire for solitude, an obsession for self-preservation, and a fear of death and paranoia of persecution perhaps attributable to the syphilis he had contracted in his youth. On January 2, 1892, Maupassant tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat, and was committed to the private asylum of Esprit Blanche at Passy, in Paris, where he died on July 6, 1893. His epitaph was of his own writing: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.” He is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.


Maupassant is considered one of the founders of the modern short story. He delighted in clever plotting, and served as a model for Somerset Maugham and O. Henry in this respect. One of his famous short stories, “The Necklace”, was imitated with a twist by both Maugham (“Mr Know-All”, “A String of Beads”) and Henry James (“Paste”).

Taking his cue from Balzac, Maupassant wrote comfortably in both the high-Realist and fantasy modes; stories and novels such as “L’Héritage” and Bel-Ami aim to recreate Third Republic France in a realistic way, whereas many of the short stories (notably “Le Horla” and “Qui sait?”) describe apparently supernatural phenomena. The supernatural in Maupassant, however, is often implicitly a symptom of the protagonists’ troubled minds; Maupassant was fascinated by the growing discipline of psychiatry, and attended the public lectures of Jean-Martin Charcot between 1885 and 1886.

Some poignant quotes:

It is better to be unhappy in love than unhappy in marriage, but some people manage to be both.

Life is a slope. As long as you’re going up you’re always looking towards the top and you feel happy, but when you reach it, suddenly you can see the road going downhill and death at the end of it all. It’s slow going up and quick going down.

She realized for the first time that two people can never reach each others deepest feelings and instincts, that they spend their lives side by side, linked it may be, but not mingled, and that each one’s inmost being must go through life eternally alone.

Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched.

Great minds that are healthy are never considered geniuses, while this sublime qualification is lavished on brains that are often inferior but are slightly touched by madness.

The secret is not to betray your ignorance. Just maneuver, avoid the quicksands and obstacles, and the rest can be found in a dictionary.

The complete short stories (in English)  can be found here:

A quick search revealed to me that chicken gets mentioned a great deal in Maupassant’s short stories, but nowhere more prominently than in “Boule de Suif” where the title character shares her picnic basket containing, among other goodies, a cold chicken coated with aspic. This is easy enough to make.


Cold Chicken in Aspic

Place a whole chicken (1½ to 2 Kg) in a stock pot that holds it snugly. Cover with chicken stock. Bring slowly to a simmer. Skim the scum as it rises.

Add in a whole unpeeled onion quartered, a large carrot, scrubbed, topped and tailed, a large leek, cleaned and cut in 2-3 pieces, salt and pepper to taste, and a handful of finely chopped fresh parsley.

Partly cover and simmer for an hour.

Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature, then chill overnight in the refrigerator.

In the morning remove the congealed chicken fat from the surface and reserve for other uses.

The stock will have solidified to a light flavorful aspic. Take the chicken out of the aspic leaving some to cling to the chicken. Reserve the remaining aspic as stock.

The chicken can easily be jointed and the breast meat sliced for sandwiches, a meat platter, or what you will.

Aug 242013


Today is the birthday (1899) of Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges, Argentine short story writer, poet, essayist, and social activist. His most famous books, Ficciones (1944) and El Aleph (1949), are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes such as dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, animals, fictional writers, philosophy, religion, and God.


A great deal of Borges’ writing plays with the nature of reality. Many of his earlier works were hoaxes, such as book reviews of non-existent books, or short stories he wrote supposedly as translations of foreign language originals, but where no original existed.  The latter were often convincing frauds because he did actually do translations of foreign works. In the 1930’s he began working in a genre which some credit him with inventing, sometimes known as “magical reality,” or “irreality,” influenced by philosophers of phenomenology and existentialism.  One of his most influential short stories was “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (“The Garden of Forking Paths”), published in 1941, in which he proposes that time is not linear but a is constructed out of a series of decisions we make, each of which is possible, with distinct outcomes, but, more importantly, with all the choices and their outcomes existing simultaneously somehow. Thus, the world consists of an infinite set of forked paths stretching ever outward, or, perhaps, forked paths that fold back in on themselves. Not easy to explain; go and read the story.


This notion of time and reality as non-linear is reflected in such later novels as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles (1969) and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1953 murder mystery Les Gommes (The Erasers).  It is even reasonable to assert that Borges invented the basic concept of the modern hypertext novel in which the reader, using a computerized text, follows the story to certain nodes and then, via a hypertext link, chooses where to go from there.  The story unfolds according to the whim of the reader, and when done, the reader can return to the beginning and start again making different choices at each node.


Borges was deeply Argentine in his sensibilities, yet also addressed ideas that cut across cultures. He played with such reflexive puzzles as whether an author creates the story, or whether the story creates the author (sometimes called the “Borgesian Conundrum”). This is a phenomenon well known to writers (myself included), who often feel that a story is writing itself through them, and in the process changing them.  Borges was also fascinated by the idea that words and stories can create a reality that has no link to the physical world, yet is real. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his short story “Emma Zunz.”

The story is set in Buenos Aires and the locations are unmistakable. But the setting is just a convenience, and not germane to the story.  At the opening, Emma Zunz has received news that her father, Manuel Maier, has committed suicide.  Emma knows that his suicide was prompted by his disgrace and ruin when he was accused of embezzlement, an act actually perpetrated by his business partner, Loewenthal, who not only took the money but framed her father. Emma, who is an 18 year old virgin, foments a plan.  First she visits a few sleazy bars pretending to be a prostitute and chooses a man who disgusts her to solicit.  The deed is appalling to her, but she distances herself from it.  Next she goes to Loewenthal’s office where she shoots him dead with a revolver.  After it is over she disarranges the office, unbuttons Loewenthal’s clothing, and then calls the police.  The story she tells is simple – she tells the police that something incredible has happened. Lowenthal had asked her to come to his office on a pretext, he had raped her so she had killed him. Borges ends the tale as follows:

“La historia era increíble, en efecto, pero se impuso a todos, porque sustancialmente era cierta. Verdadero era el tono de Emma Zunz, verdadero el pudor, verdadero el odio. Verdadero también era el ultraje que había padecido; sólo eran falsas las circunstancias, la hora y uno o dos nombres propios.”

(“In fact the story was incredible, but it impressed everyone because it was substantially true. True was Emma Zunz’s tone, true was her shame, true was her hate. True also was the outrage she had suffered; only the circumstances were false, the time, and one or two proper names.”)

Classic Borges.  What is truth? What is a story? What is meaning? What is real?


Which Argentine recipe can I pull from my arsenal to honor Borges? Arroz con pollo argentino fits the bill, I think (just be sure to pronounce “pollo” as we do: the “ll” sounds like the “s” in “measure”).  In the same way that Borges’ writing is Spanish with an Argentine twist, so our arroz con pollo is Spanish in origin, but done our way.  The most important thing about the Argentine version is that it does not contain saffron or any other coloring/flavoring for the rice except the meat and vegetables.  This is my version. If you want to be really Borgesian about it, make your own choices at every turn. You’ll get the idea from my ingredient list.  Makes me want to experiment with the notion of a hyper-recipe.


Arroz con Pollo Argentino


1 2 lb (1 kilo) chicken
1 onion, peeled and chopped coarsely, or 1 leek chopped (optional)
½ green bell pepper, chopped coarsely, seeds and ribs removed (optional)
½ red bell pepper, chopped coarsely, seeds and ribs removed (optional)
2 cups long grain white rice
4 cups chicken broth (or water, or vegetable stock, or veal broth)
1 cup fresh peas – or frozen (both optional)
parsley for garnish (optional)
4 tbsps olive oil


Cut the chicken into eight parts, (2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 4 breast pieces).

Brown the chicken pieces in oil over medium-high heat in batches in a heavy pot.  Set aside.

Sauté the chopped pepper and onion in the pot until the onion is translucent.

Add the rice, stirring until slightly transparent.

Add the chicken, peas, and broth.

Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Cover the pot, remove from the heat and let rest for 5 minutes.

Stir the mixture and serve the chicken and rice sprinkled with chopped parsley.

Serves 4