Guy de Maupassant, a Jeweler of Language

Author Mirta Ojito

Mirta Ojito is the author of Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus, a story of her life in Cuba and her journey to the U.S. at 16 aboard a boat named Mañana. Ojito is an assistant professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, a former reporter for The New York Times and the mother of three boys. She's still attempting to learn French, and she collects dramatic — but never precious — necklaces in her travels. Portal hide caption

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In 1975, the year I turned 11, I was sent to work in a tobacco field in one of the small, red-clayed, mosquito-ridden towns that surround the city of Havana like a string of pearls. This was not a punishment; rather, it was an attempt by the Cuban government to turn children like me — children who couldn't even make our beds or comb through the knots in our hair — into hard-working and loyal communists.

Anticipating evenings of intense boredom, I prepared for my 45 days of work in the country by visiting my elementary-school librarian, who had become a friend, and asking her for books. Any books, as long as they were not about Soviet space exploration or the war in Vietnam.

She understood, gave me a tight little smile, and led me to a section in the stacks where I had never been before: French Literature, the label read. She pulled out a thick tome. "This," she said. "I think you are ready for this."

The book was a collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, a name I had never heard of and couldn't pronounce. But yes, she was right. I was ready.

This is what I remember from The Necklace:

"She danced, intoxicated, swept away, heady with pleasure, thinking of nothing, in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her conquest, in something like a cloud of happiness made of all that homage, all that admiration, all that awakened yearning, all that complete victory that is so dear to a woman's heart."

I felt elated, curious about the life of luxury and beauty she aspired to, so different from hers; so alien to mine.

Who was this man who so completely understood the adolescent I thought I was and the woman I then hoped to become?

He was born in Normandy in 1850 and died 43 years later in an insane asylum. In the last decade of his life, he produced nearly 300 short stories, half a dozen novels and about 200 newspaper articles.

In my early adolescence, Maupassant was the author I called my favorite. I even kept a framed picture of him, copied from a book, on my night table. That picture and his book remained behind when I left Cuba in a rush in 1980.

With time and other books, the obsession passed, but not the lessons.

On an impulse to re-read some of the books of my childhood, I went back to Maupassant this summer, just as one returns to an old love: unsure of whether the feelings are still there, afraid the magic may have dissipated. I need not have feared. While 30 years ago, I had read him because the worlds he created held me enthralled, in July I read him to find out why.

I discovered that his writing is deceptively simple. He used strong verbs, precise descriptions, short sentences, few adjectives — just like a journalist should. He wrote with restraint, and yet the poetry of life pulses through in every single one of his stories.

He was, I see now, the model I followed, the writer I always wanted to be. His sentences are the type that I labor over. His themes — sex, mystery, madness and greed — still make my heart flutter with the anticipation of a good read.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Finding Mañana'

Ojito Cover

Finding Mañana

by Mirta Ojito

Paperback, 320 Pages

List Price: $15.00

What is it? I yelled, reluctantly dragging myself up the steps that led to our apartment. What do you want? I demanded as I yanked the door open. I had been playing at my best friend's house across the street when my mother's voice, calling from our balcony, had shot through the windows, forcing me to abandon our game and race home.

My little sister looked at me expectantly but didn't say a word. A feeling of dread overcame me, and I began to search my mother's face for clues. Years of studying her face had made me an expert at deciphering her moods. With a quick glance at her mouth or her brow, I could tell what kind of day awaited us. A frown by itself was a sign of boredom or tiredness; a frown accompanied by squinting eyes spelled anger and warned of consequences for misbehaving. An unlined brow, and sometimes even sparkling eyes, meant a respite from her relentless pessimism or her sadness. On the days of the sparkling eyes,

I could expect any surprise from my mother: a dead mouse floating in a pail of water, a warm rice pudding, a new blouse stitched together from the remnants she had saved from her work as a seamstress, or the promise that, come 7:00 P.M., I would be allowed to watch my favorite television show at a neighbor's house.

Today was different, though. Today, she seemed happy. Her round face, framed by shiny black hair, was open and warm, soft and glowing with the luminosity of an antique white satin wedding gown. Her slightly slanted dark brown eyes sparkled. She didn't even seem to have registered my alarmed tone. Oh, no! I thought, we got our exit papers. And my heart sank, because in the summer of 1974, when I was ten, nothing would have lifted my parents' heart—and broken mine—more than receiving authorization to emigrate to the United States.

I don't remember a time when I didn't know that my family's most cherished aspiration was to someday, somehow leave Cuba, as most of the people we knew had already done. My earliest memories are not of making friends but of losing them to the United States. All my parents' friends and many of our relatives had left by the time I was six. We would take a walk in the neighborhood, and suddenly my mother would notice the telltale official yellow piece of paper sealing shut someone's main door, and just like that she would know she'd lost another friend—and, by extension, so had I. Marcelo and Mery and their two girls, the family downstairs, left first. Mery used to cut my mother's hair; Marcelo, my father's.

Then it was Gladys and Nico from around the corner. Gladys was my mother's second cousin; her oldest daughter was my friend and classmate. Later it was Alicia and Miguel's turn. They lived just a block away and were my parents' best friends. Their sprawling, book-filled house was a magnet of interesting, fun people who on many evenings had made my mother laugh and my father forget his life for a while.

Eventually my parents, my sister, and I would sit to plan our weekend and realize that we had no one to visit anymore. My mother started listening to radio soap operas to fill the silence of her days. My father preferred to stay home, spending an entire Sunday afternoon shining our shoes. I began to befriend the elderly people in the neighborhood, the ones I thought were too old ever to leave. I spent hours at the dark Colonial-style home of five sisters, old maids, who were fond of saying they wanted to be buried in Cuba. I figured that unless they got sick and suddenly died, their burial plans granted a certain longevity to our relationship.

After a while wanting to leave became a way of life. It meant that my father scanned the paper for news of conflicts with other countries, calculating which enemy nation would be most likely to welcome fleeing Cuban refugees. My sister and I rarely got to wear our nicest outfits, because my mother saved them, pressed and covered in plastic, so we could look elegant upon landing in Madrid, which was the plan for a while, or New York, which was always the dream. As we got older, she stopped doing that and instead saved the thickest fabrics she could find, calculating that any place north of Havana was bound to be frigid. Both my parents avoided any kind of political affiliation because, as they would explain to different recruiters who came to our home to encourage them to join in the spirit of the revolution, why get involved? We are waiting for our exit papers, you see, they'd say. And the men and women who dutifully tried to make communists out of my parents would open their eyes wide and exclaim, Ooh! surprised at their honesty and somewhat envious of a family with an actual plan.

But as I stood in front of my mother that day, silently praying that the urgency in her voice was not linked to our emigration plans, I detected only joy, no nervous edge to her gestures. It wasn't the papers, then, I realized. That's when I saw my father's back. He was kneeling on the floor, his large brown hands toying with what looked like a black box. I leaned forward, but all I could see at first was the top of his head, covered by curly black hair, which he carefully combed back every morning with brilliantine. Then his long nose, which cleaved his narrow face in half like the arm of a sundial and hung in a perfect right angle over his thin mustache. I stood on my toes and finally saw what he was hiding from me: a television!

Oh, my God! I yelped and jumped on my father's wide back, hugging him tightly from behind.

I had wanted a television set for so long that I'd begun to think I was never going to have one. All my friends had one, old black-and-white relics from the time American products could be purchased in Cuba. And here was ours. Finally. Black-and-white as well, but shiny and new, with an incomprehensible Russian word on the top right side.

I jumped up and down. My sister joined me. My mother, too. My father explained that for two hundred pesos, or about one and a half times his monthly salary, he had bought a coupon from a friend stating that he had donated an old American TV to the government. Armed with the fake coupon, my father spent another seven hundred pesos, a fortune for us, to buy the Russian box; without the coupon he couldn't have done it. It was all sort of illegal, but my father was confident he wouldn't get caught, he said, sounding more hopeful than certain, more embarrassed by the deal than triumphal. Still, with the help of my mother, he had accomplished a major feat. For years my mother had tucked away every peso she earned at the sewing machine so that our family could afford small luxuries such as fried chicken every Sunday for lunch, occasional dinners out, and now, finally, a television.

'The Necklace'

She was one of those pretty and charming girls born, as though fate had blundered over her, into a family of artisans. She had no marriage portion, no expectations, no means of getting known, understood, loved, and wedded by a man of wealth and distinction; and she let herself be married off to a little clerk in the Ministry of Education. Her tastes were simple because she had never been able to afford any other, but she was as unhappy as though she had married beneath her; for women have no caste or class, their beauty, grace, and charm serving them for birth or family. their natural delicacy, their instinctive elegance, their nimbleness of wit, are their only mark of rank, and put the slum girl on a level with the highest lady in the land.

She suffered endlessly, feeling herself born for every delicacy and luxury. She suffered from the poorness of her house, from its mean walls, worn chairs, and ugly curtains. All these things, of which other women of her class would not even have been aware, tormented and insulted her. The sight of the little Breton girl who came to do the work in her little house aroused heart-broken regrets and hopeless dreams in her mind. She imagined silent antechambers, heavy with Oriental tapestries, lit by torches in lofty bronze sockets, with two tall footmen in knee-breeches sleeping in large arm-chairs, overcome by the heavy warmth of the stove. She imagined vast saloons hung with antique silks, exquisite pieces of furniture supporting priceless ornaments, and small, charming, perfumed rooms, created just for little parties of intimate friends, men who were famous and sought after, whose homage roused every other woman's envious longings.

When she sat down for dinner at the round table covered with a three-days-old cloth, opposite her husband, who took the cover off the soup-tureen, exclaiming delightedly: "Aha! Scotch broth! What could be better?" she imagined delicate meals, gleaming silver, tapestries peopling the walls with folk of a past age and strange birds in faery forests; she imagined delicate food served in marvellous dishes, murmured gallantries, listened to with an inscrutable smile as one trifled with the rosy flesh of trout or wings of asparagus chicken.

She had no clothes, no jewels, nothing. And these were the only things she loved; she felt that she was made for them. She had longed so eagerly to charm, to be desired, to be wildly attractive and sought after.

She had a rich friend, an old school friend whom she refused to visit, because she suffered so keenly when she returned home. She would weep whole days, with grief, regret, despair, and misery.

* * *

One evening her husband came home with an exultant air, holding a large envelope in his hand.

"Here's something for you," he said.

Swiftly she tore the paper and drew out a printed card on which were these words:

"The Minister of Education and Madame Ramponneau request the pleasure of the company of Monsieur and Madame Loisel at the Ministry on the evening of Monday, January the 18th."

Instead of being delighted, as her-husband hoped, she flung the invitation petulantly across the table, murmuring:

"What do you want me to do with this?"

"Why, darling, I thought you'd be pleased. You never go out, and this is a great occasion. I had tremendous trouble to get it. Every one wants one; it's very select, and very few go to the clerks. You'll see all the really big people there."

She looked at him out of furious eyes, and said impatiently: "And what do you suppose I am to wear at such an affair?"

He had not thought about it; he stammered:

"Why, the dress you go to the theatre in. It looks very nice, to me...."

He stopped, stupefied and utterly at a loss when he saw that his wife was beginning to cry. Two large tears ran slowly down from the corners of her eyes towards the corners of her mouth.

"What's the matter with you? What's the matter with you?" he faltered.

But with a violent effort she overcame her grief and replied in a calm voice, wiping her wet cheeks:

"Nothing. Only I haven't a dress and so I can't go to this party. Give your invitation to some friend of yours whose wife will be turned out better than I shall."

He was heart-broken.

"Look here, Mathilde," he persisted. "What would be the cost of a suitable dress, which you could use on other occasions as well, something very simple?"

She thought for several seconds, reckoning up prices and also wondering for how large a sum she could ask without bringing upon herself an immediate refusal and an exclamation of horror from the careful-minded clerk.

At last she replied with some hesitation:

"I don't know exactly, but I think I could do it on four hundred francs."

He grew slightly pale, for this was exactly the amount he had been saving for a gun, intending to get a little shooting next summer on the plain of Nanterre with some friends who went lark-shooting there on Sundays.

Nevertheless he said: "Very well. I'll give you four hundred francs. But try and get a really nice dress with the money."

The day of the party drew near, and Madame Loisel seemed sad, uneasy and anxious. Her dress was ready, however. One evening her husband said to her:

"What's the matter with you? You've been very odd for the last three days."

"I'm utterly miserable at not having any jewels, not a single stone, to wear," she replied. "I shall look absolutely no one. I would almost rather not go to the party."

"Wear flowers," he said. "They're very smart at this time of the year. For ten francs you could get two or three gorgeous roses."

She was not convinced.

"No . . . there's nothing so humiliating as looking poor in the middle of a lot of rich women."

"How stupid you are!" exclaimed her husband. "Go and see Madame Forestier and ask her to lend you some jewels. You know her quite well enough for that."

She uttered a cry of delight.

"That's true. I never thought of it."

Next day she went to see her friend and told her her trouble.

Madame Forestier went to her dressing-table, took up a large box, brought it to Madame Loisel, opened it, and said:

"Choose, my dear."

First she saw some bracelets, then a pearl necklace, then a Venetian cross in gold and gems, of exquisite workmanship. She tried the effect of the jewels before the mirror, hesitating, unable to make up her mind to leave them, to give them up. She kept on asking:

"Haven't you anything else?"

"Yes. Look for yourself. I don't know what you would like best."

Suddenly she discovered, in a black satin case, a superb diamond necklace; her heart began to beat covetousIy. Her hands trembled as she lifted it. She fastened it round her neck, upon her high dress, and remained in ecstasy at sight of herself.

Then, with hesitation, she asked in anguish:

"Could you lend me this, just this alone?"

"Yes, of course."

She flung herself on her friend's breast, embraced her frenziedly, and went away with her treasure. The day of the party arrived. Madame Loisel was a success. She was the prettiest woman present, elegant, graceful, smiling, and quite above herself with happiness. All the men stared at her, inquired her name, and asked to be introduced to her. All the Under-Secretaries of State were eager to waltz with her. The Minister noticed her.

She danced madly, ecstatically, drunk with pleasure, with no thought for anything, in the triumph of her beauty, in the pride of her success, in a cloud of happiness made up of this universal homage and admiration, of the desires she had aroused, of the completeness of a victory so dear to her feminine heart.

She left about four o'clock in the morning. Since midnight her husband had been dozing in a deserted little room, in company with three other men whose wives were having a good time. He threw over her shoulders the garments he had brought for them to go home in, modest everyday clothes, whose poverty clashed with the beauty of the ball-dress. She was conscious of this and was anxious to hurry away, so that she should not be noticed by the other women putting on their costly furs.

Loisel restrained her.

"Wait a little. You'll catch cold in the open. I'm going to fetch a cab."

But she did not listen to him and rapidly descended-the staircase. When they were out in the street they could not find a cab; they began to look for one, shouting at the drivers whom they saw passing in the distance.

They walked down towards the Seine, desperate and shivering. At last they found on the quay one of those old nightprowling carriages which are only to be seen in Paris after dark, as though they were ashamed of their shabbiness in the daylight.

It brought them to their door in the Rue des Martyrs, and sadly they walked up to their own apartment. It was the end, for her. As for him, he was thinking that he must be at the office at ten.

She took off the garments in which she had wrapped her shoulders, so as to see herself in all her glory before the mirror. But suddenly she uttered a cry. The necklace was no longer round her neck!

"What's the matter with you?" asked her husband, already half undressed.

She turned towards him in the utmost distress.

"I . . . I . . . I've no longer got Madame Forestier's necklace. . . ."

He started with astonishment.

"What! . . . Impossible!"

They searched in the folds of her dress, in the folds of the coat, in the pockets, everywhere. They could not find it.

"Are you sure that you still had it on when you came away from the ball?" he asked.

"Yes, I touched it in the hall at the Ministry."

"But if you had lost it in the street, we should have heard it fall."

"Yes. Probably we should. Did you take the number of the cab?"

"No. You didn't notice it, did you?"

"No."

They stared at one another, dumbfounded. At last Loisel put on his clothes again.

"I'll go over all the ground we walked," he said, "and see if I can't find it."

And he went out. She remained in her evening clothes, lacking strength to get into bed, huddled on a chair, without volition or power of thought.

Her husband returned about seven. He had found nothing.

He went to the police station, to the newspapers, to offer a reward, to the cab companies, everywhere that a ray of hope impelled him.

She waited all day long, in the same state of bewilderment at this fearful catastrophe.

Loisel came home at night, his face lined and pale; he had discovered nothing.

"You must write to your friend," he said, "and tell her that you've broken the clasp of her necklace and are getting it mended. That will give us time to look about us."

She wrote at his dictation.

* * *

By the end of a week they had lost all hope.

Loisel, who had aged five years, declared:

"We must see about replacing the diamonds."

Next day they took the box which had held the necklace and went to the jewellers whose name was inside. He consulted his books.

"It was not I who sold this necklace, Madame; I must have merely supplied the clasp."

Then they went from jeweller to jeweller, searching for another necklace like the first, consulting their memories, both ill with remorse and anguish of mind.

In a shop at the Palais-Royal they found a string of diamonds which seemed to them exactly like the one they were looking for. It was worth forty thousand francs. They were allowed to have it for thirty-six thousand.

They begged the jeweller not tO sell it for three days. And they arranged matters on the understanding that it would be taken back for thirty-four thousand francs, if the first one were found before the end of February.

Loisel possessed eighteen thousand francs left to him by his father. He intended to borrow the rest.

He did borrow it, getting a thousand from one man, five hundred from another, five louis here, three louis there. He gave notes of hand, entered into ruinous agreements, did business with usurers and the whole tribe of money-lenders. He mortgaged the whole remaining years of his existence, risked his signature without even knowing it he could honour it, and, appalled at the agonising face of the future, at the black misery about to fall upon him, at the prospect of every possible physical privation and moral torture, he went to get the new necklace and put down upon the jeweller's counter thirty-six thousand francs.

When Madame Loisel took back the necklace to Madame Forestier, the latter said to her in a chilly voice:

"You ought to have brought it back sooner; I might have needed it."

She did not, as her friend had feared, open the case. If she had noticed the substitution, what would she have thought? What would she have said? Would she not have taken her for a thief?

* * *

Madame Loisel came to know the ghastly life of abject poverty. From the very first she played her part heroically. This fearful debt must be paid off. She would pay it. The servant was dismissed. They changed their flat; they took a garret under the roof.

She came to know the heavy work of the house, the hateful duties of the kitchen. She washed the plates, wearing out her pink nails on the coarse pottery and the bottoms of pans. She washed the dirty linen, the shirts and dish-cloths, and hung them out to dry on a string; every morning she took the dustbin down into the street and carried up the water, stopping on each landing to get her breath. And, clad like a poor woman, she went to the fruiterer, to the grocer, to the butcher, a basket on her arm, haggling, insulted, fighting for every wretched halfpenny of her money.

Every month notes had to be paid off, others renewed, time gained.

Her husband worked in the evenings at putting straight a merchant's accounts, and often at night he did copying at twopence-halfpenny a page.

And this life lasted ten years.

At the end of ten years everything was paid off, everything, the usurer's charges and the accumulation of superimposed interest.

Madame Loisel looked old now. She had become like all the other strong, hard, coarse women of poor households. Her hair was badly done, her skirts were awry, her hands were red. She spoke in a shrill voice, and the water slopped all over the floor when she scrubbed it. But sometimes, when her husband was at the office, she sat down by the window and thought of that evening long ago, of the ball at which she had been so beautiful and so much admired.

What would have happened if she had never lost those jewels. Who knows? Who knows? How strange life is, how fickle! How little is needed to ruin or to save!

One Sunday, as she had gone for a walk along the Champs-Elysees to freshen herself after the labours of the week, she caught sight suddenly of a woman who was taking a child out for a walk. It was Madame Forestier, still young, still beautiful, still attractive.

Madame Loisel was conscious of some emotion. Should she speak to her? Yes, certainly. And now that she had paid, she would tell her all. Why not?

She went up to her.

"Good morning, Jeanne."

The other did not recognise her, and was surprised at being thus familiarly addressed by a poor woman.

"But . . . Madame . . ." she stammered. "I don't know . . . you must be making a mistake."

"No . . . I am Mathilde Loisel."

Her friend uttered a cry.

"Oh! . . . my poor Mathilde, how you have changed! . . ."

"Yes, I've had some hard times since I saw you last; and many sorrows . . . and all on your account."

"On my account! . . . How was that?"

"You remember the diamond necklace you lent me for the ball at the Ministry?"

"Yes. Well?"

"Well, I lost it."

"How could you? Why, you brought it back."

"I brought you another one just like it. And for the last ten years we have been paying for it. You realise it wasn't easy for us; we had no money. . . . Well, it's paid for at last, and I'm glad indeed."

Madame Forestier had halted.

"You say you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?"

"Yes. You hadn't noticed it? They were very much alike."

And she smiled in proud and innocent happiness.

Madame Forestier, deeply moved, took her two hands.

"Oh, my poor Mathilde! But mine was imitation. It was worth at the very most five hundred francs! . . . "

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