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Short Stories, Guy de Maupassant, translated by Marjorie Laurie (Everyman’s Library 1934)

Sympathy is an interesting word. It literally means “with-feeling”, that is, sharing someone else’s feelings, while the Latin compassio means “with-suffering”. But both of these words have weaker and wetter meanings in modern English. When I say that Maupassant was a compassionate writer who had sympathy for his characters, you need to read it in the older, stronger senses. He could feel with other human beings, victims and villains, the ordinary and the eccentric, and bring them to life on paper.

But he could do more than that: he had sympathy for, sympathy with, animals too and some of his most moving stories are about dogs, horses and donkeys. One, “Love”, is about a pair of wild birds and the hunters who shoot them. It’s included in this collection, which begins with “Boule de Suif” and ends with “The Horla”. “Boule de Suif”, or “Ball of Lard”, was Maupassant’s early great success. It combines three of his obsessions: prostitution, cruelty, and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. The title is actually the nickname of a plump, amiable prostitute who befriends but is then betrayed by the respectable folk who share a coach with her on a journey through occupied France. A Prussian officer wants to sleep with her, but she refuses. He won’t let the coach go on until she gives in. Her fellow travellers force her to do so, then salve their own consciences by treating her like “a thing useless and unclean” when their journey resumes.

It’s one of the longest stories here and also one of the most powerful, finely observed, closely and compassionately written. And it’s echoed by another story, “Mademoiselle Fifi”, which is also about prostitutes and the German occupation. But this time the title is the nickname of a Prussian officer, a sadistic dandy who treats the French with contempt but gets more than he bargains for when he mistreats a young prostitute called Rachel. That name is Hebrew for “Ewe” and Rachel is in fact Jewish, so the revenge in the story has even more resonance now. She stabs Mademoiselle Fifi to death and then successfully escapes. But the story is less successful than “Boule de Suif”. It’s too obviously a wish-fulfilment fantasy and the victim turns the table too neatly on the villain. And if Rachel’s name is intended to be ironic, it’s a literary touch that undermines Maupassant’s realism.

I think I’d read the story before in French, but it didn’t stay with me strongly. Other stories I’d read in French did stay with me strongly, like “Miss Harriet”, about a repressed English virgin who commits suicide far from home, and “The Devil”, about a peasant woman who’s given a fixed price to oversee the final hours of a dying woman. “Miss Harriet” is tragic, “The Devil” tragi-comic, and both are good examples of Maupassant’s sympathy for women and his ability to write about them convincingly. But “The Devil” is also a good example of his sympathy for peasants. As the Roman writer Terence said: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. – “I am human and I regard nothing human as alien to me.”

But many people can say that: Maupassant was one of the rare few who could translate his sympathy into powerful art, whether he was writing about an Italian widow avenging her only son in “Vendetta” or a French diplomat learning about the cruel fate of “the only woman I ever loved” in “Shali”. That story is actually expurgated: the French original, in 1884, went further than the English translation did in 1934. And Maupassant should be read in the original. As Gerald Gould says in the introduction: “It has been said by one rather acid French critic that one reason English people think so highly of Maupassant as a writer is because his French is so easy.”

That’s right: he writes with the utmost clarity and simplicity, but when I read him in French I have to concentrate, so the meaning blossoms more slowly and powerfully in my mind. That’s why I find myself unable to re-read some of his stories. They’re not extravagantly violent or cruel, but I find them too powerful and too unpleasant. “The Horla” isn’t one of those stories and although it is one of Maupassant’s best, some of its power comes from what you know about its background. Maupassant was beginning to go mad from syphilis when he wrote it. In “The Horla”, the human being he’s sympathizing with is himself. Not long afterwards, he was confined to an asylum. Then he was dead at the age of forty-two. No other writer has written so much so well in such a short life. Some of his best stories are here, but anyone who can should read him in French. He was a genius who combined simplicity with sympathy in a way that no other writer I’ve ever read has matched.

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Chaotic Fishponds and Mirror Universes by Richard ElwesChaotic Fishponds and Mirror Universes: the maths that governs our world, Richard Elwes (Quercus 2013)

Most popular introductions to maths cover well-trodden ground: the prime numbers, the square root of 2, the Fibonacci sequence, Möbius strips, the Platonic polyhedra, and so on. Chaotic Fishponds and Mirror Universes covers some of those, but it lives up to the promise of its title and also talks about less familiar things: Voronoi tilings, Delaunay triangulation, neural networks, the simplex algorithm, discrete cosine functions, Pappus’s theorem, kinematic equations and the most effective ways to test blood samples for syphilis. Or coins for counterfeits.

Syphilis and counterfeits are both covered by the mathematics of group-testing, after all, but then maths covers everything. As Richard Elwes puts it: maths governs our world. He is good at explaining how and at demonstrating how it has, does and will shape the world. Some of the fields he discusses are very complex, so he can’t explain them properly in a popular introduction, but I couldn’t cope with a full explanation. It doesn’t matter: you don’t have to be able to climb Everest to be awed and enriched by the knowledge of its existence. Chaotic Fishponds and Mirror Universes is about what you might call hyperdimensional Himalayas: the mountains of maths and the men who climb them. The mountains rise for ever and contain everything that is, was or ever could be. Matter and energy are susceptible to mathematical modelling and may, in the final analysis, be maths, but maths is about much more. Richard Elwes is a mather placing a stethoscope to the heart not just of the world but of all possible worlds.

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