Johnson on Pasco (2020)

Pasco, Allan H. The Nineteenth-Century French Short Story: Masterpieces in Miniature. Routledge, 2020, pp. xiii + 198, ISBN 978-0-367-33271-6

The title and subtitle of Allan Pasco’s latest thought-provoking study should perhaps have been inverted, since a central concern of the book is to show how short fiction, traditionally seen as a poor cousin to the novel, can also exhibit a high degree of artistry and merit the label of “masterpiece.” Through a series of detailed close readings of works by Vivant Denon, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Prosper Mérimée, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac, and Guy de Maupassant, Pasco reveals how these texts rely on readerly awareness of cultural information and how they are structured to engage the reader’s interpretative skills. Rather than providing a comprehensive history of the nineteenth-century French conte and nouvelle, Pasco’s analyses seek to throw light on the specificities of short narrative during this period through exemplary explications.

Pasco begins with a definition: “a short story is an artistically designed, short, prose fiction” (5, emphasis in the original). The crucial characteristic for a tale to accede to the rank of masterpiece is artistic design, reflecting “the apparent intention of making something beautiful” (8). What distinguishes these shorter works from the novel is not only their economy and lack of diffuseness, but also their tendency toward expressing the general and universal. They require a specific “literary competence” on the part of the reader, who, Pasco claims, is attracted only by masterpieces capable of rewarding the effort expended in their interpretation.

The texts on which Pasco focuses therefore tend to be lacunal, requiring the active participation of readers to fill in narrative “gaps.” Denon’s “Point de lendemain” is fraught with uncertainties about the degree to which the manipulative Mme de T*** has consciously orchestrated events, reflecting the instabilities of the tottering Ancien régime. Likewise, Barbey’s “Le Dessous de cartes” leaves much of the narrative backstory ambiguous, including the origins and reasons for the death of the child found in a planter. Pasco’s patient weighing of the evidence to demonstrate that this mystery can logically have only one satisfactory explanation is an admirable example of his skill in close reading to solve the textually encoded puzzle.

Meaning arises as well from structuring devices, both in and surrounding the text. Pasco argues that the frame narrative of Mérimée’s “Carmen” is essential to the reader’s understanding of the moral import of the story as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unconstrained freedom. Similarly, the unity of imagery and theme in Flaubert’s Trois contes, linked to his response to the claims regarding the historical development of Christianity in the work of his friend Alfred Maury, is crucial to appreciating Flaubert’s rejection of reason for its leading away from the simple faith of ancient times. In the chapters on Balzac and Maupassant, Pasco turns to the ambiguities of endings, amplified in the case of the latter’s “Le Champ d’oliviers” by an excision between the pre-original and book publication of the tale, compelling the reader to pose questions about the suicide of the main character.

As a series of studies of particularly rich nineteenth-century short narratives, Pasco’s book is a superb example of how attentive, detailed reading combined with echoes of reader-response, genetic, and other approaches can yield powerful insights.  Still, certain presuppositions of the book remain open to debate. All of the works studied in depth are fairly extended. Pasco does not distinguish in his terminology or methodology between a relatively brief, often tightly focused short story (such as Maupassant’s “La Parure”), and what are sometimes termed novelettes or novellas that intrinsically have more room for development of character, event, and meaning.  The lack of such a differentiation inevitably skews Pasco’s aesthetic appreciation in favor of those longer works that present more textual gaps for the reader to fill, and underestimates the impact of those whose brevity is used in the service of concentrated effect.

The second and more significant issue relates to the emphasis throughout the book on the term “masterpiece.” In seeking to make a case for the potential value of shorter fiction, Pasco nonetheless disparages the genre as a whole, stating, “The vast majority of short stories are scarcely worth the trouble to read” (19), and dismissing most as “simply trifles” (166). Yet the definition of the genre as “an artistically designed, short, prose fiction” inscribes aesthetic value through authorial intentionality into short stories as a whole. It would seem that only masterpieces, in other words, are real short stories, and they are the only ones worthy of consideration. Given the paucity of such true short story masterpieces—but how many novels deserve that accolade?—the definition seems problematic, especially in the context of an attempt to rescue shorter fiction from critical neglect. A further possible objection comes from the claim that only such masterpieces are worthy of attention. The well-established subfield of popular fiction studies (as exemplified by the journal Le Rocambole, organ of the Association des Amis du Roman Populaire) attests to the current scholarly interest in what might be conceded to be texts of lesser artistic significance. While arguing such texts should simply be ignored is a perfectly justifiable stance on aesthetic grounds, doing so tends to neglect the possibilities for insights into popular taste, appreciation of generic conventions, and, last but not least, pure pleasure that short fiction, high and low brow, can provide.

Despite these caveats, Pasco’s stimulating volume convincingly argues for the capacity of these texts to rival the depth of meaning in the novel, and the individual interpretations, particularly of the stories by Denon, Barbey, and Maupassant, make substantial contributions to our understanding of how they function.

Warren Johnson
Arkansas State University