All four of the stories in Femme Fatale (which come from the collection A Parisian Affair translated by Sian Miles in 2004 and now available as a Pocket Penguin Classic) concern themselves with relationships between a man and a woman, though it would be disingenuous to call them love stories. The title story comes closest to exploring that particular passion, though it would be fair to say the love is rather one-sided.
“Poor young devil, he’s got it bad!” says one onlooker of Paul Baron as he sets off in a skiff called Madeleine with Madeleine, a woman he loves enough to name a skiff after her. That her own love fro him might not reach those giddy heights is evident when they disagree about the arrival of a boat-load of lesbians (yes, I wasn’t expecting that either). Baron’s view of these women is one that would have been regarded as antediluvian ten years ago but is now probably mainstream in Brexit Britain:
“Shouldn’t be allowed! They should be drowned like puppies with stones around their necks!”
When he forbids Madeleine to have anything to do with them, she dismisses his demand out of hand:
“Listen, dear, I shall do exactly as I please. If you don’t like it you know what you can do.”
Paul’s rage only increases when Madeleine speaks to one of the women, Pauline (do you see what de Maupassant did there), when she comes in, and leaves her with a promise to “see you tonight!” Perhaps Paul’s anger is not simply homophobia after all.
The stand-out moment in the story is when Paul sees a representation of his relationship as he looks out over the river:
“All of a sudden the man jerked out of the water a little silver fish which wriggled at the end of his line. Twisting and turning it this way and that, he tried to extract his hook, but in vain. Losing patience he started pulling and, as he did so, pulled out the entire bloody gullet of the fish with parts of its intestines attached.”
Not only is this the symbolic centrepiece of the story but de Maupassant echoes it in his ending. Though a little stranger than I was expecting, ‘Femme Fatale’ is an excellent short story and leaves me wondering why I have not read de Maupassant before.