Paris la nuit (1889) by Charles Courtney Curran
You know the deflating experience of picking up a book you loved the first time around, only to find it disappointing years later? The sentences are no longer as beautifully written as you recalled, the atmosphere no longer as masterful, and worst of all, your happy memories are marred.
Being in the middle of two chunky reads (one an epic trilogy and the other a fat novel), I was desperate for a short story gulp. I didn’t even need to shop through my bookshelves. I knew what I wanted: “A Night in Paris (A nightmare)” by Guy de Maupassant, a creepy little tale of never-ending night narrated by a man slowly losing it. The short left an indelible mark on me because it felt like a travel guide of Paris written by someone deranged. After I finished the story, I dreamed of going to Paris and visiting its landmarks. An odd reaction from a story meant to scare, perhaps.
Rereading the story was a bit of a letdown. I remember the story being full of lyricisms as the unnamed narrator flits in fear from one Parisian monument to another. But Maupassant’s style is simple and straightforward. Poetic flourishes aren’t part of his approach. Which beggars the question: did my memory embellish the story’s beauty? Not that there weren’t any lovely sentences in “A Night in Paris (A nightmare).” Here’s an example:
And the electric-light globes – pale yet dazzling moons, moon-eggs fallen from heaven, living monster-pearls – made the thin flames of ugly, dirty gaslight with their garlands of coloured glass pale into insignificance beneath their mother-of-pearl radiance, mysterious and regal.
I liked that. But there weren’t many more sentences with that feel.
When I first read “A Night in Paris (A nightmare)” years ago, I was convinced that I could take the story with me to Paris and I could use it as a rough map of famous landmarks as the narrator described stumbling from the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe to the Bois de Boulogne to the Place de la Bastille. But this reread, I felt like Maupassant was just name-dropping these places. There were no description of how this man got from point A to point B. Which is fine, because he is descending towards madness, but that wasn’t how I remembered this story. My memory distinctly remembered a travel guide feel from “A Night in Paris (A Nightmare).”
“A Night in Paris (A nightmare)” is included in Tales of Supernatural Terror, a Maupassant short story collection selected and translated by Arnold Kellett. It’s exactly as it says on the tin. It brought “together for the first time Maupassant’s stories concerning the supernatural” when it was first published in 1972. Now out-of-print, I thought I had found a treasure when I stumbled upon it in a messy, musty secondhand bookshop in Jakarta for 5000 rupiahs (about 40 cents today). How happy I was when I stormed through the collection shortly after! The stories were fabulous horror gems. This book was my first Maupassant and I graduated to his more iconic stories “Boule de Suif,” “Mademoiselle Fifi,” and of course, “The Necklace” soon after.
I wonder if it is time for me to reread the collection as a whole to see if I still found it as compelling as I did years ago. My edition includes “The Horla,” which is agreed by critics to be Maupassant’s most significant contribution to the supernatural horror genre. But for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was about. Which is always a bad sign.
Let me know if you’ve ever had your memory play tricks on you when rereading. By which I mean, you start to remember details that aren’t part of the book or story you are rereading.