I’ve been re-reading Maupassant for my Guardian series on the short story (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/abriefsurveyoftheshortstory). This collection, translated by Roger Colet, contains ‘Madame Tellier’s Establishment’, perhaps his greatest story. As he was finishing it he wrote to his mother:
"I have almost finished my story about the brothel women at the First Communion. I think it is at least as good as Boule de Suif, if not better.”
Frank O’Connor wrote, with typical forthrightness, that it ”seems to me his real masterpiece and far, far superior to ‘Boule de Suif’”. My favourite moment in the story, which moves all over the emotional register from comedy to satire to existential terror, comes when the town worthies, denied an evening in the brothel, wander down to the harbour:
"The foam on the crest of the waves made bright patches of white in the darkness which disappeared as quickly as they came, and the monotonous sound of the sea breaking on the rocks echoed through the night all along the cliffs. After the melancholy party had stayed there for some time, Monsieur Tournevau remarked: ‘This isn’t very cheerful, is it?’"
From a moment of comedy, Maupassant plunges us into a scene from Beckett. These moments are what makes his writing so thrilling - and what makes it worth putting up with the unevenness of his prodigious body of work.
In writing about ‘Madame Tellier’s Establishment’ (‘The Tellier House’ in his translation), Frank O’Connor crystallises as well as anyone the difference between what a narrative (or non-narrative, for that matter) work of art is ‘about’, and what it might mean:
"A work of art, like a philosophical discussion, is not only something more than the point; it is by its very nature different from the point. The point of a short story belongs to the basic anecdote - the brothel closed “Because of First Communion” - and as far as the literary critic is concerned had better be smothered at birth. You do not exhaust “The Tellier House” when you have made the point that the most pious people at the First Communion service are prostitutes. You don’t even begin to touch it, because the surface of a great short story is like a sponge; it sucks up hundreds of impressions that have nothing whatever to do with the anecdote."
This seems to me as good a distinction as any between entertainment and art. Regardless of genre or medium, the distinction lies between a work that can still generate new meanings for a reader/viewer/listener who is familiar with it, and one the enjoyment of which is exhausted teh first time it’s experienced.