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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Firmin Roz (1866–1957)
 
WHEN, after a volume of poetry, ‘Des Vers’ (Verses: 1880), Guy de Maupassant published in 1881 the famous story ‘Boule de Suif’ (Tallow-Ball), he was claimed by the naturalists; and Zola, in an enthusiastic article, introduced the author and the work to the public. It learned that the new-comer to the Soirées de Médan was a robust Norman, proud of his strength, skilled in physical exercises. During ten years, Gustave Flaubert, his godfather, had gradually and patiently taught him his profession of observer and writer. According to some, the pupil equaled the master. He certainly excelled a great number of those who claimed to be enrolled in their ranks.  1
  The document school was then in all its glory. It was the heroic time of the so-called realistic novel, composed of slices out of life; of the scientific and psychologic novel, in which the study of the passions, the conflicts of reason with instinct,—all the old-time psychology, in short,—was replaced by the organic dissection of the characters, atavism, the influence of environment and circumstances,—all determinism, in a word. In this examination of facts, hearts were neglected; and novels laboriously constructed according to the positivist method set forth by Zola in ‘Le Roman Experimental’—novels in which all must be explained and demonstrated, which attempted to reproduce the very movement of life—were sometimes as false and devoid of life as photographs, which exactly reproduce the details of a face without catching its expression.  2
  By temperament, by education, Guy de Maupassant was above all a realist. He had learned from Flaubert that anything is worthy of art when the artist knows how to fashion it. A country pharmacist, pretentious and commonplace (Bournisien in ‘Madame Bovary’), is no less interesting than a scholar, a poet, or a prince. The writer should not accord any preference to one or another of his heroes. His impartiality guarantees the sureness of his observation. His rôle is to express life simply and purely, without seeking its meaning, without choosing this or that form to the exclusion of some other. But if the vulgarity or even coarseness of the characters and environment, the crudeness of scene and language, aroused the curiosity of the public, and assisted the author’s success by winning admirations not always addressed perhaps to what was truly admirable,—the learned, the connoisseurs, were not deceived. They greeted him as a master writer, an unequaled story-teller, who in spite of Zola preserved the classic virtues—precision, clearness, art of composition—which are necessary to the novel, indispensable to the short story. This alone was enough to distinguish Maupassant from the Zolaists and the de Goncourtists, who were then swarming: his firm, alert prose is so profoundly French, free from neologisms, strong in verbs, sober in adjectives, every sentence standing out with no apparent effort, no excess, like a muscle in the perfect body of a young athlete.  3
  In less than twelve years Guy de Maupassant published ten collections of short stories and tales: ‘Mademoiselle Fifi,’ ‘Miss Harriett,’ ‘Au Soleil’ (In the Sunshine), ‘Les Sœurs Rondoli’ (The Sisters Rondoli), ‘Contes de la Bécasse,’ ‘M. Parent,’ ‘L’Inutile Beauté’ (Vain Beauty), etc.; and six novels: ‘Une Vie’ (A Life: 1883), ‘Mont-Oriol,’ ‘Bel-Ami’ (1885), ‘Pierre et Jean’ (Peter and John: 1888), ‘Fort comme la Mort’ (Strong as Death: 1889), ‘Notre Cœur’ (Our Heart: 1893). 1  4
  Guy de Maupassant’s place, then, is in the first rank of the realists, and nearer to Flaubert than to de Goncourt and Zola. For the purest expression of naturalism, one must seek him and his master. He has that sense of the real which so many naturalists lack, and which the care for exact detail does not replace. Beside the congealed works of that school his work lives, not as a representation of life but as life itself,—interior life expressed by exterior life, life of men and of animals, the complex and multiform life of the universe weighed down by eternal fatalities. And in the least little stories, most often far from gay,—between two phrases of Rachel Rondoli or of M. Parent; through evocation of a sky, a perfume, a landscape,—one experiences the disquiet of physical mysteries, the shudder of love or of death. This living realism is absolutely pure with Guy de Maupassant. There is no longer any trace of that romantic heredity which is still apparent with the author of ‘Salammbô’ and of ‘La Tentation de Saint Antoine.’ He was rarely even tempted toward the study and description of what are called the upper classes; or by the luxury which fascinated Balzac. His predilection for ordinary scenes and ordinary types is everywhere evident; he uses all kinds of settings,—a café, a furnished room, a farm-yard, seen in their actual character without poetic transfiguration, with all their vulgarity, their poverty, their ugliness. And he uses too all kinds of characters,—clerks, peasants of Normandy, petty bourgeois of Paris and of the country. They live the empty, tragic, or grotesque hours of their lives; are sometimes touching, sometimes odious; and never achieve greatness either in heroism or in wickedness.  5
  They are not gay, these stories; and the kind of amusement they afford is strongly mixed with irony, pity, and contempt. Gayety, whether brutal, frank, mocking, or delicate, never leaves this bitter taste in the heart. How pitiful in its folly, in its vanity, in its weakness, is the humanity which loves, weeps, or agitates in the tales of Maupassant! There, virtue if awkward is never recompensed, nor vice if skillful punished; mothers are not always saints, nor sons always grateful and respectful; the guilty are often ignorant of remorse. Then are these beings immoral? To tell the truth, they are guided by their instincts, by events, submissive to the laws of necessity, and apparently released by the author from all responsibility.  6
  Such is the individual humor of Guy de Maupassant,—a humor rarely joyous, without sparkling shocks of repartee; a humor tinged with bitterness and contempt, arising usually from the seriousness of ridiculous people and from the ridiculousness of serious people, and nearly always from the universal powerlessness to advance beyond mediocrity. And if Maupassant is cruel to his heroes, he would doubtless say that it is because life too is cruel, unjust, sad, deceiving; and that beauty, virtue, and happiness are only exceptions.  7
  Thence the pessimistic tendency of his work. Nothing shows this original pessimism—rough and lucid, emotional without lyricism—better than the novel ‘Une Vie.’ It is the story of a commonplace existence: the life of a country woman, married to a brutal and avaricious country squire, delivered from him through a neighbor’s vengeance, deceived by her son as well as by her husband, and fixing her obstinate hope upon the grandchild, who perhaps, if death does not liberate her in time, will add one supreme deception to all the others. This woman, who believes herself the victim of a special fatality, has against her nothing but the chance of a bad choice, and the weakness of her own tender spirit, incapable of struggle or action. She is good, pure, and perhaps more sympathetic than any other of Maupassant’s heroines. Her life is like many other lives, and doubtless the sadness which emanates from it widens to infinity.  8
  In the short stories, this pessimistic tendency grows finer and sharper so as sometimes to find expression in a tragic element. But with Maupassant the tragic is of very special essence, and not expressed in grand melodramatic effects or catastrophes as in romanticism. Nor does it consist in the classic debate between duty and passion. No, it consists rather in a wholly physical emotion, excited by the wretchedness of certain destinies, and evoking in its turn the mysterious menaces which hover over us. Disease, madness, death, are in ambush behind every door of our house; and no one has expressed better than Maupassant the terror of the being who feels their breath or sees them face to face. No one has felt with deeper sorrow behind this human misery, the frightful solitude of man among men; the black chasm which separates us from those whom we love; the impossibility of uniting two hearts or two thoughts; the slow succession of the little miseries of life; the fatal disorganization of a solitary existence whose dreams have vanished; and the reason of those tragic endings which only nervous, sensitive minds can understand.  9
  This enables us to grasp the very principle of Maupassant’s pessimism, and of this disorganization in which his clear and vigorous intellect foundered. Even his first volume, ‘Des Vers,’ showed this haunting thought of death, this sadness of the supersensitive soul harassed and unsatisfied, powerless to take pleasure in the joys which are scattered through the universe. In the two little poems ‘La Venus Rustique’ (The Country Venus) and ‘Au Bord de l’Eau’ (On the Water’s Brink), there is as it were an intoxication with life, which at first appears the sane and happy expression of a robust temperament, but which quickly ends in nostalgia and horror of nothingness. And here is the keynote to Maupassant’s sensualism: it is the frantic desire to concentrate in the senses of a single man all that the material world contains of delight,—colors, sounds, perfumes, beauty under all its forms; it is the adoration of matter, and it is the despair of a being crushed by the blind, implacable, and eternal divinity which it has chosen. What does feeling become in this pagan joy, this mother of pains and slaveries? It is easy to see: love is as fatal as death. It is a force of nature which we can neither control nor avoid, nor fix according to our wish; and its very nature explains the derangements of hearts, the betrayals, the jealousies, which deck it in fictitious sentimentality. Final conclusion:—our free will, our liberty, are illusions; and morality is suppressed at the same time that remorses, internal conflicts, duties are reduced to mere conventions useful to society.  10
  This is the principle of Maupassant’s pessimism. As is evident, it springs directly from his naturalism. His conception of art and his conception of life are closely allied. This pessimism became more and more accentuated from one work to another; from ‘Une Vie’ (1883) to ‘Notre Cœur’ (1892). But in the measure of the novelist’s more and more profound investigation of life, he imperceptibly and to a certain degree substituted psychological study for realism according to Flaubert’s formula. This evolution of Guy de Maupassant’s talent asserts itself in ‘Pierre et Jean’ (1888), and is still more clearly delineated in ‘Fort comme la Mort’ and ‘Notre Cœur.’ We are far away from the ‘Boule de Suifs’ and the like. His observation has become acuter, his language better shaded. There is a more flexible precision in the study of more delicate sentiments and of more complicated minds. Is not the love of the old painter Bertin for the daughter of the woman he has passionately loved an exceptional sentiment? It was a ticklish subject; and the author presented it very ably, without brutalities. We cannot help pitying the woman who feels herself growing old, the man who cherished in his friend’s daughter the young beauty of the mother whom he once loved. But the charming child is ignorant of the harm she is innocently doing. She marries, and the old painter bears his passion with him in death; while Madame de Guilleroy burns the old letters, their love letters, found in a drawer, and Olivier’s resigned agony is lighted up by the reflection of their blazing leaves.  11
  This novel was less successful than its predecessors. The ordinary public, who had enjoyed ‘Maître Hauchecorne’ and ‘Mademoiselle Fifi,’ thought that its author had been changed. It asserted that the success of the psychologic novel had fascinated Maupassant. Perhaps we should see in this new phase of his talent only a consequence of the modification which years and the events of his intimate life had little by little brought about. ‘Notre Cœur’ would confirm this view, It resembles an autobiography. It is the eternal misunderstanding between man and woman,—drawing near for an instant, never united, and never giving the same words the same meaning. What an exquisite charming face is that of Michelle de Burne! a costly flower blossoming after centuries of extreme civilization; a positive, gently egoistic being, in whom nothing is left of primitive woman except the need of dazzling others and of being adored. Simple sincere Elizabeth may console André Mariolle; but neither brilliant orchid nor humble daisy can replace or make the other forgotten. That is why André, uniting the two in a single bouquet, renounces the torturing dream of one only love. Thus Guy de Maupassant had been led by the progress of his observation and his analysis to penetrate into the intimate regions of the heart, where our most secret and most diverse sentiments hide, struggle, supplicate, and contend with each other. This progress of the novelist is natural. As his observation grows sharper and finer, it penetrates deeper; proceeds from faces to minds, and from gestures to feelings. Psychological analysis appears, and with it reflection. The mind falls back upon itself; the man returns to his own thoughts, his dreams, his emotions. He descends into his own heart, and irony becomes pity and tenderness. His art is perhaps more human.  12
  Neither ‘Fort comme la Mort’ nor ‘Notre Cœur,’ Guy de Maupassant’s last two novels, shows any trace of insanity. Yet when the world learned in 1893 that this terrible disease had seized the famous novelist, those who had read and studied his work were only half surprised. It was then some years since the reading of ‘Horla’ had made them anxious.  13
  What is ‘Horla’?—It is not a spirit, it is not a phantom of the imagination. It is not any kind of a creature either natural or supernatural. It is not even an illusion of sick senses, a hallucination of fever. No; it is something both more real and less real, less disquieting and more so: it is the unknown hostility surrounding one in the invisible. It is everywhere,—in the bed curtains, in the water pitcher, in the fire lighted to drive it from the house. Dream of a madman, whom the wing of insanity had brushed! Already in 1884, in the story entitled ‘Lui,’ there had been signs of this fear of fears, fear of the spasms of a wandering mind, fear of that horrible sensation of incomprehensible terror:—“I am afraid of the walls, of the furniture, of the familiar objects which seem to me to assume a kind of animal life. Above all I fear the horrible confusion of my thought, of my reason escaping, entangled and scattered by an invisible and mysterious anguish.”  14
  Sensuality, pessimism, obsession of nothingness, hallucinations of the strange,—these different states cruelly asserted their logical dependence in the intellectual history of Guy de Maupassant. The mind which had seemed so profoundly sane and free from any morbid germ became disordered, and then shattered entirely. The universe of forms, sounds, colors, and perfumes, to which he had so complaisantly surrendered himself, became uninhabitable. Perhaps it is necessary that in its attitude toward matter the mind should always retain a kind of distrust, and dominate it without yielding completely to its sorceries and enchantments. To this feast Maupassant had opened all his senses. The day came when he felt his ideas flying around him, he said, like butterflies. With his habitual grasp he still sought to seize them while they were already far from his empty brain. Guy de Maupassant died in 1893, when forty-three years old. His robust constitution could not resist the excessive expenditure of all his energies.  15
 
Note 1. Published by V. Havard in nine volumes; by Ollendorff in eight volumes. [back]
 
 
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