|Guy de Maupassant|
Poster by T.A.
A brief survey of the short story part 49:
Guy de Maupassant
His prolific output of sensational stories for the popular press should not obscure the incomparable art of his best workChris Power
Friday 24 May 2013 10.56 BST
"He is a better writer than you think," Malcolm Lowry once said of Guy de Maupassant. This comment, made to David Markson, indicates the conundrum Maupassant presents to readers. A hugely influential writer of short stories, the sheer mass of his extremely uneven body of work – 300 stories, 200 articles, six novels, two plays, and three travel books churned out between 1880 and 1891 – can obscure his genius like clouds around an alp. Yet while many of those 300 stories fail to rise beyond the anecdotal, nearly a quarter are very good, and within them stands a core of indisputable classics. It shouldn't be doubted that Maupassant is one of the most important short-story writers to have lived.
It was to the detriment of Maupassant's work – although not his bank balance – that his career coincided with a demand from French newspapers for stories of around 1-2,000 words. Jostling with news and faits divers, these stories were by necessity laconic and attention-grabbing, and Maupassant, whose severe economy was a model for Hemingway, had a great facility for producing them. The irony, however, is that Maupassant's best works are much longer. The spareness, learned in his youth from the poet Louis Bouilhet, is still there – as in the opening of "Hautot & Son" (1889), where, as Sean O'Faolain writes, "the scene is brilliantly and swiftly painted, with three lines for the countryside and six for the sportsmen" – but the stories' scope helps avoid the glibness that can mar his shorter work.
When Bouilhet died another family friend, Gustave Flaubert, took on Maupassant's literary education, counselling his impatient charge to hold off from publishing until he was ready (although from 1875 several stories crept into print under pseudonyms). The fruit of this long labour was "Boule de Suif", which Flaubert lived just long enough to read and proclaim a masterpiece.
Set during the Franco-Prussian war, the story's first few pages vividly depict a country being overrun, with "fat and flabby businessmen waiting anxiously for the conquerors to come", and the bodies of German soldiers being dragged from rivers, victims of "secret acts of vengeance". This tension between cowardly self-interest and resistance is the bass motif above which Maupassant composes a sour fugue of hypocrisy and cruelty, as a group of Rouennais notables exploit then shun the prostitute of the title, whose hospitality they had previously enjoyed.
The bleakness of "Boule de Suif" is typical of Maupassant, who considered life "brutal, incoherent, disjointed, full of inexplicable, illogical and contradictory disasters". He is fascinated by seamy details, describing lovemaking just so he can get to the dribble of saliva flowing from a lover's mouth the next morning ("A Parisian Affair", 1881), or envisioning a barroom as an expressionist horror: "They wriggled their bellies and shook their bosoms, spreading about them the powerful smell of female flesh in sweat. The males squatted like toads in front of them making faces and obscene gestures" ("Femme Fatale", 1881). Henry James, with a mixture of envy and distaste, noted that he "fixes a hard eye on some spot of human life, usually some dreary, ugly, shabby, sordid one, takes up the particle, and squeezes it either till it grimaces or bleeds." Sean O'Faolain considered no one spared: "We see the prostitute, the beastly peasant, the timid bourgeois, the civil servant – his favourite subjects – in an unpitying light that exposes their wrinkled faces, their painted gums, their frayed cuffs, their shifty eyes, their hearts that have dried like peas."
While all this squalor is as unmistakable as a septic wound waved under our noses, there are darker, deeper currents moving within Maupassant's work. When you read him in quantity, and marinate in his worldview, a more ingrained desolation become apparent. In a superficially comic scene from the 1881 story "Madame Tellier's Establishment", a group of "local worthies", distraught at finding the brothel closed, walk down to the shore:
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?'
Unable to lose themselves in carnality and frolics, the men must confront reality, which Maupassant presents as a yawning void filled with monotonous echoes. Through the shuttered streets of the town at their backs, meanwhile, roams a hostile pack of drunken sailors.
It is regrettable that Maupassant should be known less for indelible moments like this, and more for the twist or "trick" ending of "The Necklace" (1884), the final line of which arrives with the boom-tish of a club comedian's punchline. That story's great fame has had a distorting effect on the rest his work, abetted by every ignorant commentator – and there are plenty – who has identified it as typical.
Regardless of the inaccuracies that surround his reputation, Maupassant's influence is in reality so diffuse that there are few short-story writers of the past century who aren't in some way indebted to him. Often that influence is explicit. When the narrator of "Love", a short piece about a duck hunt, remarks that "[t]here is nothing that makes one more wary, more uneasy, nothing more frightening sometimes, than a swamp", the story develops an unexpectedly psychological dimension, immediately bringing to mind the swamp Nick Adams so sedulously avoids in Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River" ("In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it"). Aside from Hemingway,Henry James (whose "Paste" reworked the 1883 story "The Jewels"), Isaac Babel(one of whose greatest stories is simply titled "Guy de Maupassant"), Kate Chopin("Here was life, not fiction," she said of his work) and Raymond Carver (who used Maupassant's "Guillemot Rock" as the seed for "So Much Water So Close to Home"), all bear a strong and clear influence. In addition, the theme and execution of "Le Horla" (in its much superior long version of 1887) foreshadows the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft, while Maupassant's harsh naturalism fed into the work of Céline, who also shared his view that life lacks any intrinsic meaning.
It's certainly difficult to find much meaning in Maupassant's final years, which were as lurid as any plot he ever concocted. By 1885 he was suffering memory lapses and eye problems, and would sometimes see his double sitting at his desk. These were early symptoms of the syphilis he most probably contracted during his hedonistic twenties (a period he recreates in an unusually touching story of 1890, "Mouche"). By late 1891 he was convinced his brain was pouring from his nose and mouth, and thought his urine was made of diamonds. "My mind", he told a friend, "is following dark valleys". He slit his throat in Cannes on New Year's Day, 1892, and spent the last 18 months of his life in a Parisian asylum. "M Maupassant is reverting to the animal", his doctor wrote a few days before his death, aged 42. "Not very cheerful, is it?" as Monsieur Tournevau might say.
Translations from the stories are by Sîan Miles and Roger Colet.