By: Dr Ratan Bhattacharjee
Guy de Maupassant penned his own epitaph: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.” He offered the intriguing picture of French life; his stories derive their enduring appeal from underrated artistry, extreme craftsmanship and the universality of his characters and their aspirations and misfortunes. He was the most celebrated French storyteller of the nineteenth century, Maupassant the master of the modern short story. Literary theorist Kornelije Kvas wrote that along “with Chekhov, Maupassant is the greatest master of the short story in world literature. He is not a naturalist like Zola; to him, physiological processes do not constitute the basis of human actions, although the influence of the environment is manifested in his prose. In many respects, Maupassant’s naturalism is Schopenhauerian anthropological pessimism, as he is often harsh and merciless when it comes to depicting human nature. He owes most to Flaubert, from whom he learned to use a concise and measured style and to establish a distance towards the object of narration.” In this insightful and compelling biography, the only one in English currently available, Christopher Lloyd situates Maupassant’s life and work in the literary and social context of nineteenth-century France. He skillfully introduces the reader to Maupassant’s most famous works, such as Boule de suif, Bel-Ami, and Pierre et Jean, as well as highlights the important stages and achievements of his life and legacy. William Saroyan wrote a short story about Maupassant in his 1971 book, Letters from 74 rue Taitbout or Don’t Go But If You Must Say Hello To Everybody. Henri-René-Albert-Guy de Maupassant was born on 5 August 1850 at the late 16th-century Château de Miromesnil, near Dieppe in the Seine-Inférieure (now Seine-Maritime) department in France. He was the first son of Laure Le Poittevin and Gustave de Maupassant, both from prosperous bourgeois families. His mother urged his father when they married in 1846 to obtain the right to use the particule or form “de Maupassant” instead of “Maupassant” as his family name, in order to indicate noble birth. Gustave Flaubert took him under his protection and acted as a kind of literary guardian to him, guiding his debut in journalism and literature. At Flaubert’s home, he met Émile Zola and the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, as well as many of the proponents of the realist and naturalist schools. Isaac Babel wrote a short story about him, “Guy de Maupassant.” It appears in The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel and in the story anthology You’ve Got To Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held Them in Awe.
Maupassant was a protégé of Gustave Flaubert and his stories are characterized by economy of style and efficient, seemingly effortless dénouements. Many are set during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s, describing the futility of war and the innocent civilians who, caught up in events beyond their control, are permanently changed by their experiences. He wrote 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books, and one volume of verse. His first published story, “Boule de Suif” (“The Dumpling”, 1880), is often considered his most famous work. From his early education he retained a marked hostility to religion, and to judge from verses composed around this time he deplored the ecclesiastical atmosphere, its ritual and discipline. He became a contributing editor to several leading newspapers such as Le Figaro, Gil Blas, Le Gaulois and l’Écho de Paris. The decade from 1880 to 1891 was the most fertile period of Maupassant’s life. Made famous by his first short story, he worked methodically and produced two or sometimes four volumes annually. His talent and practical business sense made him wealthy.
In 1881 he published his first volume of short stories under the title of La Maison Tellier; it reached its twelfth edition within two years. In 1883 he finished his first novel, Une Vie (translated into English as A Woman’s Life), 25,000 copies of which were sold in less than a year. His second novel, Bel-Ami, which came out in 1885, had thirty-seven printings in four months. He devoted his spare time to writing novels and short stories. In 1880 he published what is considered his first masterpiece, “Boule de Suif”, which met with instant and tremendous success. Flaubert characterized it as “a masterpiece that will endure.” This was Maupassant’s first piece of short fiction set during the Franco-Prussian War, and was followed by short stories such as “Deux Amis”, “Mother Savage”, and “Mademoiselle Fifi”. In 1880 he published what is considered his first masterpiece, “Boule de Suif”, which met with instant and tremendous success. Flaubert characterized it as “a masterpiece that will endure.” This was Maupassant’s first piece of short fiction set during the Franco-Prussian War, and was followed by short stories such as “Deux Amis”, “Mother Savage“, and “Mademoiselle Fifi”.
With a natural aversion to society, he loved retirement, solitude, and meditation. He travelled extensively in Algeria, Italy, England, Brittany, Sicily, Auvergne, and from each voyage brought back a new volume. Flaubert continued to act as his literary godfather. In his later years he developed a constant desire for solitude, an obsession for self-preservation, and a fear of death and paranoia of persecution caused by the syphilis he had contracted in his youth. It has been suggested that his brother, Hervé, also suffered from syphilis and the disease may have been congenital. On 2 January 1892, Maupassant tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat, and was committed to the private asylum of Esprit Blanche at Passy, in Paris, where he died 6 July 1893 from syphilis.
Maupassant delighted in clever plotting, and served as a model for Somerset Maugham and O. Henry in this respect. One of his famous short stories, “The Necklace“, was imitated with a twist by Maugham (“Mr Know-All”, “A String of Beads”). Henry James‘s “Paste” adapts another story of his with a similar title, “The Jewels”. Taking his cue from Balzac, Maupassant wrote comfortably in both the high-Realist and fantastic modes; stories and novels such as “L’Héritage” and Bel-Ami aim to recreate Third-Republic France in a realistic way, whereas many of the short stories (notably “Le Horla” and “Qui sait?”) describe apparently supernatural phenomena. The supernatural in Maupassant, however, is often implicitly a symptom of the protagonists’ troubled minds; Leo Tolstoy used Maupassant as the subject for one of his essays on art: The Works of Guy de Maupassant. His stories are second only to Shakespeare in their inspiration of movie adaptations with films Several of Maupassant’s short stories, including “La Peur” and “The Necklace”, were adapted as episodes of the 1986 Indian anthology television series Katha Sagar.
His career as a professional writer lasted only twelve years before it was brutally cut short by the dreadful consequences of untreatable syphilis: chronic sickness, a failed suicide attempt, insanity, paralysis, and death after eighteen months’ confinement in a clinic. Still he did not lose faith in life and love. “There is only one good thing in life, and that is love” – wrote Maupassant and it may be taken as a motto of his writing. (The author is an Associate Professor and Head of Post Graduate Dept of English Dum Dum Motijheel College and trilingual writer. He may be reached at email@example.com)