Apprenticeship with Flaubert
Maupassant’s mother, Laure, was the sister of Alfred Le Poittevin, who had been a close friend of Gustave Flaubert, and she herself remained on affectionate terms with the novelist for the rest of his life. Laure sent her son to make Flaubert’s acquaintance at Croisset in 1867, and when he returned to Paris after the war, she asked Flaubert to keep an eye on him. This was the beginning of the apprenticeship that was the making of Maupassant the writer. Whenever Flaubert was staying in Paris, he used to invite Maupassant to lunch on Sundays, lecture him on prose style, and correct his youthful literary exercises. He also introduced him to some of the leading writers of the time, such as Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, Edmond Goncourt, and Henry James. “He’s my disciple and I love him like a son,” Flaubert said of Maupassant. It was a concise description of a twofold relationship: if Flaubert was the inspiration for Maupassant the writer, he also provided the child of a broken marriage with a foster father. Flaubert’s sudden and unexpected death in 1880 was a grievous blow to Maupassant.
Zola described the young Maupassant as a “terrific oarsman able to row fifty miles on the Seine in a single day for pleasure.” Maupassant was a passionate lover of the sea and of rivers, which accounts for the setting of much of his fiction and the prevalence in it of nautical imagery. In spite of his lack of enthusiasm for the bureaucracy, his years as a civil servant were the happiest of his life. He devoted much of his spare time to swimming and to boating expeditions on the Seine. One can see from a story like “Mouche” (1890; “Fly”) that the latter were more than merely boating expeditions and that the girls who accompanied Maupassant and his friends were usually prostitutes or prospective prostitutes. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the early years in Paris were the start of his phenomenal promiscuity.
When Maupassant was in his early 20s, he discovered that he was suffering from syphilis, one of the most frightening and widespread maladies of the age. The fact that his brother died at an early age of the same disease suggests that it might have been congenital. Maupassant was adamant in refusing to undergo treatment, with the result that the disease was to cast a deepening shadow over his mature years and was accentuated by neurasthenia, which had also afflicted his brother.
During his apprenticeship with Flaubert, Maupassant published one or two stories under a pseudonym in obscure provincial magazines. The turning point came in April 1880, the month before Flaubert’s death. Maupassant was one of six writers, led by Zola, who each contributed a short story on the Franco-German War to a volume called Les Soirées de Médan. Maupassant’s story, “Boule de suif” (“Ball of Fat”), was not only by far the best of the six, it is probably the finest story he ever wrote. In it, a prostitute traveling by coach is companionably treated by her fellow French passengers, who are anxious to share her provisions of food, but then a German officer stops the coach and refuses to let it proceed until he has possessed her; the other passengers induce her to satisfy him, and then ostracize her for the rest of the journey. “Boule de suif” epitomizes Maupassant’s style in its economy and balance.
Mature life and works
As soon as “Boule de suif” was published, Maupassant found himself in demand by newspapers. He left the ministry and spent the next two years writing articles for Le Gaulois and the Gil Blas. Many of his stories made their first appearance in the latter newspaper. The 10 years from 1880 to 1890 were remarkable for their productivity; he published some 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books, and his only volume of verse.
La Maison Tellier (1881; “The Tellier House”), a book of short stories on various subjects, is typical of Maupassant’s achievement as a whole, both in his choice of themes and in his determination to present men and women objectively in the manifold aspects of life. His concern was with l’humble vérité—words which he chose as the subtitle to his novelUne Vie (1883; A Woman’s Life). This book, which sympathetically treats its heroine’s journey from innocent girlhood through the disillusionment of an unfortunate marriage and ends with her subsequent widowhood, records what Maupassant had observed as a child, the little dramas and daily preoccupations of ordinary people. He presents his characters dispassionately, foregoing any personal moral judgment on them but always noting the word, the gesture, or even the reticence that betrays each one’s essential personality, all the while enhancing the effect by describing the physical and social background against which his characters move. Concision, vigour, and the most rigorous economy are the characteristics of his art.
Collections of short stories and novels followed one another in quick succession until illness struck Maupassant down. Two years saw six new books of short stories: Mademoiselle Fifi (1883), Contes de la bécasse (1883; “Tales of the Goose”), Clair de lune, Les Soeurs Rondoli (“The Rondoli Sisters”), Yvette, and Miss Harriet (all 1884). The stories can be divided into groups: those dealing with the Franco-German War, the Norman peasantry, the bureaucracy, life on the banks of the Seine River, the emotional problems of the different social classes, and—somewhat ominously in a late story such as “Le Horla” (1887)—hallucination. Together, the stories present a comprehensive picture of French life from 1870 to 1890.
Maupassant’s most important full-length novels are Une Vie, Bel-Ami (1885; “Good Friend”), and Pierre et Jean (1888). Bel-Ami is drawn from the author’s observation of the world of sharp businessmen and cynical journalists in Paris, and it is a scathing satire on a society whose members let nothing stand in the way of their ambition to get rich quick. Bel-Ami, the amiable but amoral hero of the novel, has become a standard literary personification of an ambitious opportunist. Pierre et Jean is the tale of a man’s tragic jealousy of his half-brother, who is the child of their mother’s adultery.
Maupassant prospered from his best-sellers and maintained an apartment in Paris with an annex for clandestine meetings with women, a house at Étretat, a couple of residences on the Riviera, and several yachts. He began to travel in 1881, visiting French Africa and Italy, and in 1889 he paid his only visit to England. While lunching in a restaurant there as Henry James’s guest, he shocked his host profoundly by pointing to a woman at a neighbouring table and asking James to “get” her for him.
The French critic Paul Léautaud called Maupassant a “complete erotomaniac.” His extraordinary fascination with brothels and prostitution is reflected not only in “Boule de suif” but also in stories such as “La Maison Tellier.” It is significant, however, that as the successful writer became more closely acquainted with women of the nobility there was a change of angle in his fiction: a move from the peasantry to the upper classes, from the brothel to the boudoir. Maupassant’s later books of short stories include Toine (1886), Le Horla (1887), Le Rosier de Madame Husson (1888; “The Rose-Bush of Madame Husson”), and L’Inutile Beauté (1890; “The Useless Beauty”). Four more novels also appeared: Mont-Oriol (1887), on the financing of a fashionable watering place; Pierre et Jean; Fort comme la mort (1889; “As Strong as Death”); and Notre coeur (1890; “Our Heart”).
Although Maupassant appeared outwardly a sturdy, healthy, athletic man, his letters are full of lamentations about his health, particularly eye trouble and migraine headaches. With the passing of the years he had become more and more sombre. He had begun to travel for pleasure, but what had once been carefree and enjoyable holidays gradually changed, as a result of his mental state, into compulsive, symptomatic wanderings until he felt a constant need to be on the move.
A major family crisis occurred in 1888. Maupassant’s brother was a man of minimal intelligence—today one would call it arrested development—and could work at nothing more demanding than nursery gardening. In 1888 he suddenly became violently psychotic, and he died in an asylum in 1889. Maupassant was reduced to despair by his brother’s death; but though his grief was genuine, it cannot have been unconnected with his own advanced case of syphilis. On January 2, 1892, when he was staying near his mother, he tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat. Doctors were summoned, and his mother agreed reluctantly to his commitment. Two days later he was removed, according to some accounts in a straitjacket, to Dr. Blanche’s nursing home in Paris, where he died one month before his 43rd birthday.
Maupassant’s work is thoroughly realistic. His characters inhabit a world of material desires and sensual appetites in which lust, greed, and ambition are the driving forces, and any higher feelings are either absent or doomed to cruel disappointment. The tragic power of many of the stories derives from the fact that Maupassant presents his characters, poor people or rich bourgeois, as the victims of ironic necessity, crushed by a fate that they have dared to defy yet still struggling against it hopelessly.
Because so many of his later stories deal with madness, it has been suggested that Maupassant himself was already mentally disturbed when he wrote them. Yet these stories are perfectly well balanced and are characterized by a clarity of style that betrays no sign of mental disorder. The lucid purity of Maupassant’s French and the precision of his imagery are in fact the two features of his work that most account for its success.
By the second half of the 20th century, it was generally recognized that Maupassant’s popularity as a short-story writer had declined and that he was more widely read in the English-speaking countries than in France. This does not detract from his genuine achievement—the invention of a new, high-quality, commercial short story, which has something to offer to all classes of readers.Martin TurnellRené Dumesnil
Let’s talk about Guy de Maupassant, because he was born today in 1850 and because—why not? He’s Guy de Maupassant. As our own Lorin Stein wrote in 2010,
In a career that spanned barely a decade—the 1880s and early 1890s—Maupassant produced some 300 stories, 200 articles, three travel books, a collection of poems, three plays, and six novels, and the bulk of this production was consumed with the pursuit of illicit sex. His specialty was the conte leste, a kind of bawdy comic story we have very little of in English after Chaucer (think Boccaccio or The Arabian Nights). Maupassant modernized this tradition, testing the boundaries of what was permissible even in the Paris tabloids, where many of his stories first appeared. He was the best-selling writer of his generation.
Maupassant’s early story “Boule de Suif,” from 1880, remains a hallmark and a natural starting point. It’s about a prostitute whose refrain, like Bartleby’s, is that she would prefer not to—in this case, a Prussian officer asks repeatedly for the pleasure of her intimate company, and she invariably denies him. Unlike Bartleby, though, Boule de Suif must eventually give in, not by any defect of will but because of peer pressure.
This Prussian guy, you see, has detained her and several of her countrymen at a local inn. He’ll only allow the group to leave if Boule de Suif (or “Dumpling,” should that translation suit you, or “Butterball,” or most literally “Ball of Fat”) surrenders to his advances. And so her fellow travelers, all of whom disdain her for her occupation, find themselves begging her to succumb.
From this simple conceit, Maupassant wrings a whole novel’s supply of tragicomic tension. “Boule de Suif” is prototypical Maupassant: sexual but not psychosexual, a distinction that can seem counterintuitive after Freud and modernism. To quote Lorin again:
What most troubled and delighted Maupassant’s readers was his erotic identification with women. He saw them as sexual objects, and he saw himself as a sexual object … As he had it, even a genius couldn’t write about sensuality if he wasn’t inclined that way himself. The reverse held too. In the aesthetic battles of the day between the “psychological” and the “objective” novel, Maupassant took a hard objectivist line. For most of his career he was wary of looking too deeply into characters’ motivations. “The man who goes in for pure psychology can only substitute himself for all his characters,” Maupassant wrote, “for it is impossible for him to change his own organs, which are the only intermediaries between the outside world and ourselves.” Better, he thought, to report what people do and say, and say to themselves, than to ask what makes them tick.
And what a report we get in “Boule”—I read it a little less than a decade ago, and what stuck with me, more than any of the sexual politics, was Maupassant’s vivid descriptive powers. Surviving foremost in my mind was a paragraph about Cornudet, one of Boule de Suif’s companions—a total blowhard whose beard, I remembered, was the same color as the beer he liked to swill. I just revisited the passage and found it no less striking:
Then they took their places round a high soup tureen, from which issued an odor of cabbage. In spite of this coincidence, the supper was cheerful. The cider was good; the Loiseaus and the nuns drank it from motives of economy. The others ordered wine; Cornudet demanded beer. He had his own fashion of uncorking the bottle and making the beer foam, gazing at it as he inclined his glass and then raised it to a position between the lamp and his eye that he might judge of its color. When he drank, his great beard, which matched the color of his favorite beverage, seemed to tremble with affection; his eyes positively squinted in the endeavor not to lose sight of the beloved glass, and he looked for all the world as if he were fulfilling the only function for which he was born. He seemed to have established in his mind an affinity between the two great passions of his life—pale ale and revolution—and assuredly he could not taste the one without dreaming of the other.
It will come as no surprise, given the whiff of contempt emanating from those words, that Cornudet behaves like a complete prick in the story’s brutal conclusion, after Boule de Suif has done her duty. In a devastating, morose span of description, she finds herself shunned by the same crowd that urged her on, the same bunch whose liberation she’s secured. They’re all riding out on a stagecoach, and here comes Cornudet again:
Then Cornudet, who was digesting his eggs, stretched his long legs under the opposite seat, threw himself back, folded his arms, smiled like a man who had just thought of a good joke, and began to whistle the Marseillaise.
The faces of his neighbors clouded; the popular air evidently did not find favor with them; they grew nervous and irritable, and seemed ready to howl as a dog does at the sound of a barrel-organ. Cornudet saw the discomfort he was creating, and whistled the louder; sometimes he even hummed the words … and all the way to Dieppe, during the long, dreary hours of the journey, first in the gathering dusk, then in the thick darkness, raising his voice above the rumbling of the vehicle, Cornudet continued with fierce obstinacy his vengeful and monotonous whistling, forcing his weary and exasperated-hearers to follow the song from end to end, to recall every word of every line, as each was repeated over and over again with untiring persistency.
And Boule de Suif still wept, and sometimes a sob she could not restrain was heard in the darkness between two verses of the song.
A simple phrase like “digesting his eggs” conjures, in this sinister context, a mess of hideous gastrointestinal burbles. And how casually distressing to specify that Cornudet took the trouble to whistle more loudly against the noise of the coach, and that Boule de Suif’s sobs could be made out in the interstices.
Read all of “Boule de Suif” here, translated from the French.