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"I entered literary life as a meteor, and I shall leave it like a thunderbolt." These words of Maupassant to José Maria de Heredia on the occasion of a memorable meeting are, in spite of their morbid solemnity, not an inexact summing up of the brief career during which, for ten years, the writer, by turns undaunted and sorrowful, with the fertility of a master hand produced poetry, novels, romances and travels, only to sink prematurely into the abyss of madness and death....
In the month of April, 1880, an article appeared in the "Le Gaulois" announcing the publication of the Soirées de Médan. It was signed by a name as yet unknown: Guy de Maupassant. After a juvenile diatribe against romanticism and a passionate attack on languorous literature, the writer extolled the study of real life, and announced the publication of the new work. It was picturesque and charming. In the quiet of evening, on an island in the Seine, beneath poplars instead of the Neapolitan cypresses dear to the friends of Boccaccio, amid the continuous murmur of the valley, and no longer to the sound of the Pyrennean streams that murmured a faint accompaniment to the tales of Marguerite's cavaliers, the master and his disciples took turns in narrating some striking or pathetic episode of the war. And the issue, in collaboration, of these tales in one volume, in which the master jostled elbows with his pupils, took on the appearance of a manifesto, the tone of a challenge, or the utterance of a creed.
In fact, however, the beginnings had been much more simple, and they had confined themselves, beneath the trees of Médan, to deciding on a general title for the work. Zola had contributed the manuscript of the "Attaque du Moulin," and it was at Maupassant's house that the five young men gave in their contributions. Each one read his story, Maupassant being the last. When he had finished Boule de Suif, with a spontaneous impulse, with an emotion they never forgot, filled with enthusiasm at this revelation, they all rose and, without superfluous words, acclaimed him as a master.
He undertook to write the article for the Gaulois and, in coöperation with his friends, he worded it in the terms with which we are familiar, amplifying and embellishing it, yielding to an inborn taste for mystification which his youth rendered excusable. The essential point, he said, is to "unmoor" criticism.
It was unmoored. The following day Wolff wrote a polemical dissertation in the Figaro and carried away his colleagues. The volume was a brilliant success, thanks to Boule de Suif. Despite the novelty, the honesty of effort, on the part of all, no mention was made of the other stories. Relegated to the second rank, they passed without notice. From his first battle, Maupassant was master of the field in literature.
At once the entire press took him up and said what was appropriate regarding the budding celebrity. Biographers and reporters sought information concerning his life. As it was very simple and perfectly straightforward, they resorted to invention. And thus it is that at the present day Maupassant appears to us like one of those ancient heroes whose origin and death are veiled in mystery.
I will not dwell on Guy de Maupassant's younger days. His relatives, his old friends, he himself, here and there in his works, have furnished us in their letters enough valuable revelations and touching remembrances of the years preceding his literary début. His worthy biographer, H. Édouard Maynial, after collecting intelligently all the writings, condensing and comparing them, has been able to give us some definite information regarding that early period.
I will simply recall that he was born on the 5th of August, 1850, near Dieppe, in the castle of Miromesnil which he describes in Une Vie....
Maupassant, like Flaubert, was a Norman, through his mother, and through his place of birth he belonged to that strange and adventurous race, whose heroic and long voyages on tramp trading ships he liked to recall. And just as the author of "Éducation sentimentale" seems to have inherited in the paternal line the shrewd realism of Champagne, so de Maupassant appears to have inherited from his Lorraine ancestors their indestructible discipline and cold lucidity.
His childhood was passed at Étretat, his beautiful childhood; it was there that his instincts were awakened in the unfoldment of his prehistoric soul. Years went by in an ecstasy of physical happiness. The delight of running at full speed through fields of gorse, the charm of voyages of discovery in hollows and ravines, games beneath the dark hedges, a passion for going to sea with the fishermen and, on nights when there was no moon, for dreaming on their boats of imaginary voyages.
Mme. de Maupassant, who had guided her son's early reading, and had gazed with him at the sublime spectacle of nature, put off as long as possible the hour of separation. One day, however, she had to take the child to the little seminary at Yvetot. Later, he became a student at the college at Rouen, and became a literary correspondent of Louis Bouilhet. It was at the latter's house on those Sundays in winter when the Norman rain drowned the sound of the bells and dashed against the window panes that the school boy learned to write poetry.
Vacation took the rhetorician back to the north of Normandy. Now it was shooting at Saint Julien-l'Hospitalier, across fields, bogs, and through the woods. From that time on he sealed his pact with the earth, and those "deep and delicate roots" which attached him to his native soil began to grow. It was of Normandy, broad, fresh and virile, that he would presently demand his inspiration, fervent and eager as a boy's love; it was in her that he would take refuge when, weary of life, he would implore a truce, or when he simply wished to work and revive his energies in old-time joys. It was at this time that was born in him that voluptuous love of the sea, which in later days could alone withdraw him from the world, calm him, console him.
In 1870 he lived in the country, then he came to Paris to live; for, the family fortunes having dwindled, he had to look for a position. For several years he was a clerk in the Ministry of Marine, where he turned over musty papers, in the uninteresting company of the clerks of the admiralty.
Then he went into the department of Public Instruction, where bureaucratic servility is less intolerable. The daily duties are certainly scarcely more onerous and he had as chiefs, or colleagues, Xavier Charmes and Leon Dierx, Henry Roujon and René Billotte, but his office looked out on a beautiful melancholy garden with immense plane trees around which black circles of crows gathered in winter.
Maupassant made two divisions of his spare hours, one for boating, and the other for literature. Every evening in spring, every free day, he ran down to the river whose mysterious current veiled in fog or sparkling in the sun called to him and bewitched him. In the islands in the Seine between Chatou and Port-Marly, on the banks of Sartrouville and Triel he was long noted among the population of boatmen, who have now vanished, for his unwearying biceps, his cynical gaiety of goodfellowship, his unfailing practical jokes, his broad witticisms. Sometimes he would row with frantic speed, free and joyous, through the glowing sunlight on the stream; sometimes, he would wander along the coast, questioning the sailors, chatting with the ravageurs, or junk gatherers, or stretched at full length amid the irises and tansy he would lie for hours watching the frail insects that play on the surface of the stream, water spiders, or white butterflies, dragon flies, chasing each other amid the willow leaves, or frogs asleep on the lily-pads.
The rest of his life was taken up by his work. Without ever becoming despondent, silent and persistent, he accumulated manuscripts, poetry, criticisms, plays, romances and novels. Every week he docilely submitted his work to the great Flaubert, the childhood friend of his mother and his uncle Alfred Le Poittevin. The master had consented to assist the young man, to reveal to him the secrets that make chefs-d'oeuvre immortal. It was he who compelled him to make copious research and to use direct observation and who inculcated in him a horror of vulgarity and a contempt for facility.
Maupassant himself tells us of those severe initiations in the Rue Murillo, or in the tent at Croisset; he has recalled the implacable didactics of his old master, his tender brutality, the paternal advice of his generous and candid heart. For seven years Flaubert slashed, pulverized, the awkward attempts of his pupil whose success remained uncertain.
Suddenly, in a flight of spontaneous perfection, he wrote Boule de Suif. His master's joy was great and overwhelming. He died two months later.
Until the end Maupassant remained illuminated by the reflection of the good, vanished giant, by that touching reflection that comes from the dead to those souls they have so profoundly stirred. The worship of Flaubert was a religion from which nothing could distract him, neither work, nor glory, nor slow moving waves, nor balmy nights.
At the end of his short life, while his mind was still clear, he wrote to a friend: "I am always thinking of my poor Flaubert, and I say to myself that I should like to die if I were sure that anyone would think of me in the same manner."
During these long years of his novitiate Maupassant had entered the social literary circles. He would remain silent, preoccupied; and if anyone, astonished at his silence, asked him about his plans he answered simply: "I am learning my trade." However, under the pseudonym of Guy de Valmont, he had sent some articles to the newspapers, and, later, with the approval and by the advice of Flaubert, he published, in the "République des Lettres," poems signed by his name.
These poems, overflowing with sensuality, where the hymn to the Earth describes the transports of physical possession, where the impatience of love expresses itself in loud melancholy appeals like the calls of animals in the spring nights, are valuable chiefly inasmuch as they reveal the creature of instinct, the fawn escaped from his native forests, that Maupassant was in his early youth. But they add nothing to his glory. They are the "rhymes of a prose writer" as Jules Lemaitre said. To mould the expression of his thought according to the strictest laws, and to "narrow it down" to some extent, such was his aim. Following the example of one of his comrades of Médan, being readily carried away by precision of style and the rhythm of sentences, by the imperious rule of the ballad, of the pantoum or the chant royal, Maupassant also desired to write in metrical lines. However, he never liked this collection that he often regretted having published. His encounters with prosody had left him with that monotonous weariness that the horseman and the fencer feel after a period in the riding school, or a bout with the foils.
Such, in very broad lines, is the story of Maupassant's literary apprenticeship.
The day following the publication of "Boule de Suif," his reputation began to grow rapidly. The quality of his story was unrivalled, but at the same time it must be acknowledged that there were some who, for the sake of discussion, desired to place a young reputation in opposition to the triumphant brutality of Zola.
From this time on, Maupassant, at the solicitation of the entire press, set to work and wrote story after story. His talent, free from all influences, his individuality, are not disputed for a moment. With a quick step, steady and alert, he advanced to fame, a fame of which he himself was not aware, but which was so universal, that no contemporary author during his life ever experienced the same. The "meteor" sent out its light and its rays were prolonged without limit, in article after article, volume on volume.
He was now rich and famous.... He is esteemed all the more as they believe him to be rich and happy. But they do not know that this young fellow with the sunburnt face, thick neck and salient muscles whom they invariably compare to a young bull at liberty, and whose love affairs they whisper, is ill, very ill. At the very moment that success came to him, the malady that never afterwards left him came also, and, seated motionless at his side, gazed at him with its threatening countenance. He suffered from terrible headaches, followed by nights of insomnia. He had nervous attacks, which he soothed with narcotics and anesthetics, which he used freely. His sight, which had troubled him at intervals, became affected, and a celebrated oculist spoke of abnormality, asymetry of the pupils. The famous young man trembled in secret and was haunted by all kinds of terrors.
The reader is charmed at the saneness of this revived art and yet, here and there, he is surprised to discover, amid descriptions of nature that are full of humanity, disquieting flights towards the supernatural, distressing conjurations, veiled at first, of the most commonplace, the most vertiginous shuddering fits of fear, as old as the world and as eternal as the unknown. But, instead of being alarmed, he thinks that the author must be gifted with infallible intuition to follow out thus the taints in his characters, even through their most dangerous mazes. The reader does not know that these hallucinations which he describes so minutely were experienced by Maupassant himself; he does not know that the fear is in himself, the anguish of fear "which is not caused by the presence of danger, or of inevitable death, but by certain abnormal conditions, by certain mysterious influences in presence of vague dangers," the "fear of fear, the dread of that horrible sensation of incomprehensible terror."
How can one explain these physical sufferings and this morbid distress that were known for some time to his intimates alone? Alas! the explanation is only too simple. All his life, consciously or unconsciously, Maupassant fought this malady, hidden as yet, which was latent in him.
Those who first saw Maupassant when the Contes de la Bécasse and Bel Ami were published were somewhat astonished at his appearance. He was solidly built, rather short and had a resolute, determined air, rather unpolished and without those distinguishing marks of intellect and social position. But his hands were delicate and supple, and beautiful shadows encircled his eyes.
He received visitors with the graciousness of the courteous head of a department, who resigns himself to listen to demands, allowing them to talk as he smiled faintly, and nonplussing them by his calmness.
How chilling was this first interview to young enthusiasts who had listened to Zola unfolding in lyric formula audacious methods, or to the soothing words of Daudet, who scattered with prodigality striking, thrilling ideas, picturesque outlines and brilliant synopses. Maupassant's remarks, in tętes-ŕ-tętes, as in general conversation, were usually current commonplaces and on ordinary time-worn topics. Convinced of the superfluousness of words, perhaps he confounded them all in the same category, placing the same estimate on a thought nobly expressed as on a sally of coarse wit. One would have thought so, to see the indifference with which he treated alike the chatter of the most decided mediocrities and the conversation of the noblest minds of the day. Not an avowal, not a confidence, that shed light on his life work. Parsimonious of all he observed, he never related a typical anecdote, or offered a suggestive remark. Praise, even, did not move him, and if by chance he became animated it was to tell some practical joke, some atelier hoaxes, as if he had given himself up to the pleasure of hoaxing and mystifying people.
He appeared besides to look upon art as a pastime, literature as an occupation useless at best, while he willingly relegated love to the performance of a function, and suspected the motives of the most meritorious actions.
Some say that this was the inborn basis of his personal psychology. I do not believe it. That he may have had a low estimate of humanity, that he may have mistrusted its disinterestedness, contested the quality of its virtue, is possible, even certain. But that he was not personally superior to his heroes I am unwilling to admit. And if I see in his attitude, as in his language, an evidence of his inveterate pessimism, I see in it also a method of protecting his secret thoughts from the curiosity of the vulgar.
Perhaps he overshot the mark. By dint of hearing morality, art and literature depreciated, and seeing him preoccupied with boating, and listening to his own accounts of love affairs which he did not always carry on in the highest class, many ended by seeing in him one of those terrible Normans who, all through his novels and stories, carouse and commit social crimes with such commanding assurance and such calm unmorality.
He was undoubtedly a Norman, and, according to those who knew him best, many of his traits of character show that atavism is not always an idle word....
To identify Maupassant with his characters is a gross error, but is not without precedent. We always like to trace the author in the hero of a romance, and to seek the actor beneath the disguise. No doubt, as Taine has said, "the works of an intelligence have not the intelligence alone for father and mother, but the whole personality of the man helps to produce them...."
That is why Maupassant himself says to us, "No, I have not the soul of a decadent, I cannot look within myself, and the effort I make to understand unknown souls is incessant, involuntary and dominant. It is not an effort; I experience a sort of overpowering sense of insight into all that surrounds me. I am impregnated with it, I yield to it, I submerge myself in these surrounding influences."
That is, properly speaking, the peculiarity of all great novelists. Who experiences this insight, this influence more than Balzac, or Flaubert, in Madame Bovary? And so with Maupassant, who, pen in hand, is the character he describes, with his passions, his hatreds, his vices and his virtues. He so incorporates himself in him that the author disappears, and we ask ourselves in vain what his own opinion is of what he has just told us. He has none possibly, or if he has he does not tell it.
This agrees admirably with the theory of impassivity in literature, so much in vogue when Maupassant became known. But despite that theory he is, if one understands him, quite other than
"A being without pity who contemplated suffering."
He has the deepest sympathy for the weak, for the victims of the deceptions of society, for the sufferings of the obscure. If the successful adventurer, Lesable, and the handsome Maze are the objects of his veiled irony, he maintains, or feels a sorrowful, though somewhat disdainful tenderness, for poor old Savon, the old copying clerk of the Ministry of Marine, who is the drudge of the office and whose colleagues laugh at him because his wife deceived him, sans espoir d'"heritage."
Why did Maupassant at the start win universal favor? It is because he had direct genius, the clear vision of a "primitive" (an artist of the pre-Renaissance). His materials were just those of a graduate who, having left college, has satisfied his curiosity. Grasping the simple and ingenious, but strong and appropriate tools that he himself has forged, he starts out in the forest of romance, and instead of being overcome by the enchantment of its mystery, he walks through it unfalteringly with a joyful step....
He was a minstrel. Offspring of a race, and not the inheritor of a formula, he narrated to his contemporaries, bewildered by the lyrical deformities of romanticism, stories of human beings, simple and logical, like those which formerly delighted our parents.
The French reader who wished to be amused was at once at home, on the same footing with him.... More spontaneous than the first troubadours, he banished from his writings abstract and general types, "romanticized" life itself, and not myths, those eternal legends that stray through the highways of the world.
Study closely these minstrels in recent works; read M. Joseph Bédier's beautiful work, Les Fabliaux, and you will see how, in Maupassant's prose, ancestors, whom he doubtless never knew, are brought to life.
The Minstrel feels neither anger nor sympathy; he neither censures, nor moralizes; for the self-satisfied Middle Ages cannot conceive the possibility of a different world. Brief, quick, he despises aims and methods, his only object is to entertain his auditors. Amusing and witty, he cares only for laughter and ridicule....
But Maupassant's stories are singularly different in character. In the nineteenth century the Gallic intellect had long since foundered amid vileness and debauchery. In the provinces the ancient humor had disappeared; one chattered still about nothing, but without point, without wit; "trifling" was over, as they call it in Champagne. The nauseating pabulum of the newspapers and low political intrigue had withered the French intellect, that delicate, rare intellect, the last traces of which fade away in the Alsatian stories of Erckman-Chatrian, in the Provençal tales of Alphonse Daudet, in the novels of Emile Pouvillon. Maupassant is not one of them. He knows nothing about humor, for he never found it in Life....
His ambition was not to make one laugh; he writes for the pleasure of recalling, without bias, what, to him, seems a halfway and dangerous truth.... In his pessimism, Maupassant despises the race, society, civilization and the world....
If Maupassant draws from anyone it is Schopenhauer and Herbert Spencer, of whom he often speaks, although one does not know if he studied them very deeply. In all his books, excepting, of course, in the case of lines from the great tragic poets, one finds only one credited reference, which in to Sir John Lubbock's work on ants, an extract from which is introduced into Yvette.
No one was less bookish than himself. He was a designer, and one of the greatest in literature. His heroes, little folk, artisans or rustics, bureaucrats or shopkeepers, prostitutes or rakes, he places them in faintly colored, but well-defined surroundings. And, immediately, the simplified landscape gives the keynote of the story.
In his descriptions he resists the temptation of asserting his personal view. He will not allow himself to see more of his landscape than his characters themselves see. He is also careful to avoid all refined terms and expressions, to introduce no element superior to the characters of his heroes.
He never makes inanimate nature intervene directly in human tribulations; she laughs at our joys and our sorrows.... Once, only, in one of his works, the trees join in the universal mourning--the great, sad beeches weep in autumn for the soul, the little soul, of la petite Roque.
And yet Maupassant adores this nature, the one thing that moves him.... But, in spite of this, he can control himself; the artist is aware of the danger to his narration should he indulge in the transports of a lover.
With an inborn perception, Maupassant at once seizes on the principal detail, the essential peculiarity that distinguishes a character and builds round it. He also, in the presentation of his character, assumes an authority that no writer, not even Balzac, ever equalled....
He traces what he sees with rapid strokes. His work is a vast collection of powerful sketches, synthetic draftings. Like all great artists, he was a simplifier; he knew how to "sacrifice" like the Egyptians and Greeks....
Thanks to his rapid methods the master "cinematographed," if I may use the word, inexhaustible stories. Among them, each person may find himself represented, the artist, the clerk, the thinker, and the non-commissioned officer.
Maupassant was always impatient to "realize" his observations. He might forget, and above all, the flower of the sensation might lose its perfume. In Une Vie he hastens to sum up his childhood's recollections. As for Bel Ami, he wrote it from day to day as he haunted the offices of Editors.
As for his style, it is limpid, accurate, easy and strongly marked, with a sound framework and having the suppleness of a living organism.
Very industrious and very careful at first, Maupassant, in the fever of production, became less careful. He early accustomed himself to composing in his mind. "Composition amuses me," he said, "when I am thinking it out, and not when I am writing it." ... Once he had thought out his novels or romances, he transcribed them hurriedly, almost mechanically. In his manuscripts, long pages follow each other without an erasure.
His language appears natural, easy, and at first sight seems spontaneous. But at the price of what effort was it not acquired! ...
In reality, in the writer, his sense of sight and smell were perfected, to the detriment of the sense of hearing which is not very musical. Repetitions, assonances, do not always shock Maupassant, who is sometimes insensible to quantity as he is to harmony. He does not "orchestrate," he has not inherited the "organ pipes" of Flaubert.
In his vocabulary there is no research; he never even requires a rare word....
Those whom Flaubert's great organ tones delighted, those whom Theophile Gautier's frescoes enchanted, were not satisfied, and accused Maupassant, somewhat harshly, of not being a "writer" in the highest sense of the term. The reproach is unmerited, for there is but one style.
But, on the other hand, it is difficult to admit, with an eminent academician that Maupassant must be a great writer, a classical writer, in fact, simply because he "had no style," a condition of perfection "in that form of literary art in which the personality of the author should not appear, in the romance, the story, and the drama."
A classic, Maupassant undoubtedly is, as the critic to whom I alluded has said, "through the simple aptness of his terms and his contempt for frivolous ornamentation."
He remains a great writer because, like Moličre, La Bruyčre, and La Fontaine, he is always close to nature, disdaining all studied rhetorical effect and all literary verbosity.
For applause and fame Maupassant cared nothing, and his proud contempt for Orders and Academies is well known.
In a letter to Marie Bashkirtseff he writes as follows:
"Everything in life is almost alike to me, men, women, events. This is my true confession of faith, and I may add what you may not believe, which is that I do not care any more for myself than I do for the rest. All is divided into ennui, comedy and misery. I am indifferent to everything. I pass two-thirds of my time in being terribly bored. I pass the third portion in writing sentences which I sell as dear as I can, regretting that I have to ply this abominable trade."
And in a later letter:
"I have no taste that I cannot get rid of at my pleasure, not a desire that I do not scoff at, not a hope that does not make me smile or laugh. I ask myself why I stir, why I go hither or thither, why I give myself the odious trouble of earning money, since it does not amuse me to spend it."
"As for me, I am incapable of really loving my art. I am too critical, I analyze it too much. I feel strongly how relative is the value of ideas, words, and even of the loftiest intelligences. I cannot help despising thought, it is so weak; and form, it is so imperfect. I really have, in an acute, incurable form, the sense of human impotence, and of effort which results in wretched approximations."
For nature, Maupassant had an ardent passion.... His whole being quivered when she bathed his forehead with her light ocean breeze. She, alone, knew how to rock and soothe him with her waves.
Never satisfied, he wished to see her under all aspects, and travelled incessantly, first in his native province, amid the meadows and waters of Normandy, then on the banks of the Seine along which he coasted, bending to the oar. Then Brittany with its beaches, where high waves rolled in beneath low and dreary skies, then Auvergne, with its scattered huts amid the sour grass, beneath rocks of basalt; and, finally, Corsica, Italy, Sicily, not with artistic enthusiasm, but simply to enjoy the delight of grand, pure outlines. Africa, the country of Salammbô, the desert, finally call him, and he breathes those distant odors borne on the slow winds; the sunlight inundates his body, "laves the dark corners of his soul." And he retains a troubled memory of the evenings in those warm climes, where the fragrance of plants and trees seems to take the place of air.
Maupassant's philosophy is as little complicated as his vision of humanity. His pessimism exceeds in its simplicity and depth that of all other realistic writers.
Still there are contradictions and not unimportant ones in him. The most striking is certainly his fear of Death. He sees it everywhere, it haunts him. He sees it on the horizon of landscapes, and it crosses his path on lonely roads. When it is not hovering over his head, it is circling round him as around Gustave Moreau's pale youth.... Can he, the determined materialist, really fear the stupor of eternal sleep, or the dispersion of the transient individuality? ...
Another contradiction. He who says that contact with the crowd "tortures his nerves," and who professes such contempt for mankind, yet considers solitude as one of the bitterest torments of existence. And he bewails the fact that he cannot live just for himself, "keep within himself that secret place of the ego, where none can enter."
"Alas!" said his master, "we are all in a desert." Nobody understands anyone else and "whatever we attempt, whatever be the impulse of our heart and the appeal of our lips, we shall always be alone!"
In this gehenna of death, in these nostalgias of the past, in these trances of eternal isolation, may we not find some relinquishing of his philosophy? Certainly not, for these contradictions accentuate all the more the pain of existence and become a new source of suffering.
In any case, Maupassant's pessimism becomes logical in terminating in pity, like that of Schopenhauer. I know that I am running foul of certain admirers of the author who do not see any pity in his work, and it is understood that he is pitiless. But examine his stories more closely and you will find it revealed in every page, provided you go to the very bottom of the subject. That is where it exists naturally, almost against the desire of the writer, who does not arouse pity, nor teach it.
And, again, if it remains concealed from so many readers, it is because it has nothing to do with the humanitarian pity retailed by rhetoricians. It is philosophical and haughty, detached from any "anthropocentric" characteristics. It is universal suffering that it covers. And to tell the truth, it is man, the hypocritical and cunning biped who has the least share in it. Maupassant is helpful to all those of his fellows who are tortured by physical suffering, social cruelty and the criminal dangers of life, but he pities them without caring for them, and his kindness makes distinctions.
On the other hand, the pessimist has all the tenderness of a Buddhist for animals, whom the gospels despise. When he pities the animals, who are worth more than ourselves, their executioners, when he pities the elementary existences, the plants and trees, those exquisite creations, he unbends and pours out his heart. The humbler the victim, the more generously does he espouse its suffering. His compassion is unbounded for all that lives in misery, that is buffeted about without understanding why, that "suffers and dies without a word." And if he mourned Miss Harriet, in this unaccustomed outburst of enthusiasm, it is because, like himself, the poor outcast cherished a similar love for "all things, all living beings."
Such appears to me to be Maupassant, the novelist, a story-teller, a writer, and a philosopher by turns. I will add one more trait; he was devoid of all spirit of criticism. When he essays to demolish a theory, one is amazed to find in this great, clear writer such lack of precision of thought, and such weak argument. He wrote the least eloquent and the most diffuse study of Flaubert, of "that old, dead master who had won his heart in a manner he could not explain." And, later, he shows the same weakness in setting forth, as in proving his theory, in his essay on the "Evolution of the Novel," in the introduction to Pierre et Jean.
On the other hand, he possesses, above many others, a power of creating, hidden and inborn, which he exercises almost unconsciously. Living, spontaneous and yet impassive he is the glorious agent of a mysterious function, through which he dominated literature and will continue to dominate it until the day when he desires to become literary.
He is as big as a tree. The author of "Contemporains" has written that Maupassant produced novels as an apple-tree yields apples. Never was a criticism more irrefutable.
On various occasions he was pleased with himself at the fertility that had developed in him amid those rich soils where a frenzy mounts to your brain through the senses of smell and sight. He even feels the influence of the seasons, and writes from Provence: "The sap is rising in me, it is true. The spring that I find just awakening here stirs all my plant nature, and causes me to produce those literary fruits that ripen in me, I know not how."
The "meteor" is at its apogee. All admire and glorify him. It is the period when Alexandre Dumas, fils, wrote to him thrice: "You are the only author whose books I await with impatience."
The day came, however, when this dominant impassivity became stirred, when the marble became flesh by contact with life and suffering. And the work of the romancer, begun by the novelist, became warm with a tenderness that is found for the first time in Mont Oriol....
But this sentimental outburst that astonished his admirers quickly dies down, for the following year, there appeared the sober Pierre et Jean, that admirable masterpiece of typical reality constructed with "human leaven," without any admixture of literary seasoning, or romantic combinations. The reader finds once more in his splendid integrity the master of yore.
But his heart has been touched, nevertheless. In the books that follow, his impassivity gives way like an edifice that has been slowly undermined. With an ever-growing emotion he relates under slight disguises all his physical distress, all the terrors of his mind and heart.
What is the secret of this evolution? The perusal of his works gives us a sufficient insight into it.
The Minstrel has been received in country houses; has been admitted to "the ladies' apartments." He has given up composing those hurried tales which made his fame, in order to construct beautiful romances of love and death.... The story teller has forsaken rustics and peasants, the comrades of the "Repues franches," for the nobility and the wealthy. He who formerly frequented Mme. Tellier's establishment now praises Michčle de Burne.
Ysolde replaces Macette. In "l'Ostel de Courtoisie," Maupassant cultivates the usual abstractions of the modern Round Table: Distinction and Moderation; Fervor and Delicacy. We see him inditing love sonnets and becoming a knight of chivalry. The apologist of brutal pleasures has become a devotee of the "culte de la Dame."
Everywhere he was sought after, fęted, petted.... But Maupassant never let himself be carried away by the tinsel of his prestige, nor the puerility of his enchantment. He despised at heart the puppets that moved about him as he had formerly despised his short stories and his petit bourgeois. "Ah," he cries, "I see them, their heads, their types, their hearts and their souls! What a clinic for a maker of books! The disgust with which this humanity inspires me makes me regret still more that I could not become what I should most have preferred--an Aristophanes, or a Rabelais." And he adds: "The world makes failures of all scientists, all artists, all intelligences that it monopolizes. It aborts all sincere sentiment by its manner of scattering our taste, our curiosity, our desire, the little spark of genius that burns in us."
Maupassant had to bend to the conditions of his new life. Being well bred, he respected, outwardly at least, the laws of artificiality and conventionality, and bowed before the idols of the cave he had entered....
If Maupassant never became the slave of worldly ideas, the creature of instinct that was part of his being acquired the refined tastes of the salons, and the manners of the highest civilization.
The novelist lived for some time in these enchanted and artificial surroundings, when, suddenly, his malady became aggravated. He was tortured by neuralgia, and by new mysterious darting pains. His suffering was so great that he longed to scream. At the same time, his unhappy heart became softened and he became singularly emotional. His early faculties were intensified and refined, and in the overtension of his nerves through suffering his perceptions broadened, and he gained new ideas of things. This nobler personality Maupassant owes to those sufferings dear to great souls of whom Daudet speaks. This is what he says:
"If I could ever tell all, I should utter all the unexplored, repressed and sad thoughts that I feel in the depths of my being. I feel them swelling and poisoning me as bile does some people. But if I could one day give them utterance they would perhaps evaporate, and I might no longer have anything but a light, joyful heart. Who can say? Thinking becomes an abominable torture when the brain is an open wound. I have so many wounds in my head that my ideas cannot stir without making me long to cry out. Why is it? Why is it? Dumas would say that my stomach is out of order. I believe, rather, that I have a poor, proud, shameful heart, that old human heart that people laugh at, but which is touched, and causes me suffering, and in my head as well; I have the mind of the Latin race, which is very worn out. And, again, there are days when I do not think thus, but when I suffer just the same; for I belong to the family of the thin-skinned. But then I do not tell it, I do not show it; I conceal it very well, I think. Without any doubt, I am thought to be one of the most indifferent men in the world. I am sceptical, which is not the same thing, sceptical because I am clear-sighted. And my eyes say to my heart, Hide yourself, old fellow, you are grotesque, and it hides itself."
This describes, in spite of reservation, the struggle between two conflicting minds, that of yesterday, and that of to-day. But this sensitiveness that Maupassant seeks to hide, is plain to all clear-seeing people.
He soon begins to be filled with regrets and forebodings. He has a desire to look into the unknown, and to search for the inexplicable. He feels in himself that something is undergoing destruction; he is at times haunted by the idea of a double. He divines that his malady is on guard, ready to pounce on him. He seeks to escape it, but on the mountains, as beside the sea, nature, formerly his refuge, now terrifies him.
Then his heart expands. All the sentiments that he once reviled, he now desires to experience. He now exalts in his books the passion of love, the passion of sacrifice, the passion of suffering; he extols self-sacrifice, devotion, the irresistible joy of ever giving oneself up more and more. The hour is late, the night is at hand; weary of suffering any longer, he hurriedly begs for tenderness and remembrance.
Occasionally, the Maupassant of former days protests against the bondage of his new personality; he complains that he no longer feels absolutely as formerly that he has no contact with anything in the world, that sweet, strong sensation that gives one strength. "How sensible I was," he says, "to wall myself round with indifference! If one did not feel, but only understand, without giving fragments of oneself to other beings! ... It is strange to suffer from the emptiness, the nothingness, of this life, when one is resigned, as I am, to nothingness. But, there, I cannot live without recollections, and recollections sadden me. I can have no hope, I know, but I feel obscurely and unceasingly the harm of this statement, and the regret that it should be so. And the attachments that I have in life act on my sensibility, which is too human, and not literary enough."
Maupassant's pity now takes a pathetic turn. He no longer despises, but holds out his hand to those unfortunates who, like himself, are tormented on the pathway without hope. The tears that he sees flow make him sad, and his heart bleeds at all the wounds he discovers. He does not inquire into the quality or origin of the misfortune. He sympathizes with all suffering; physical suffering, moral suffering, the suffering caused by treachery, the bitter twilight of wasted lives....
His mind has also become active. He desires to dabble in science. One day he studies the Arab mystics, Oriental legends, and the next, he studies the marine fauna, etc. His perceptions have never been so clear. His brain is in continual activity. "It is strange," he acknowledges, "what a different man I am becoming mentally from what I was formerly. I can see it as I watch myself thinking, discovering, and developing stories, weighing and analyzing the imaginary beings that float through my imagination. I take the same enjoyment in certain dreams, certain exaltations of mind, as I formerly took in rowing like mad in the sunlight."
For the first time, his assurance as a writer wavers. As his last volumes show, he is endeavoring to transform, to renew himself. He acquires a desire to learn the secrets of obscure and precious hearts, to visit unknown races. He has lost his magnificent serenity....
* * * * *
As his malady began to take a more definite form, he turned his steps towards the south, only visiting Paris to see his physicians and publishers. In the old port of Antibes beyond the causeway of Cannes, his yacht, Bel Ami, which he cherished as a brother, lay at anchor and awaited him. He took it to the white cities of the Genoese Gulf, towards the palm trees of Hyčres, or the red bay trees of Anthéor.
It was during one of these idle cruises on the open sea, outside of Agay and Saint-Raphael that he wrote "Sur l'Eau."
It was on the sacred sea of the old poets and philosophers, on the sea whose voice has rocked the thought of the world, that he cast into the shadow that long lament, so heartrending and sublime, that posterity will long shudder at the remembrance of it. The bitter strophes of this lament seem to be cadenced by the Mediterranean itself and to be in rhythm, like its melopoeia.
"Sur l'Eau" is the last Will and Testament, the general confession of Maupassant. To those who come after him he leaves the legacy of his highest thought; then he says farewell to all that he loved, to dreams, to starlit nights, and to the breath of roses. "Sur l'Eau" is the book of modern disenchantment, the faithful mirror of the latest pessimism. The journal written on board ship, disconnected and hasty, but so noble in its disorder, has taken a place forever beside Werther and René, Manfred and Oberman.
He had for a long time, to his sorrow, seen his health failing under the attacks of an obscure malady which left him with a sense of the diminution of his powers and a gradual clouding of his intellect. Symptoms of general paralysis set in, at first mistaken for neurotic disturbances. He changed greatly. Those who met him as I did, thin and shivering, on that rainy Sunday when they were celebrating the inauguration of Flaubert's monument at Rouen would scarcely have recognized him. I shall never forget, as long as I live, his face wasted by suffering, his large eyes with a distressed expression, which emitted dying gleams of protest against a cruel fate....
Maupassant retired to Cannes not far from his mother. He read medical books and, in spite of what they taught, persisted in attributing his sufferings to "rheumatism localized in the brain," contracted amid the fogs on the Seine....
Vainly he endeavored to work, he became gloomy and the idea of suicide impressed him more and more...
The months passed, however, and in June he was able to go to Divonne to take a cure. After a very characteristic attack of optimism, he suddenly appeared at Champel and astonished everyone by his frightful eccentricities. One evening, however, he felt better, and read to the poet Dorchain the beginning of his novel "The Angelus," which he declared would be his masterpiece. When he had finished, he wept. "And we wept also," writes Dorchain, "at seeing all that now remained of genius, of tenderness and pity in this soul that would never again be capable of expressing itself so as to impress other minds.... In his accent, in his language, in his tears, Maupassant had, I know not what, of a religious character, which exceeded his horror of life, and his sombre terror of annihilation."
At the end of September he again visited Cannes, but the fatal day predicted by the physician was at hand.
After several tragic weeks in which, from instinct, he made a desperate fight, on the 1st of January, 1892, he felt he was hopelessly vanquished, and in a moment of supreme clearness of intellect, like Gerard de Nerval, he attempted suicide. Less fortunate than the author of Sylvia, he was unsuccessful. But his mind, henceforth "indifferent to all unhappiness," had entered into eternal darkness.
He was taken back to Paris and placed in Dr. Meuriot's sanatorium, where, after eighteen months of mechanical existence, the "meteor" quietly passed away.
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