BOOK REVIEW / Horror stories with heart: Simon Blow on Guy de Maupassant, who died 100 years ago next Tuesday
Saturday 03 July 1993
France, and in particular his native Normandy, has been celebrating his achievements. At Rouen there have been seminars, while restaurants in Paris and Normandy are feting his gourmand appetite with dishes that would have appealed to Georges Duroy, the pleasure-bent hero of Maupassant's most famous novel, Bel-Ami. Maupassant saw Duroy - nicknamed Bel-Ami (the Ladies Man) - as his alter ego. 'Bel-Ami, that's me,' he used to chuckle, echoing Flaubert's comment 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi'. But Bel-Ami is a ruthless seducer and deceiver of women who manipulates everyone to his advantage. So was Maupassant's pronouncement ironic, pessimistic, or just keen to shock? Did Maupassant, who certainly had the reputation of a lady-killer, really not give a damn for anyone?
He was born in 1850 into the Second Empire, with its dislike of any moral honesty: in 1857 Flaubert and Baudelaire were tried in court for corrupting public decency with Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal. Flaubert later took the boy Maupassant under his wing and encouraged him in the gentle art of bourgeois-baiting. They visited a brothel,and the young Guy, totally sex obsessed, needed no encouragement. Flaubert - who chastised himself for thoughts that might divert him from the muse - tried to hold his friend back, but endless counsels on the monastic role of the artist were not for Maupassant.
He could not, however, escape from his mother, Laure. Maupassant identified so strongly with her, and so little with his father, that he often could not believe he was his father's son. Gustave was constantly unfaithful, and could be violent - and when Guy was 11 Laure took the children to the fashionable Norman resort of Etretat. The violence went deep into Guy. 'Everything was different for me after that day,' he wrote. 'I had caught a glimpse of the other side of things, the bad side, and I haven't seen the good side since.'
Illegitimacy is a recurrent theme in Maupassant stories and, indeed, the dominant theme of his novel, Pierre and Jean. Here, in a harrowing account, Maupassant details the mounting jealousy of one brother towards another, which climaxes when Pierre discovers that Jean is his mother-in-law's child by another man.
Outwardly Maupassant was a jovial, muscular man who enjoyed a joke. This disguised the shy, nervous character whose view of the world was not to be glimpsed in outward jollity. The loss of his hair at 26 - he later regained it - was a sign that the syphylitic bacteria was lodged in him. It was an illness with remissions and no cure, and he preferred to deny its presence.
Maupassant was aware that some found his work to have the blackness of a hardened cynic. It drew a response. 'People doubtless think me to be one of those who are completely indifferent to the world. I am a sceptic, but that is not the same thing; I am a sceptic because I have clear eyes.' That Maupassant did give a damn is evident in too many stories. It is more likely that readers saw reflections of their own lives, and did not like it. Take Monsieur Parent in the story of that title, when he discovers his wife's cuckolding; or Miss Harriet, the English spinster who has her first awakenings of love at past 50 and cannot bear it. These are not stories for those with a weak stomach, but they are brimful of emotion.
Perhaps Maupassant was his own worst advocate, for he would throw out that he was 'un industriel des lettres', or, 'un marchand de prose' and give himself the reputation of being simply in it for gain. But it's true that he was prolific, earned vast sums and was able to live well. He kept a comfortable apartment in Paris, built a villa at Etretat, bought a house near Cannes, a yacht for cruising, and employed a faithful valet, Francois. He turned out between 1880 and 1890 an average of three volumes of stories a year, in addition to newspaper and magazine articles. It is amazing that going at such a pace - he wrote over 300 short stories and six novels - he did not damage his standards. The quality may not be even, but there is no trailing off. Some stories written immediately before the onset of madness - The Grove of Olives, for example - show powers as profound and disturbing as in the days of his finest work, Boule de Suif.
While he was being lionised in the salons of Paris, Maupassant was a sick man. He moved restlessly from Normandy to the South of France, to even warmer climates, in an attempt to cure severe headaches, rheumatism, and a paralysis in his eyes. In 1886 he published a horror story, Le Horla, about a man who cannot rid himself of an evil presence burning his house. The horror element was not strange in his writing, but the man's obsession with the spirit was. The final stage of syphilis is marked by paranoid delusions, and these were now working in Maupassant.
It was when he tried to cut his throat that Maupassant knew it was over. One week later he was in Dr Blanche's expensive sanatorium at Passy, a smart quartier of Paris (Laure insisted that the asylum be 'socially acceptable'). Before his incarceration, Maupassant was working on a novel, The Angelus, where a boy, crippled at birth because his mother has been kicked by Prussian soldiers, reproaches the Creator for making human beings he will then ruthlessly destroy. Others noticed the autobiographical content of the novel - his own diseased condition - when he read the tale out loud to a gathering of friends. 'And Maupassant wept,' wrote one friend, 'as he ended his recital, which had lasted two hours; and we wept too.'
Laure de Maupassant remained in the house near Antibes which Guy had bought for her while her son was suffering at Passy. She sat in a darkened room heavily dosed on laudanum and ether to calm her nerves. All the victimised women in his writing relate back to her. 'How she has been crushed, beaten, martyrised without mercy since her marriage]' he said. His first novel, Woman's Life (Une Vie) was her book. He did not question that his mother could be a fantasist, a liar and a snob. She would never admit that Guy had syphilis - he died of overwork, she always said. She was thinking of his reputation, the family name, and the sales of his books (the proceeds came to her).
But friends knew better. Visiting Maupassant at Passy shortly before his death, Edmond de Goncourt remarked: 'Maupassant is turning into an animal.' True enough. In the last six months syphilitics become completely deranged. Maupassant believed that his urine was diamonds, licked the walls of his roomt and howled like a dog. It was a relief when he fell into a coma in the last week of his life, thereby concluding the years of terrible torment to a very intelligent mind. He was buried in the cemetery of Montparnasse on 8 July and Emile Zola made the oration. The choice of Zola was fitting, since it was in the Zola-inspired publication, Les Soirees de Medan - a collection of fictions recording France's fated war with Prussia - that Boule de Suif first appeared. 'Maupassant will always remain one of the happiest, and one of the unhappiest men the world has ever known,' Zola concluded.
The estranged pair, Gustave and Laure de Maupassant, stayed away from the funeral for fear of gossip - the sort of primness their son so frequently teased in writing. But already Maupassant's comic talent for exposing the absurd was becoming the universal yardstick for bourgeois embarrassment. And although the price had been high, Maupassant's ultimate reward must be some compensation, at least, for his final tragedy. 'In the face of the demands imposed by the art of Maupassant, it is difficult to work,' said Chekhov, 'but we must work anyway.'
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