|Tuesday 09 August, 2000
Guy de Maupassant lived a short but highly productive life and his short stories and novels are still among the most widely read of French literature. One hundred and fifty years since his birth, Meridian Writing celebrates the life and work of one of the most significant French writers.
Guy de Maupassant was that rare thing - a writer who was successful in his own time, immensely popular, prosperous and feted by society. But he was never married, was haunted by illness and depression and died alone in a mental institute. He always longed to make literature his career, but the achievement of that ambition destroyed him. Though he was fond of jokes and shocking people, he was over sensitive and often despairing. He was, as his friend Emile Zola put it, ‘the happiest and unhappiest of men’.
The Young Maupassant
Maupassant grew up in his native Normandy. Though the Maupassant family was aristocratic, and Guy’s father didn’t need to work, they weren’t above petty snobberies. His mother’s claims that her son was born in the local chateau were later thought to be untrue when researchers discovered his birth certificate.
Underneath the solid family facade there were cracks. His father, Gustave, was a womaniser and his constant affairs led to a permanent separation from Guy’s mother, when the young Maupassant was 11 years old.
At school Maupassant was a good student and in 1869 he started to study law in Paris. However, by the age of 20 he had abandoned his studies to serve in the army during the Franco Prussian War. His letters from the field demonstrated to his parents a skill for writing and storytelling.
On his return, his mother introduced him to one of her friends who was to become a huge influence in Maupassant’s life. His lasting friendship with the author of Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert not only provided him with a father figure, but also encouraged his entry into the world of literature. Soon he was mixing with the leading writers of the day, among them Emile Zola, Ivan Turgenev and Henry James and, despite his boring daytime work as a civil servant, his leisure time was spent having fun and mixing with women of dubious reputation.
Of this time he wrote:
‘She was absolutely crazy into the bargain. She told us that she had been born with a glass of absinthe in her belly, which her mother had drunk just before giving birth to her and she had never sobered up since…Every week we would travel along the Seine with a load of five strapping, light-hearted fellows, steered by a lively scatter brained creature under a parasol of painted paper. We adored her, first for a variety of reasons and then for one in particular…’
In addition to having fun, Maupassant adhered to the words of his mentor and Flaubert counselled his disciple in his philosophy of writing. He advised his student to write of the things that he knew about and he was to disregard any ideas of making money from his art.
Maupassant did what he was told, but the strain of working by day, writing at night and coping with his mother’s stream of illnesses began to take its toll. In a letter to Flaubert he made his feelings of despair clear:
‘For three weeks I have been trying to work every night and haven’t been able to write a single page…nothing. The result is that I am gradually falling into a black depression and will have a hard time climbing out again.’
He was however suffering from more than a bout of melancholy. His symptoms included heart palpitations and skin problems and while his doctor diagnosed a rheumatic condition, Flaubert had other ideas:
‘Come my dear friend you seem badly worried. You could use your time more agreeably. I’ve come to suspect you have become something of a loafer with too many whores, too much rowing and too much exercise. Civilised man does not need as much locomotion as the doctors pretend.’
Flaubert’s diagnosis was more accurate than he may have realised, for Maupassant’s condition was indeed caused by the early stages of the sexually transmitted disease, syphilis.
Meanwhile, through Flaubert, Maupassant joined a group of writers, which included Emile Zola, and began calling themselves naturalists. Their aim was to show the life, suffering and exploitation of ordinary people and in 1880 they published an anthology entitled Soirés de Medan, which included Maupassant’s tale of a prostitute, nicknamed Boule De Suif (Ball Of Fat).
At that time the short story was a very popular form of literature and Maupasant’s work was well received, becoming a best seller almost over night. His ability to portray real people coupled with humour and candid sexuality won readers and throughout the 1880s he went on to create 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books and one volume of verse.
At the start of Maupassant’s success his mentor died. His work began to reflect his macabre thoughts and often took the forms of nightmarish stories and paranoid tales. His pessimism aside audiences loved the simple realism of his work and his success continued.
|His ability to portray real people coupled with humour and candid sexuality won readers |
Although Maupassant’s literary career probably only lasted for about ten years, he was extremely successful. He gave up his civil service work and whole heatedly pursued a career as a writer. With the success of Une Vie (A Woman’s Life) in 1883, his life became a round of luxury and sophistication. He travelled the world and maintained an apartment with a separate annex for clandestine meetings with women.
At this stage he was described as being in full health, which is compliant with the second stage of syphilis, and he took full advantage of the interest that society ladies afforded him. In his usual, naturalist style, his 1885 novel Bel Ami tells the story of the unscrupulous rogue, Georges Duroy, who moves from woman to woman in his scrabble for advantage in the cut-throat world of fin-de-siecle Paris.
By the later half of the 1880s, Maupassant's health was in decline. His friends began to remark on his unusual behaviour and his writing became shocking and, on occasion nothing short of outrageous. Maupassant had always had a taste for the macabre but, combined with his fears for himself, he now produced a series of disturbing stories such as Yvette, which detailed a bloody self abortion; Le Horla, presented a diary account of the narrator’s descent into madness and Pierre et Jean, a profile of two brothers was thought immoral as the hero is successful in his wrong doings.
Maupassant became increasingly sombre as the syphilis attacked his spinal chord. He became obsessed with the notion that there were flies devouring his brain and in January 1892 he attempted to shoot himself, when he failed he rammed a paper knife into his throat and was committed to an asylum the next day. He died some months later, a little before his 43rd birthday.
Following Maupassant’s death, his friend Emile Zola, accurately pin pointed his appeal:
‘If he was understood and loved from the first it was because the French soul found in him the gifts and qualities that have created its finest achievements. He was understood because he had clarity, simplicity, moderation and strength. He was loved because he possessed a laughing goodness; a profound satire which persists even through tears.’
| In The Family
|In 1888 Guy de Maupassant’s brother, Hervé, became violently psychotic and attempted to kill his wife. He was admitted to an asylum where he died in 1889. It has been suggested that Hervé, who was of limited intelligence, also suffered from syphilis therefore suggesting that the disease may have been congenital.