1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Maupassant, Henri René Albert Guy de
MAUPASSANT, HENRI RENE ALBERT GUY DE (1850-1893), French novelist and poet, was-born at the Chateau of Miromesnil in the department of Seine-Inférieure on the 5th August 1850. His grandfather, a landed proprietor of a good Lorraine family, owned an estate at Neuville-Champ-d'Oisel near Rouen, and bequeathed a moderate fortune to his son, a Paris stockbroker, who married Mademoiselle Laure Lepoitevin. Maupassant was educated at Yvetot and at the Rouen lycée. A copy of verses entitled Le Dieu eréateur, written during his year of philosophy, has been preserved and printed. He entered the ministry of marine, and was promoted by M. Bardoux to the Cabinet de l'Instruction publique. A pleasant legend says that, in a report by his official chief, Maupassant is mentioned as not reaching the standard of the department in the matter of style. He may very well have been an unsatisfactory clerk, as he divided his time between rowing expeditions and attending the literary gatherings at the house of Gustave Flaubert, who was not, as he is often alleged to be, connected with Maupassant by any blood tie. Flaubert was not his uncle, nor his cousin, nor even his godfather, but merely an old friend of Madame de Maupassant, whom he had known from childhood. At the literary meetings Maupassant seldom shared in the conversation. Upon those who met him-Tourgenieff, Alphonse Daudet, Catulle Mendes, José-Maria de Heredia and Emile Zola—he left the impression of a simple young athlete. Even Flaubert, to whom Maupassant submitted some sketches, was not greatly struck by their talent, though he encouraged the youth to persevere. Maupassant's first essay was a dramatic piece twice given at Etretat in 1873 before an audience which included Tourgenieff, Flaubert and Meilhac. In this indecorous performance, of which -nothing more is heard, Maupassant played the part of a woman. During the next seven years he served a severe apprenticeship to Flaubert, who by this time realized his pupil's exceptional gifts. In 1880 Maupassant published a volume of poems, Des Vers, against which the public prosecutor of Etampes took proceedings that were finally Withdrawn through the influence of the senator Cordier. From F laubert, who had himself been prosecuted for his first book, Madame Bovary, there came a letter congratulating the poeton the similarity between their first literary experiences. Des Vers is an extremely interesting experiment, which shows Maupassant to us still hesitating in his choice of amedium;but he recognized that it was not Wholly satisfactory, and that its chief deficiency-the absence of verbal melody-was fatal. Later in the same year he contributed to the Soirées de M édan, a collection of short stories by MM. Zola, ]'.-K. Huysmans, Henry Céard, Léon Hennique and Paul Alexis; and in Boule ole suif the young unknown author revealed himself to his amazed collaborators and to the public as an admirable writer of prose and a consummate master of the conte. There is perhaps no other instance in modern literary history of a writer beginning, as a fully equipped artist, with a genuine masterpiece. This early success was quickly followed by another. The volume entitled La Maison Tellier (1881) conhrmed the first impression, and vanquished even those who were repelled by the author's choice of subjects. In Mademoiselle Fi]i (1883) he repeated his previous triumphs as a conteur, and in this same year he, for the first time, attempted to write on a larger scale.. Choosing to portray the life of a blameless girl, unfortunate in her marriage, unfortunate in her son, consistently unfortunate in every circumstance of existence, he leaves her, ruined and prematurely old, clinging to the tragic hope, which time, as one feels, will belie, that she may find happiness in her grandson. This picture of an average woman undergoing the constant agony of disillusion Maupassant calls Une Vie (1883), and as in modern literature there is no finer example of cruel observation, so there is no saddcr book than this, while the effect of extreme truthfulness which it conveys justifies its sub-title-L'Humble vérité. Certain passages of Une Vie are of such a character that the sale of the volume at railway bookstalls was forbidden throughout France. The matter was brought before the chamber of deputies, with the result of drawing still more attention to the book, and of advertising the Contes de la bécasse (1883), a collection of stories as improper as they are clever. An soleil (1884), a book of travels which has the eminent qualities of lucid observation and exact description, was less read than Clair de lnne, Miss Harriet, Les Sceurs Rondoli and Yvette, all published in 1883-1884 when Maupassant's powers were at their highest level. Three further collections of short tales, entitled Contes et nonfvelles, Monsieur Parent, and Contes dn jour et de la nuit, issued in 1885, proved that while the author's Vision was as incomparable as ever, his fecundity had not improved his impeccable form. To 1885 also belongs an elaborate novel, Bel-ami, the cynical history of a particularly detestable, brutal scoundrel who makes his way in the world by, means of his handsome face. Maupassant is here no less vivid in realizing his literary men, financiers and frivolous women than in dealing with his favourite peasants, boors and servants, to whom he returned in Toine (1886) and in La Petite rogue (1886). About this time appeared the first symptoms of the malady which destroyed him; he wrote less, 'and though the novel M ont-Oriol (1887) shows him apparently in undiminished possession of his faculty, Le Horla (1887) suggests that he was already subject to alarming hallucinations. Restored to some extent by a sea-voyage, recorded in Sur l’eau (1888), he went back to short stories in Le Rosier de Madame Husson (1888), a burst of Rabelaisian humour equal to anything he had ever written. His novels Pierre et Jean (1888), Fort comme la mort (1889), and Notre Coeur (1890) are penetrating studies touched with a profounder sympathy than had hitherto distinguished him; and this softening into pity for the tragedy of life is deepened in some of the tales included in Inntile beauté (1890). One of these, Le Champ d'Oli'viers, is an unsurpassable example of poignant, emotional narrative. With La Vie errante (1890), a volume of travels, Maupassant's career practically closed. M usotte, a theatrical piece written in collaboration with M. Jacques Normand, was published in 1891. By this time inherited nervous maladies, aggravated by excessive physical exercises and by the imprudent use of drugs, had undermined his constitution. He began to take an interest in religious problems, and for a while made the Imitation his handbook; but his misanthropy deepened, and he sufiered from curious delusions as to his wealth and rank. A victim of general paralysis, of which La Folie des grandenrs was one of the symptoms, he drank the Waters at Aix-les-Bains during the summer of 1891, and retired to Cannes, where he purposed passing the winter. The singularities of conduct which had been observed at Aix-les-Bains grew more and more marked. Maupassant's reason slowly gave way. On the 6th of January 1892 he attempted suicide, and was removed to Paris, where he died in the most painful circumstances on the 6th of July 1893. He is buried in the cemetery of Montparnasse. The opening chapters of two projected novels, L'Angélus and L'Ame étrangere, were found among his papers; these, with La Paix du ménage, a comedy in two acts, and two collections of tales, Le Pere Milan (1898) and Le Colportenr (1899), have been published posthumously. A correspondence, called Amitie amoureuse (1897), and dedicated to his mother, is probably unauthentic. Among the prefaces which he wrote for the works of others, only onwan introduction to a French prose version of M1 Swinburne's Poems and Ballads-is likely to interest English readers.
Maupassant began as a follower of Flaubert and of M. A Zola, but, whatever the masters may have called themselves, they both remained essentially romantiqnes. The pupil is the last of the “ naturalists ”: he even destroyed naturalism, since he did all that can be done in that direction. He had no psychology, no theories of art, no moral or strong social prejudices, no disturbing imagination, no wealth of perplexing ideas. It is no paradox to say that his marked limitations made him the incomparable artist that he was. Undisturbed by any external influence, his marvellous vision enabled him to become a supreme observer, and, given his literary sense, the rest was simple. He prided himself in having no invention; he described nothing that he had not seen. The peasants whom he had known as a boy figure in a score of tales; what he saw in Government offices is set down in L'Héritage, ' from Algiers he gathers the material for M aroca; he drinks the waters and builds up Mont-Oriol; he enters journalism, constructs Bel-ami, and, for the sake of precision, makes his brother, Hewé de Maupassant, sit for the infamous hero's portrait;he sees fashionable society, and, though it wearied him intensely, he transcribes its life in Fort comme la mort and Notre czeur. Fundamentally he finds all men alike. In every grade he finds the same ferocious, cunning, animal instincts at work: it is not a gay world, but he knows no other; he is possessed by the dread of growing old, of ceasing to enjoy; the horror of death haunts him like a. spectre. It is an extremely simple outlook. Maupassant does not prefer good to bad, one man to another; he never pauses to argue about the meaning of life, a senseless thing which has the one advantage of yielding materials for art; his one aim is to discover the hidden aspect of visible things, to relate what he has observed, to give an objective rendering of it, and he has seen so intensely and so serenely that he is the most exact transcriber in literature. And as the substance is, so is the form: his style is exceedingly simple and exceedingly strong; he uses no rare or superfluous word, and is content to use the humblest word if only it conveys the exact picture of the thing seen. In ten years he produced some thirty volumes. With the exception of Pierre et Jean, his novels, excellent as they are, scarcely represent him at his best, and of over two hundred contes a proportion must be rejected. But enough will remain to vindicate his claim to a permanent place in literature as an unmatched observer and the most perfect master of the short story.
See also F. Brunetiere, Le Roman naturalist (1883);dJ. Lemaitre, Les Contemporains (vols. i. v. vi.); R. Doumic, Ecrivains 'aujourd'hui (1894); an introduction by Henry James to The Odd Number 1891); a critical preface by the, earl of Crewe to Pierre and Jean 1902); A. Symons, Studies in Prose and Verse (1904). There are many references to Maupassant in the Journal des Goncourt, and some correspondence with Marie Bashkirtself was printed with Further Memoirs of that lady in 1901.