Pierre and Jean (Bell, 1902)/Guy de Maupassant
GUY DE MAUPASSANT
In the long portrait-gallery of men of letters there are many figures, including some of the most famous, which in one aspect, at any rate, have baffled the analysis of countless critics. The relation between the training of these writers and their art, between the lives they led and the work they did, between their surroundings and their message, remains untraced and obscure despite every effort of loving or malicious research. Thus, above all others, it is with Shakespeare; and thus it would remain if every fact of his daily existence were known to us. Thus, in differing degrees and for various reasons, it is with Cervantes and Swift, with Keats and with Heine. Others, on the contrary, stand out clearly as the best product of the particular set of circumstances grouped about their lives. They seem to be the finished result of a given up-bringing, of a precise tutelage, and of a chosen career. Of this second category Guy de Maupassant is a singularly complete example. Any difficulty in classifying his genius, or in estimating the permanency of his fame, arises from no mystery enshrouding his life or his work. The evolution of each is absolutely straightforward and coherent: he traversed no "caverns measureless to man" on his way to the sunless sea which engulfed him at last. Through his single volume of verse, through his six novels, through the multitude of his short stories and feuilletons, the succeeding phases of a not very eventful life can be unerringly traced, like the path of an explorer on a map. There are glimpses of his boyhood at Étretat and Yvetot, of his school-days at Rouen, of his brief service as a volunteer in 1870, of his clerkship at a public department in Paris. Then, still traceable in the stories, came a spell of life in the capital, first in a small lettered society, later in a wider circle of acquaintance. From time to time there was a little travel, quite insufficient to free him from national limitations, a great deal of rowing and sailing, and a taste of fashion on the Riviera. This was all; and amid the astonishing variety of incident found in his stories he never passed out-side these simple bounds. Other great writers, though not many, have refrained from describing what they have not themselves seen. Except for a few rather unsuccessful excursions into the supernatural and the unnatural, Maupassant very rarely touched any class of persons, or any order of subjects, which he did not know to the core. Whenever he broke this rule, his hand somewhat lost its cunning; he was completely at home only when he moulded and remoulded for the purposes of his art every fragment of personal experience, every scrap of confirmatory information and illustration. There were not many tints on his palette; but he blended them almost to perfection.
The form in which these experiences were given to the world was regulated by the bent of a strong animal nature, by early association with a peculiar rural society, and by his intimacy with Gustave Flaubert. Never perhaps in the history of letters did the relation of master and disciple dovetail more nicely than between Flaubert and Maupassant. It was not the outcome of a casual enthusiasm on one side, or of a blind favouritism on the other, but the development of an old family friendship into a close intellectual bond. Gamaliel's yoke was not easy. For six years, steadily guiding Maupassant's course of study and criticising its results, he forbade the publication of a single line. As his pupil had written verses furiously from the age of thirteen at latest, and did not publish a volume till he was thirty, Flaubert's curb was tightly applied. But Maupassant never ceased to be grateful to l'irréprochable maître que j'admire avant tous, and it is pretty evident that the elder man's literary influence was exercised almost entirely for good.
As a matter of course, Maupassant first tried his wings in verse. Flaubert, when recommending Des Vers to the good offices of his own publisher, wrote, "His verses are not tiresome, which is the prime consideration for the public, and he really is a poet, without any stars and dicky-birds." There certainly are no stars, and prudish readers might complain that there is a certain amount of mud. One or two of the poems merely celebrate facile amours: Fin d'amour and La dernière escapade are feuilletons in rhyme: Propos de rues is a sort of Horatian dialogue, and Venus Rustique, the most ambitious attempt, for which Flaubert had a word of praise, possesses some of the eerieness of Baudelaire, and might not have been disclaimed by Mr. Swinburne or Arthur O'Shaughnessy. But in the same year 1880, the plant which had been so long maturing, and which had been so rigidly pruned, bore its first real fruit in its true form of prose. The incomparable Boule de suif, which appeared with Zola's Attaque du Moulin and other episodes of the war by different hands in a volume styled Les Soirées de Medan, was at once hailed by the author of Madame Bovary as a veritable master-piece, in a verdict which nobody has wished to dispute.
Eight years later, in his well-known preface to Pierre et Jean, Maupassant expounded his opinions on the writing of stories. It is a somewhat ragged piece of criticism in itself, but necessarily interesting, and demands a word here. What, he asks, are the set rules for writing a novel? The answer is simple: there are no such rules. A story can only be a personal conception, transfigured by its author into his personal realisation of a work of art. As Mr. Kipling puts it:
"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays. And every single one of them is right!"
The artist, then, says Maupassant, is in a sense the slave of his personality; he must write as he can, not as he would. Romantic or realist, he must follow his bent. The goal, therefore, of training such as Maupassant's own is not the attainment of an absolutely best method, but the discovery of the special subject and the scheme of treatment which are most in harmony with the writer's mind. As Louis Bouilhet, another early adviser, used to remind him, an output of a hundred lines is enough to stamp a man as an artist, if they are the hundred which express his essence of originality. But if no rules exist, is there no preferable plan of writing? Yes, Maupassant replies, there is. The "objective" method on the whole gives the happiest results, when the writer, having formed his private conception of a character, decides what action is the inevitable result, in a given situation, of that character's state of mind. On the other hand, the analytical writer pure and simple, who sets himself to explain why his character acts as he does, is brought up short, so to speak, by his ego, which forbids him to do more than guess at the working of a mind alien to his own. Thus, by the exercise of intense and untiring observation it is possible to conclude how a man of well-defined general type, such as a strong sensualist, a weak amourist, an ascetic, will probably act in the situation created for him. But since no writer can himself be all these three men, his analysis will often be at fault when he attempts to trace the mental processes of his opposite.
Nevertheless Maupassant admitted that admirable work might be done on these lines—as indeed on many others; and though most of his writing was based on objectivity (a dreadful word, as he says), he by no means neglected the formal analysis of character. Pierre et Jean itself is to a great extent a psychological story; Notre Cœur is nothing else, and one or two of the short sketches, such as L'Inutile beauté, are designed on a similar principle.
Maupassant no doubt believed that the "objective" novel found its best modern expression in Madame Bovary, that unforgettable work which, like the Lyrical Ballads and Waverley, lives by the double title of intrinsic merit and of the interest attaching to a literary revolution. Flaubert pointed out the road, Maupassant rarely quitted it; but his claim to be numbered among great writers is enforced by the fact that from the first he never slavishly imitated his master's gait, or paused, so to speak, at the same wayside inns. Of the six novels, the first, Une Vie, which appeared in 1883, naturally shows the most direct stamp of Flaubert's influence, in its gray pessimism and its uniformity of background. It is the life-history of a girl belonging to the petite noblesse, the only child of kind and rather foolish parents, married early to a worthless vicomte, who turns out to be a stingy profligate. After a very brief love-dream she finds herself deceived and outraged, and is tragically left a widow with one son. This child of tears proves as weak and reckless as his father, being extravagant besides. The book ends leaving Jeanne, the much-tried heroine, realizing an afterglow of tenderness in the care of his child by a dead mistress who has robbed her of his love and helped him to ruin the old home. It would be difficult to name a more depressing book, but the whole workmanship is admirable, the local colour is faultless, and the characters are alive. The only blot on the story, as a story, is the vengeance of a rather melodramatic husband on the vicomte, by machinery which Maupassant borrowed from an early short story of his own, and which is scarcely worthy of him. Une Vie is not fitted for what is called family reading, but it is difficult to see why the Bibliothéque des Chemins de Fer should have refused to sell it in a country where the extravagances of M. Catulle Mendès and M. Octave Mirbeau can be had for the asking. A boycott of this kind is, however, an excellent advertisement, as Flaubert found in the case of Madame Bovary; though a threatened prosecution of Maupassant, on account of some verses printed in a country newspaper, might have had graver consequences, owing to their author's official position.
Three of the remaining novels treat of different phases of life in Paris. Bel-Ami depicts the glorious ascent of M. Georges Duroy, scamp, coward, liar, and blackmailer, from ancien sous-off. of hussars to courted journalist and bridegroom of an heiress. Fort comme La Mort and Notre Cœur are concerned with a quieter society in the capital. The scene of Pierre et Jean, in some ways the most perfect of his writings, is laid at Havre; while Mont-Oriol, a very clever and observant story, which yet displays here and there a certain flagging in Maupassant's wonderful gift of amusement, dissects the heart of M. Andermatt's wife, and the financial operations of M. Andermatt himself in creating his new watering-place in Auvergne.
Remarkable as the novels are, both in style and construction, the popular estimate is probably not far wrong when it attaches even greater importance to the short stories. It would be untrue to say of Maupassant, as might be said of two very distinguished living writers, English and American, that his genius, so far as prose is concerned, found in the short story its only outlet for dramatic expression. But the fact remains that while some of his contemporaries produced novels of a class certainly equal, and some might say superior, to his, in the briefer form of composition he was unapproached. These stories were collected from time to time between 1881 and 1890 in sixteen volumes, which include, however, a few duplicates. Since his death one or two more have appeared, containing, with some fresh matter, interesting early drafts of sketches afterward worked up, or used as episodes in the longer books.
The tales divide themselves into two distinct classes, short stories, properly so called, and sketches and feuilletons. Of the short stories Boule de Suif was the first, and not the least striking. Something must be said later of Maupassant's choice of subjects, but setting this aside, it may be questioned if fifty pages were ever more cleverly filled. The economy and clearness of description, the sharp characterization, the whimsical pathos and the scorching satire, place this first-fruit of genius almost above criticism. It is hardly necessary to repeat that it is a late episode of the War of 1870, from which no Frenchman or Frenchwoman emerges with credit, except for such left-handed honours as attach to the poor heroine. It says much for the French sense of humour, that irony which so ingeniously pierces all classes in civil life was not only forgiven but enjoyed.
The list also includes La Maison Tellier, with its extraordinary theme, its roistering humour, and its strange touches of humanity; L'Héritage, the outcome of Maupassant's official career, a master-piece of irony and portraiture; Yvette, a rather brutal story, which would have fared better in the hands of Alphonse Daudet; and Monsieur Parent, a most masterly study of middle-class infidelity in Paris. All these exhibit much of their author's very finest work. Never did he "find himself" more completely; the tool fitted exactly to his hand, and the material shaped itself at his bidding.
It is impossible here to attempt any formal classification of Maupassant's other stories, which are of all lengths from eight or ten pages, and even less. But in discussing their character, it is convenient to group them in a rough arrangement. Foremost, as inspired with perhaps the most enduring quality, come the Norman tales of farm and peasant life. Maupassant's annexation of the province is as complete as Mr. Hardy's of Wessex. Himself sprung from a race of Norman squires, it happened that his mother followed with particular interest the simple, if often eccentric, annals of their humbler compatriots, and never tired of discussing them with her son. He was something of a sportsman, too; and in France shooting brings different classes into closer contact than it does here. Thus equipped, he produced some twenty tales, chiefly "objective," founded on the nicest observation and saturated with local feeling. Their rigid truth is that of an affidavit; there is no extenuation and no malice; the shrewdness, the parsimony, the sordid brutality, the simplicity, the faithful devotion of his different types are recorded with unsparing frankness, and without the slightest attempt to point a moral. Such portraits as those of the adopted son in Aux Champs, of the supplanted child in Le Père Amable, of Hautôt Père et Fils, stick closely to the memory. The story of the Fille de Ferme is not unworthy of Turgenev. Such studies of manners as Farce Normande, Le Baptême, and the very characteristic La Martine speak for themselves with their spacious breeziness, and their fidelity to fact, which, like that of the great Russian novelists, convinces those who have no means of testing it. It is a great merit, too (would that some of our writers on mœurs de province could claim it!), that the dialect, depending largely on astounding elisions, is neither so frequent nor so obscure as to puzzle or distract the reader. The following excerpt from La Martine is typical. It describes the awakening of a rustic lover. Benoist had known La Martine all his life, but only realized her charms one Sunday morning, walking home from church.
"'Nom d'un nom,' he said to himself, 'that's a pretty girl all the same, La Martine.' He watched her walking, all at once beginning to admire her, and struck with a sort of longing. He had no need to see her face again—no. He kept his eyes fixed on her figure, repeating to himself, as though speaking aloud, 'Nom d'un nom, that's a pretty girl.' . . . When he reached home, dinner was on the table. He sat down opposite his mother, between the labourer and the farm-lad, while the maid went to draw the cider. He ate a few spoonfuls of broth, then pushed his plate away. His mother asked, 'Have you anything the matter?' 'No,' he answered, 'it's a turning-like in the stomach, which stops me fancying my victuals.' He watched the others eating, cutting from time to time a mouthful of bread, which he carried slowly to his lips, and went on chewing. He thought of La Martine, . . . 'all the same, that's a pretty girl.' And to think that he never noticed it before, and now it came on him like that, all of a sudden, and so upset him that he could not eat. He hardly touched the stew. 'Come, Benoist,' said his mother, 'make yourself eat a bit; it's off the neck of mutton; it'll do you good. When you've no fancy to eat, you must make yourself.' He swallowed a mouthful or two, then pushed his plate away again. No, it wouldn't go down, no mistake about it. When dinner was over, he went for a walk on the farm, and gave the lad a holiday, saying he would shift the beasts as he passed. On this day of rest the landscape was empty. Here and there in a clover-field the cows lay heavily stretched on their bellies, chewing the cud, in the full glare of the sun. Ploughs, without their teams, waited on the headland, and the upturned soil, ready for sowing, spread large brown squares amid the yellow fields where the stubble of the lately reaped oat and wheat harvest was now rotting. A rather dry autumn wind passed over the plain, foretelling a cool evening after sundown. Benoist sat on a dike, set his hat on his knees, as though needing the breeze on his forehead, and repeated out loud, in the silence of the country, ' That's a pretty girl, if ever there was one.'"
The slow process of the human ruminant could hardly be presented with greater simplicity and directness.
It is a rather singular fact that so far as Maupassant is popularly known in England, he is specially quoted as a master of the horrible and grotesque, a sort of French Edgar Poe. This belief, which seems to depend on a single story, Le Horla, is curiously ill-founded, and must be disproved. Maupassant only wrote four or five supernatural stories, and nine or ten relating to crime; and it may safely be said that except two powerful sketches, Le Vagabond and Le Diable, none of them rank among his best work. The vampire tale of Le Horla gained a quite factitious notoriety through its supposed bearing on the attack of general paralysis which so tragically closed its author's career. But on the testimony of his mother, Maupassant was perfectly well and cheerful when he wrote Le Horla. In any case it is not a very alarming fantasy, and it belongs rather to a class of semi-pathological studies, of which a word will be said later. La Peur has some good moments, especially when the ghost of the slain poacher is believed to be prowling round the lonely forest-lodge, and the keepers, the bravest of men as a rule, are half-maddened with terror. L Auberge, an Alpine scene, is a commonplace story enough. In fact, whether the subject relates to crime or to the unseen, we miss the deep authentic thrill which distinguishes such master-pieces of horror as Uncle Silas or Mr. Henry James' appalling Turn of the Screw. Little need be said of other stories which are really pathological studies, such as Qui Sait? which treats of a madman's grotesque illusion; Un Cas de Divorce, and one or two more of the same sort. La Petite Rogue, a longer tale, describes the atrocious crime of a previously reputable citizen, and contains at least one powerful situation. But the fact is that the grisly shapes which haunt the debatable land between the kingdoms of Vice and Crime and Madness can hardly be focused for purposes of artistic fiction. People curious in such arcana will be better advised to collect facts from "the intelligent police officer" in charge of an actual case, and pathology from a Charcot or a Crichton-Browne. Le Fou, which relates how a venerable judge was in reality a homicidal maniac, guilty of countless untraced murders, is only remarkable as affording perhaps the sole instance in which Maupassant, intending to be impressive, is positively ridiculous. Still the false notes are few, and this branch of the subject would have needed little notice, but for the accident of its undue prominence in this country, which is unjust to a great artist.
In his few war-sketches, and scenes of military life, Maupassant never again approached the excellence of Boule de Suif. The episode of Walter Schnaffs, the Prussian prisoner, is humorous and two-edged; but some more sombre stories of rustic vengeance on the invader, such as La Mére Sauvage, are rather strained and melodramatic in idea and handling.
The longest category, almost of course, includes stories concerned with love, or at any rate with sex. They are of every variety, scattered unconnectedly through the different volumes. Many are mere feuilletons, clever specimens of the ordinary Parisian pattern. Others, like Le Papa de Simon and L'Infirme, are delicate and altogether attractive pastels. There are deep notes of tragedy, as in Un Fils and the terrible La Femme de Paul. One or two, such as L'Ermite, and its counterpart Le Port, are outside the scope of art, and should join the erotomaniac monstrosities in a limbo of oblivion. But with these exceptions, or even without them, there is no story, however poor in substance or trivial in purpose, which does not exhibit Maupassant's wondrous deftness of touch and his genius for identification. Just as in the Norman series one shrewd stingy old farmer differs essentially from another, so these light ladies and Decameron-like lovers are no two of them cut from the same pattern. "When you pass a concierge smoking his pipe," said Flaubert, "show him to me in his own attitude and complete physical aspect—which, by the skill of your presentation, will at the same time indicate his whole moral nature—so that I may not confound him with any other concierge in the world." These observation-lessons were well learned, and became at last a second nature to the younger novelist.
In a critical survey of Maupassant's work it is impossible altogether to avoid mention of his attitude towards womankind and his handling of sex-relations. Without plunging into the eternal debate upon the deference due from art to morality, it is at any rate plausibly contended that a work of art may legitimately deal with subjects and problems of almost every kind, provided that they form an essential part of its main scheme, but not otherwise. The highest artists have touched many subjects unsuited to general discussion—even Southey, one of the Galahads of letters, asserted that "all the greatest of poets have had a spice of Pantagruelism in their composition, which I verily believe was essential to their greatness." On the other hand, impropriety, as a mere fringe or adornment to a work of art, is inadmissible. It remains to note how far Maupassant stands this not very puritanical test. Much of his best work bears it fairly; where there is grossness, it inheres in the subject. If Boule de Suif had been a plain and respectable daily governess, if La Maison Tellier had been a well-conducted drapery establishment, if the legacy in L'Héritage had depended on official promotion, it would have been a wiser world, but these particular stories could not have been written. This is an artistic if not an ethical justification for their existence, and is all their author would have claimed. In Fort comme La Mort Olivier Bertin falls madly in love with the daughter of the woman whose lover he had been. The book is a haunting tragedy, and is saved from offence by the gravity with which the dreadful dilemma is approached, and by the device of leaving the girl in ignorance throughout. Sophocles, after all, trod on still more questionable ground, and his works have not, as yet, been seized by the police. At the same time it would be affectation to pretend that Maupassant never sisports himself outside even these liberal bounds. Some of the shorter stories are no doubt grivois and very little else. It is an explanation, if not an excuse, that these were mostly written in haste, as pot-boilers; and a Paris pot-boiler is likely to be deflected from the path of austerity. The truth is that Maupassant's attitude as a writer towards the whole question is, as always, the outcome of his personality. There have been writers far less lax than their books, and others far less restrained; he himself was the gaillard exubérant, sensuel, violent, souleve par tous les désirs, described in his essay; and he had no idea of doing violence to his nature. For however little his point of view may be commended, it is at least absolutely natural. It has nothing in common with the leering salacities which disfigure the pages of many less virile writers; it is rather a manifestation of the esprit gaulois, akin to the Rabelaisian naturalisme, the cult of Physis, and having something in common with the prodigalities of Whitman. To Maupassant the existence of sex was almost the prime and paramount fact in the world. It beset his mind with a perpetual appeal, and therefore inevitably strikes the dominant note in his books. There is an odd simplicity, sometimes almost ludicrous, in his frank commiseration for those who by inclination or circumstance live otherwise. To him an elderly maiden aunt is a far more piteous spectacle than a blind beggar, for the latter, before he was a beggar and blind, may have known the joys of la noce, whereas the poor lady is past praying for. The fate of the vieille fille so haunts him that he can find no other comparison for the sterile and lonely moon, which has inspired so many. Those to whom this diathesis is distasteful must read something else; in summarizing it, one is tempted to parody De Quincey's famous topsy-turvydom, and to represent Maupassant as seriously warning the world that a man may begin by merely murdering a lawless couple in the interests of morality, but may proceed to a crusade on behalf of public decorum, and end by lapsing into the lowest depths of continence and celibacy. Of course a creed such as this could not fail to leave one side of life incomprehensible to him. An ascetic passion, the glow of renunciation, a maiden purity not based on ignorance, lay beyond the scope of his imagination, and all his admiration for a greater than himself, Turgenev, could never have enabled him to create a Helene or a Lisaveta Michailovna. Very different from these tender Russian master-pieces is Notre Cœr, a study of the human heart in the conventional sense of the word, and perhaps the most mature and careful of Maupassant's novels. André Mariolle, its leading gentleman, for hero he shall not be called, is that least attractive of creatures, a sentimental sensualist. The story of three hundred pages is entirely devoted to the relations between him and the fascinating widow Madame de Burne. The lady's character is drawn with amazing insight and consistency. She is a perfect egoist, who yet depends on affection for her joy of living; a creature incapable of passion, who yet submits to the tedium of encouraging passion in another sooner than lose him. Mariolle falls an easy victim, owing to his woeful inexperience from the Maupassant standpoint: "Son esprit inquiet . . . lavait préservé des passions. Quelques intrigues, deux courtes liaisons mortes dans l'ennui, et des amours payées rompues par degoût, rien de plus dans l'histoire de son âme." He is but a child in these matters. Later his partial disenchantment and efforts to escape are brilliantly told. He is like the Roman poet, "Juravi quoties rediturum ad limina nunquam; cum bene juravi, pes tamen ipse redit." The close of the story is very characteristic. Madame recovers her wanderer, apparently for good, but without knowing it shares him with a humble rival, a petite bonne. Thus, though Venus Victrix triumphs, the stupider sex avenges itself in its own way.
Maupassant has often been styled a pessimist, and many passages in this book and others could be cited in support of the contention. Perhaps, however, he is more strictly a fatalist, not so much disgusted with humanity, or disbelieving in its high hopes and noble impulses, as convinced of their general futility in a struggle against the pressure of nature and the grip of inexorable circumstance. His tragedy is thus rather of the Greek type, less concerned with the play of character than with the march of destiny. His depression, again, is of the sort that so often alternates with fits of high spirits in men of his nature. When he fairly lets himself go, no modern French novelist, except the creator of Tartarin, and scarcely any Englishman but Dickens, can be so absolutely rollicking. La Maison Tellier is one instance; and prudishness itself must relax when hearing how sadly the model youth of Gisors fell short of the standard proper to the winner of good Madame Husson's prix de vertut, or how quartermaster-sergeant Varajou, on a visit to his prim relations, unfortunately mistook the evening party of Monsieur le Premier President de Mortemain for an entirely different order of entertainment.
Another charge levelled at Maupassant is that of hardness and imperfect sympathy—"a way without tenderness," as Dickens said of Smollett. His limitations in a love-story have been indicated above, and it is worth while to consider how far the accusation can be sustained or refuted in other directions. It may at once be admitted that in these books delightful characters—a Parson Adams, an Uncle Toby, a Colonel Newcome—will be sought in vain. Nor are his heroines especially sympathetic. Jeanne in Une Vie has all the virtues, for once in a way, but is too entirely a victim to be at all adorable. On the other hand, it must be remembered that the scheme of some of the books positively excludes not merely admirable, but even likeable, personages. In Bel-Ami the excellence of the satire depends on the varied worthlessness of everybody; the whole tone is as unmoral as in one of Congreve's comedies. Or perhaps, as an exhibition of the purely practical conduct of life in its basest aspects, the book comes closer to Defoe than to any intervening novelist. As in Moll Flanders, there are no magnificent culprits, or deviations into even criminal sentiment. Mammon and Chemosh, not Lucifer, are the presiding deities. In a lesser degree the same may be said of Mont-Oriol, which appeared in 1887. But two years later M. F. Brunetière was able to write, "Last year we observed with pleasure the modification of M. de Maupassant's genius—the further he advances, the more humanity he displays." Certainly Pierre et Jean, which evoked this eulogy, is not lacking in profound pity and sympathy; though as always, the author, dreading the creation of a hero in the usual sense, exercises much restraint in drawing his principal character. There is nothing heroic in Pierre Roland, but fate deals him some hard buffets. In the following scene the son, whose younger brother has been left a fortune by an old friend of his mother's, fights against the conviction that there is something sinister about the legacy. It is an illustration alike of Maupassant's intense vividness, and of his art in analyzing a complex emotion. Pierre has wandered down to the harbour at night, and has been feverishly recalling the visits of the dead friend in old days—his manner to each of the boys—a half-forgotten portrait—a possible resemblance.
His misery at this thought was so intense that he uttered a groan, one of those brief moans wrung from the breast by a too intolerable pang. And immediately, as if it had heard him, as if it had understood and answered him, the fog-horn on the pier bellowed out close to him. Its voice, like that of a fiendish monster, more resonant than thunder—a savage and appalling roar contrived to drown the clamour of the wind and waves—spread through the darkness, across the sea, which was invisible under its shroud of fog. And again, through the mist, far and near, responsive cries went up to the night. They were terrifying, these calls given forth by the great blind steamships. Then all was silent once more. Pierre had opened his eyes and was looking about him, startled to find himself here, roused from his nightmare. "I am mad," thought he; "I suspect my mother." And a surge of love and emotion, of repentance and prayer and grief, welled up in his heart. His mother! Knowing her as he knew her, how could he ever have suspected her? Was not the soul, was not the life of this simple-minded, chaste, and loyal woman clearer than water? Could any one who had seen and known her ever think of her but as above suspicion? And he, her son, had doubted her! Oh, if he could but have taken her in his arms at that moment, how he would have kissed and caressed her, and gone on his knees to crave pardon!
Then the doubts rise again. His father is vulgar and unsympathetic; the friend was refined and charming. Look at the case in every way, the worst might easily be true, with comparatively little blame to her.
She had loved him. Why not? She was his mother. What then? Must a man be blind and stupid to the point of rejecting evidence because it concerns his mother? But did she give herself to him? Why yes, since this man had had no other love, since he had remained faithful to her when she was far away and growing old. Why yes, since he had left all his fortune to his son—their son! And Pierre started to his feet, quivering with such rage that he longed to kill some one. With his arm outstretched, his hand wide open, he wanted to hit, to bruise, to smash, to strangle! Whom? Every one; his father, his brother, the dead man, his mother!
To assert that a man who could write thus neither felt himself nor could make others feel, is palpably absurd. It would be difficult to find a more poignant passage, instinct not with pathos but with tragedy, in the fiction of any country or time.
The healthier side of Maupassant's strong nature developed itself in a love of outdoor pursuits. There is not a great deal of sport in the stories, and in one instance his natural history seems to be at fault. But his delight in scenery was physical rather than æsthetic. He compels us to see with his eyes the rather melancholy quietude of the wide Norman plains, the dreary marshes where the wild-fowl hide, and the silent depths of the woodlands. But scenery appealed to him most as a background for character or a field for exercise, and, so far as water was concerned, when he could not only look at it but row or sail upon it. The little sketch Sur L'Eau gives a marvellous picture of a misty moonlight night on the Seine; and the Mediterranean volume with the same title shows that the charm of the south could enter into his northern blood. The limitations of his genius, however, are obvious when he tries to describe not the sights and incidents but the reflections of travel. Au Soleil, for instance, fares badly beside such a book as M. Bourget's Sensations d'Italie. Maupassant, in fact, was no critic, and he was also one of the least cosmopolitan of writers. Where his compatriots are concerned, his abstention from caricature is remarkable; but his English are of the long-toothed and orange-whiskered variety dear to the café-concert, and either remain perpetually silent, or ejaculate "A' oh!" at fixed intervals. These are small matters, and a more possible Miss Harriet would have been dearly bought at any sacrifice of the intense nationality of the French types.
Maupassant had no evangel to announce, and would have indignantly disclaimed the imputation of a moral purpose. The world is therefore absolved from discussing his possible aims and motives. In the result, however, it may be found that his influence has not been more injurious than that of many writers more pretentiously moral. He may sometimes be corrupt, but he is not corrupting; weak minds are vitiated by "poisonous honey," but not by the crude acid which he pours into them. It seems, indeed, to be a case where vice loses some of its evil by retaining most of its grossness. Again, the honesty of his method enforces a lesson of its own. If the battle between good and evil is fought out as moralists say it is, if sin brings its own punishment in some shape or other, even in the form of impunity, the novelist's record, if really true to life, must be instructive. And surely this is so. The moral of a book like Fort comme La Mort is nowhere formulated, but it could not be more patent if it were presented in the leaves of a religious tract.
Enough has been said above of Maupassant's aim as an artist, but it must be added that he carefully withstood the besetting temptation of the realist, the endeavour to create an illusion of reality by the multiplication of trivial details. A certain resemblance to Defoe has been suggested; but the modern English writer nearest akin to Maupassant, in spite of obvious difference of outlook, is Anthony Trollope. This may sound like a paradox; but if the spirit of Wycherley had guided the pen for the author of the Barsetshire series and The Way We Live Now, the result would have been, not a Pierre et Jean, but something not much unlike Mont-Oriol. Phineas Finn, again, carefully considered, is a cleanly analogue of Bel-Ami.
It may be reckoned among Maupassant's minor merits that in one respect at least he always writes "like a gentleman at ease." He refrains from raptures over the mere apparatus of luxury and wealth, the Louis Seize furniture and the divine toilettes which lure some other novelists astray. His utter unconsciousness of the duties of authorship is also delightful: there are none of those windy appeals to the reader which irritate the most loyal devotees of Thackeray. On the other hand, a student might note one or two curious and exceptional longueurs. The engineering business in Mont-Oriol becomcs rather tiresome; and in Notre Cœr an irrelevant sculptor occupies several pages, only to show, apparently, that the would-be-clever ladies thought his conversation a bore—as possibly it was. The habit, too, of framing very short stories in a narration of the supposed circumstances under which they were told by a friend, is sometimes a little trying. Not much else can be said to depreciate the genius of this remarkable story-teller, artist doubled with Norman hobereau in a combination which never may recur.
A final paragraph may be devoted to Maupassant's style. It is presumptuous, perhaps, for a foreigner to offer any opinion, but it certainly seems that no modern writer has made more rational use of his splendid inheritance, the French language, that unrivalled medium of logical, epigrammatic and nervous expression. He himself has explained his simple principle. There is always one word, and one word only, to express a writer's full meaning, and that word has to be found. It is useless to attempt picturesqueness by using strange or obsolete terms; true originality and force come from the arrangement of plain and familiar words according to their exact value and rhythm. An admirable precept, for once in a way illustrated by its author's unvarying example. Guy de Maupassant will long be remembered as an extraordinarily skilful and original writer of stories: it should not be forgotten that nobody of his generation has done more to maintain the purity of the French tongue, which, as he said, flows through the centuries in a limpid current, into whose waters the archaisms and preciosities of succeeding generations are cast in vain.
- Dedication to Des Vers.
- Mr. Bret Harte died while this volume was in the press.
- C'est-i que t'es indispos?
- Efforce té un p'tieu
- A. Brisson, Portraits Intimes, 4th Series, p. 63.
- M. Paul Bourget has treated the same subject with exquisite skill in Le Fantôme.
- The sketch called L'Amour.