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Inquiries And Opinions - A Note On Maupassant Post by :best4you Category :Nonfictions Author :Brander Matthews Date :May 2012 Read :3234

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Inquiries And Opinions - A Note On Maupassant

A student of the literature of our own time who has only recently completed his first half century of life cannot help feeling suddenly aged and almost antiquated when he awakes to the fact that he has been privileged to see the completed literary career of two such accomplished craftsmen as Robert Louis Stevenson and Guy de Maupassant. In youth they were full of promise, and in maturity they were rich in performance; and all too soon the lives of both came to an end, when their powers were still growing, when their outlook on life was still broadening, and when they bid fair, both of them, to bring forth many another book riper and wiser than any they had already given us.

The points of contrast between the two men thus untimely taken away are as striking as the points of similarity. Both were artists ardently in love with the technic of their craft, delighting in their own skill, and ever on the alert to find new occasion for the display of their mastery of the methods of fiction. Stevenson was a Scotchman; and his pseudo-friend has told us that there was in him something of "the shorter catechist." Maupassant was a Norman, and he had never given a thought to the glorifying of God. The man who wrote in English found the theme of his minor masterpieces in the conflict of which the battle-ground is the human heart. The man who wrote in French began by caring little or nothing for the heart or the soul or the mind, and by concentrating all his skill upon a record of the deeds of the human body. The one has left us 'Markheim' and the 'Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,' while the other made his first bid for fame with 'Boule de suif.'

In the preface of 'Pierre et Jean,' Maupassant has recorded how he acquired from Louis Bouilhet the belief that a single lyric, a scant hundred lines, would give immortality to a poet if only the work were fine enough, and that for the author who sought to escape oblivion there was only one course to pursue--to learn his trade thoroly, to master every secret of the craft, to do his best always, in the hope that some fortunate day the Muse would reward his unfailing devotion. And from Flaubert, the author of that merciless masterpiece 'Madame Bovary,' the young man learned the importance of individuality, of originality, of the personal note which should be all his own, and which should never suggest or recall any one else's. Flaubert was kindly and encouraging, but he was a desperately severe taskmaster. At Flaubert's dictation Maupassant gave up verse for prose; and for seven years he wrote incessantly and published nothing. The stories and tales and verses and dramas of those seven years of apprenticeship were ruthlessly criticized by the author of 'Salammbo,' and then they were destroyed unprinted. In all the long history of literature there is no record of any other author who served so severe a novitiate.

Douglas Jerrold once said of a certain British author who had begun to publish very young that "he had taken down the shutters before he had anything to put up in the shop window." From being transfixt by such a jibe Maupassant was preserved by Flaubert. When he was thirty he contributed that masterpiece of ironic humor 'Boule de suif,' to the 'Soirees de Medan,' a volume of short-stories put forth by the late Emile Zola, with the collaboration of a little group of his friends and followers. On this first appearance in the arena of letters Maupassant stept at once to a foremost place. That was in 1880; and in 1892 his mind gave way and he was taken to the asylum, where he soon died. In those twelve years he had published a dozen volumes of short-stories and half a dozen novels. Of the novel he might have made himself master in time; of the short-story he proved himself a master with the very earliest of all his tales.

It must be admitted at once that many of Maupassant's earlier short-stories have to do with the lower aspects of man's merely animal activity. Maupassant had an abundance of what the French themselves called "Gallic salt." His humor was not squeamish; it delighted in dealing with themes that our Anglo-Saxon prudery prefers not to touch. But even at the beginning this liking of his for the sort of thing that we who speak English prefer to avoid in print never led him to put dirt where dirt was not a necessary element of his narrative. Dirty many of these tales were, no doubt; but many of them were perfectly clean. He never went out of his way to offend, as not a few of his compatriots seem to enjoy doing. He handled whatever subject he took with the same absolute understanding of its value, of the precise treatment best suited to it. If it was a dirty theme he had chosen--and he had no prejudice against such a theme--he did whatever was needful to get the most out of his subject. If it was not a dirty theme, then there was never any touch of the tar-brush. Whenever the subject itself was inoffensive his treatment was also immaculate. There is never any difficulty in making a choice out of his hundred or two brief tales; and it is easy to pick out a dozen or a score of his short-stories needing absolutely no expurgation, because they are wholly free from any phrase or any suggestion likely to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of innocence. In matters of taste, as we Anglo-Saxons regard them, Maupassant was a man without prejudices. But he was a man also of immitigable veracity in his dealing with the material of his art, in his handling of life itself. He told the truth as it was given to him to see the truth; not the whole truth, of course, for it is given to no man to see that. His artistic standard was lofty; and he did his best not to lie about life. And in some ways this veracity of his may be accepted, if not as an equivalent for morality, at least as a not wholly unworthy substitute.

The most of Maupassant's earlier tales were not a little hard and stern and unsympathetic; and here again Maupassant was the disciple of Flaubert. His manner was not only unemotional at first, it was icily impassive. These first stories of his were cold and they were contemptuous;--at least they made the reader feel that the author heartily despised the pitiable and pitiful creatures he was depicting. They dealt mainly with the externals of life,--with outward actions; and the internal motives of the several actors were not always adequately implied. But in time the mind came to interest Maupassant as much as the body. In the beginning he seems to have considered solely what his characters did, and he cared little to tell us what they felt and what they thought; probably he did not know himself and did not try to know.

The inquirers who should read his stories in the strict sequence of their production could not fail to be struck with the first awakening of his curiosity about human feeling; and they might easily trace the steady growth of his interest in psychologic states. Telling us at first bluntly and barely what his characters did, he came in time to find his chief pleasure in suggesting to us not only what they felt, but especially what they vaguely feared. Toward the end of his brief career the thought of death and the dread of mental disease seemed to possess him more and more with a haunting horror that kept recurring with a pathetic persistence. He came to have a close terror of death, almost an obsession of the grave; and to find a parallel to this we should have to go back four hundred years, to Villon, also a realist and a humorist with a profound relish for the outward appearances of life. But Maupassant went far beyond the earlier poet, and he even developed a fondness for the morbid and the abnormal. This is revealed in 'Le Horla,' the appalling story in which he took for his own Fitzjames O'Brien's uncanny monster, invisible, and yet tangible. In the hands of the clever Irish-American this tale had been gruesome enough; but the Frenchman was able to give it an added touch of terror by making the unfortunate victim discover that the creature he feared had a stronger will than his own and that he was being hypnotized to his doom by a being whom he could not see, but whose presence he could feel. There is more than one of these later tales in which we seem to perceive the premonition of the madness which came upon Maupassant before his death.

At first he was an observer only, a recorder of the outward facts of average humanity. He had no theories about life, or even about art. He had no ideas of his own, no general ideas, no interest in ideas. He did not care to talk about technic or even about his own writings. He put on paper what he had seen, the peasants of Normandy, the episodes of the war, the nether-world of the newspaper. He cared nothing for morality, but he was unfailingly veracious, never falsifying the facts of existence as he had seen it himself. Then, at the end, it is not what his characters do that most interested him, not what they are, not what they think, but what they feel, and, above all, what they fear.

In every work of art there are at least four elements, which we may separate if we wish to consider each of them in turn. First of all, there is the technic of the author, his craftsmanship, his mastery of the tools of his trade; and by almost universal consent Maupassant is held to be one of the master craftsmen of the short-story. Second, there is the amount of observation of life which the author reveals; and here again Maupassant takes rank among the leaders, altho the sphere in which he observed had its marked limitations and its obvious exclusions. Thirdly, there is the underlying and informing imagination which invents and relates and sustains; and there is no disputing the vigor of Maupassant's imagination, altho it was not lofty and altho it lacked variety. Finally, there is always to be taken into account what one may term the author's philosophy of life, his attitude toward the common problems of humanity; and here it is that Maupassant is most lacking,--for his opinions are negligible and his attempts at intellectual speculation are of slight value.

Technic can be acquired; and Maupassant had studied at the feet of that master technician Flaubert. Observation can be trained; and Maupassant had deliberately developed his power of vision. Imagination may be stimulated by constant endeavor to a higher achievement; and Maupassant's ambitions were ever tending upward. Philosophy, however, is dependent upon the sum total of a man's faculties, upon his training, upon his temperament, upon the essential elements of his character; and Maupassant was not a sound thinker, and his attitude toward life is not that by which he can best withstand the adverse criticism of posterity. Primarily, he was not a thinker any more than Hugo was a thinker, or Dickens. He was only an artist--an artist in fiction; and an artist is not called upon to be a thinker, altho the supreme artists seem nearly all of them to have been men of real intellectual force.


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