"I entered literary life as a meteor, and I shall leave
it like a thunderbolt." These words of Maupassant to Jose
Maria de Heredia on the occasion of a memorable meeting are, in
spite of their morbid solemnity, not an inexact summing up of the
brief career during which, for ten years, the writer, by turns
undaunted and sorrowful, with the fertility of a master hand
produced poetry, novels, romances and travels, only to sink
prematurely into the abyss of madness and death. . . . .
In the month of April, 1880, an article appeared in the "Le
Gaulois" announcing the publication of the Soirees de Medan.
It was signed by a name as yet unknown: Guy de Maupassant. After
a juvenile diatribe against romanticism and a passionate attack
on languorous literature, the writer extolled the study of real
life, and announced the publication of the new work. It was
picturesque and charming. In the quiet of evening, on an island,
in the Seine, beneath poplars instead of the Neapolitan cypresses
dear to the friends of Boccaccio, amid the continuous murmur of
the valley, and no longer to the sound of the Pyrennean streams
that murmured a faint accompaniment to the tales of Marguerite's
cavaliers, the master and his disciples took turns in narrating
some striking or pathetic episode of the war. And the issue, in
collaboration, of these tales in one volume, in which the master
jostled elbows with his pupils, took on the appearance of a
manifesto, the tone of a challenge, or the utterance of a creed.
In fact, however, the beginnings had been much more simple,
and they had confined themselves, beneath the trees of Medan, to
deciding on a general title for the work. Zola had contributed
the manuscript of the "Attaque du Moulin," and it was
at Maupassant's house that the five young men gave in their
contributions. Each one read his story, Maupassant being the last.
When he had finished Boule de Suif, with a spontaneous impulse,
with an emotion they never forgot, filled with enthusiasm at this
revelation, they all rose and, without superfluous words,
acclaimed him as a master.
He undertook to write the article for the Gaulois and, in
cooperation with his friends, he worded it in the terms with
which we are familiar, amplifying and embellishing it, yielding
to an inborn taste for mystification which his youth rendered
excusable. The essential point, he said, is to "unmoor"
It was unmoored. The following day Wolff wrote a polemical
dissertation in the Figaro and carried away his colleagues. The
volume was a brilliant success, thanks to Boule de Suif. Despite
the novelty, the honesty of effort, on the part of all, no
mention was made of the other stories. Relegated to the second
rank, they passed without notice. From his first battle,
Maupassant was master of the field in literature.
At once the entire press took him up and said what was
appropriate regarding the budding celebrity. Biographers and
reporters sought information concerning his life. As it was very
simple and perfectly straightforward, they resorted to invention.
And thus it is that at the present day Maupassant appears to us
like one of those ancient heroes whose origin and death are
veiled in mystery.
I will not dwell on Guy de Maupassant's younger days. His
relatives, his old friends, he himself, here and there in his
works, have furnished us in their letters enough valuable
revelations and touching remembrances of the years preceding his
literary debut. His worthy biographer, H. Edouard Maynial, after
collecting intelligently all the writings, condensing and
comparing them, has been able to give us some definite
information regarding that early period.
I will simply recall that he was born on the 5th of August,
1850, near Dieppe, in the castle of Miromesnil which he describes
in Une Vie. . . .
Maupassant, like Flaubert, was a Norman, through his mother,
and through his place of birth he belonged to that strange and
adventurous race, whose heroic and long voyages on tramp trading
ships he liked to recall. And just as the author of "Education
sentimentale" seems to have inherited in the paternal line
the shrewd realism of Champagne, so de Maupassant appears to have
inherited from his Lorraine ancestors their indestructible
discipline and cold lucidity.
His childhood was passed at Etretat, his beautiful childhood;
it was there that his instincts were awakened in the unfoldment
of his prehistoric soul. Years went by in an ecstasy of physical
happiness. The delight of running at full speed through fields of
gorse, the charm of voyages of discovery in hollows and ravines,
games beneath the dark hedges, a passion for going to sea with
the fishermen and, on nights when there was no moon, for dreaming
on their boats of imaginary voyages.
Mme. de Maupassant, who had guided her son's early reading,
and had gazed with him at the sublime spectacle of nature, put,
off as long as possible the hour of separation. One day, however,
she had to take the child to the little seminary at Yvetot.
Later, he became a student at the college at Rouen, and became a
literary correspondent of Louis Bouilhet. It was at the latter's
house on those Sundays in winter when the Norman rain drowned the
sound of the bells and dashed against the window panes that the
school boy learned to write poetry.
Vacation took the rhetorician back to the north of Normandy.
Now it was shooting at Saint Julien l'Hospitalier, across fields,
bogs, and through the woods. From that time on he sealed his pact
with the earth, and those "deep and delicate roots"
which attached him to his native soil began to grow. It was of
Normandy, broad, fresh and virile, that he would presently demand
his inspiration, fervent and eager as a boy's love; it was in her
that he would take refuge when, weary of life, he would implore a
truce, or when he simply wished to work and revive his energies
in old-time joys. It was at this time that was born in him that
voluptuous love of the sea, which in later days could alone
withdraw him from the world, calm him, console him.
In 1870 he lived in the country, then he came to Paris to
live; for, the family fortunes having dwindled, he had to look
for a position. For several years he was a clerk in the Ministry
of Marine, where he turned over musty papers, in the
uninteresting company of the clerks of the admiralty.
Then he went into the department of Public Instruction, where
bureaucratic servility is less intolerable. The daily duties are
certainly scarcely more onerous and he had as chiefs, or
colleagues, Xavier Charmes and Leon Dierx, Henry Roujon and Rene
Billotte, but his office looked out on a beautiful melancholy
garden with immense plane trees around which black circles of
crows gathered in winter.
Maupassant made two divisions of his spare hours, one for
boating, and the other for literature. Every evening in spring,
every free day, he ran down to the river whose mysterious current
veiled in fog or sparkling in the sun called to him and bewitched
him. In the islands in the Seine between Chatou and Port-Marly,
on the banks of Sartrouville and Triel he was long noted among
the population of boatmen, who have now vanished, for his
unwearying biceps, his cynical gaiety of good-fellowship, his
unfailing practical jokes, his broad witticisms. Sometimes he
would row with frantic speed, free and joyous, through the
glowing sunlight on the stream; sometimes, he would wander along
the coast, questioning the sailors, chatting with the ravageurs,
or junk gatherers, or stretched at full length amid the irises
and tansy he would lie for hours watching the frail insects that
play on the surface of the stream, water spiders, or white
butterflies, dragon flies, chasing each other amid the willow
leaves, or frogs asleep on the lily-pads.
The rest of his life was taken up by his work. Without ever
becoming despondent, silent and persistent, he accumulated
manuscripts, poetry, criticisms, plays, romances and novels.
Every week he docilely submitted his work to the great Flaubert,
the childhood friend of his mother and his uncle Alfred Le
Poittevin. The master had consented to assist the young man, to
reveal to him the secrets that make chefs-d'oeuvre immortal. It
was he who compelled him to make copious research and to use
direct observation and who inculcated in him a horror of
vulgarity and a contempt for facility.
Maupassant himself tells us of those severe initiations in the
Rue Murillo, or in the tent at Croisset; he has recalled the
implacable didactics of his old master, his tender brutality, the
paternal advice of his generous and candid heart. For seven years
Flaubert slashed, pulverized, the awkward attempts of his pupil
whose success remained uncertain.
Suddenly, in a flight of spontaneous perfection, he wrote
Boule de Suif. His master's joy was great and overwhelming. He
died two months later.
Until the end Maupassant remained illuminated by the
reflection of the good, vanished giant, by that touching
reflection that comes from the dead to those souls they have so
profoundly stirred. The worship of Flaubert was a religion from
which nothing could distract him, neither work, nor glory, nor
slow moving waves, nor balmy nights.
At the end of his short life, while his mind was still clear:
he wrote to a friend: "I am always thinking of my poor
Flaubert, and I say to myself that I should like to die if I were
sure that anyone would think of me in the same manner."
During these long years of his novitiate Maupassant had
entered the social literary circles. He would remain silent,
preoccupied; and if anyone, astonished at his silence, asked him
about his plans he answered simply: "I am learning my trade."
However, under the pseudonym of Guy de Valmont, he had sent some
articles to the newspapers, and, later, with the approval and by
the advice of Flaubert, he published, in the "Republique des
Lettres," poems signed by his name.
These poems, overflowing with sensuality, where the hymn to
the Earth describes the transports of physical possession, where
the impatience of love expresses itself in loud melancholy
appeals like the calls of animals in the spring nights, are
valuable chiefly inasmuch as they reveal the creature of
instinct, the fawn escaped from his native forests, that
Maupassant was in his early youth. But they add nothing to his
glory. They are the "rhymes of a prose writer" as Jules
Lemaitre said. To mould the expression of his thought according
to the strictest laws, and to "narrow it down" to some
extent, such was his aim. Following the example of one of his
comrades of Medan, being readily carried away by precision of
style and the rhythm of sentences, by the imperious rule of the
ballad, of the pantoum or the chant royal, Maupassant also
desired to write in metrical lines. However, he never liked this
collection that he often regretted having published. His
encounters with prosody had left him with that monotonous
weariness that the horseman and the fencer feel after a period in
the riding school, or a bout with the foils.
Such, in very broad lines, is the story of Maupassant's
The day following the publication of "Boule de Suif,"
his reputation began to grow rapidly. The quality of his story
was unrivalled, but at the same time it must be acknowledged that
there were some who, for the sake of discussion, desired to place
a young reputation in opposition to the triumphant brutality of
From this time on, Maupassant, at the solicitation of the
entire press, set to work and wrote story after story. His
talent, free from all influences, his individuality, are not
disputed for a moment. With a quick step, steady and alert, he
advanced to fame, a fame of which he himself was not aware, but
which was so universal, that no contemporary author during his
life ever experienced the same. The "meteor" sent out
its light and its rays were prolonged without limit, in article
after article, volume on volume.
He was now rich and famous . . . . He is esteemed all the more
as they believe him to be rich and happy. But they do not know
that this young fellow with the sunburnt face, thick neck and
salient muscles whom they invariably compare to a young bull at
liberty, and whose love affairs they whisper, is ill, very ill.
At the very moment that success came to him, the malady that
never afterwards left him came also, and, seated motionless at
his side, gazed at him with its threatening countenance. He
suffered from terrible headaches, followed by nights of insomnia.
He had nervous attacks, which he soothed with narcotics and
anesthetics, which he used freely. His sight, which had troubled
him at intervals, became affected, and a celebrated oculist spoke
of abnormality, asymetry of the pupils. The famous young man
trembled in secret and was haunted by all kinds of terrors.
The reader is charmed at the saneness of this revived art and
yet, here and there, he is surprised to discover, amid
descriptions of nature that are full of humanity, disquieting
flights towards the supernatural, distressing conjurations,
veiled at first, of the most commonplace, the most vertiginous
shuddering fits of fear, as old as the world and as eternal as
the unknown. But, instead of being alarmed, he thinks that the
author must be gifted with infallible intuition to follow out
thus the taints in his characters, even through their most
dangerous mazes. The reader does not know that these
hallucinations which he describes so minutely were experienced by
Maupassant himself; he does not know that the fear is in himself,
the anguish of fear "which is not caused by the presence of
danger, or of inevitable death, but by certain abnormal
conditions, by certain mysterious influences in presence of vague
dangers," the "fear of fear, the dread of that horrible
sensation of incomprehensible terror."
How can one explain these physical sufferings and this morbid
distress that were known for some time to his intimates alone?
Alas! the explanation is only too simple. All his life,
consciously or unconsciously, Maupassant fought this malady,
hidden as yet, which was latent in him.
As his malady began to take a more definite form, he turned
his steps towards the south, only visiting Paris to see his
physicians and publishers. In the old port of Antibes beyond the
causeway of Cannes, his yacht, Bel Ami, which he cherished as a
brother, lay at anchor and awaited him. He took it to the white
cities of the Genoese Gulf, towards the palm trees of Hyeres, or
the red bay trees of Antheor.
After several tragic weeks in which, from instinct, he made a
desperate fight, on the 1st of January, 1892, he felt he was
hopelessly vanquished, and in a moment of supreme clearness of
intellect, like Gerard de Nerval, he attempted suicide. Less
fortunate than the author of Sylvia, he was unsuccessful. But his
mind, henceforth "indifferent to all unhappiness," had
entered into eternal darkness.
He was taken back to Paris and placed in Dr. Meuriot's
sanatorium, where, after eighteen months of mechanical existence,
the "meteor" quietly passed away.