Guy de Maupassant

From The Guardian:

Guy-de-Maupassant-008“He is a better writer than you think,” Malcolm Lowry once said of Guy de Maupassant. This comment, made to David Markson, indicates the conundrum Maupassant presents to readers. A hugely influential writer of short stories, the sheer mass of his extremely uneven body of work – 300 stories, 200 articles, six novels, two plays, and three travel books churned out between 1880 and 1891 – can obscure his genius like clouds around an alp. Yet while many of those 300 stories fail to rise beyond the anecdotal, nearly a quarter are very good, and within them stands a core of indisputable classics. It shouldn't be doubted that Maupassant is one of the most important short-story writers to have lived. It was to the detriment of Maupassant's work – although not his bank balance – that his career coincided with a demand from French newspapers for stories of around 1-2,000 words. Jostling with news and faits divers, these stories were by necessity laconic and attention-grabbing, and Maupassant, whose severe economy was a model for Hemingway, had a great facility for producing them. The irony, however, is that Maupassant's best works are much longer. The spareness, learned in his youth from the poet Louis Bouilhet, is still there – as in the opening of “Hautot & Son” (1889), where, as Sean O'Faolain writes, “the scene is brilliantly and swiftly painted, with three lines for the countryside and six for the sportsmen” – but the stories' scope helps avoid the glibness that can mar his shorter work. When Bouilhet died another family friend, Gustave Flaubert, took on Maupassant's literary education, counselling his impatient charge to hold off from publishing until he was ready (although from 1875 several stories crept into print under pseudonyms). The fruit of this long labour was “Boule de Suif”, which Flaubert lived just long enough to read and proclaim a masterpiece.

…It's certainly difficult to find much meaning in Maupassant's final years, which were as lurid as any plot he ever concocted. By 1885 he was suffering memory lapses and eye problems, and would sometimes see his double sitting at his desk. These were early symptoms of the syphilis he most probably contracted during his hedonistic twenties (a period he recreates in an unusually touching story of 1890, “Mouche”). By late 1891 he was convinced his brain was pouring from his nose and mouth, and thought his urine was made of diamonds. “My mind”, he told a friend, “is following dark valleys”. He slit his throat in Cannes on New Year's Day, 1892, and spent the last 18 months of his life in a Parisian asylum. “M Maupassant is reverting to the animal”, his doctor wrote a few days before his death, aged 42.

More here.

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