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Guy de Maupassant

1904

To introduce Maupassant to English readers with apologetic explanations
as though his art were recondite and the tendency of his work immoral
would be a gratuitous impertinence.

Maupassant's conception of his art is such as one would expect from a
practical and resolute mind; but in the consummate simplicity of his
technique it ceases to be perceptible. This is one of its greatest
qualities, and like all the great virtues it is based primarily on self-
denial.

To pronounce a judgment upon the general tendency of an author is a
difficult task. One could not depend upon reason alone, nor yet trust
solely to one's emotions. Used together, they would in many cases
traverse each other, because emotions have their own unanswerable logic.
Our capacity for emotion is limited, and the field of our intelligence is
restricted. Responsiveness to every feeling, combined with the
penetration of every intellectual subterfuge, would end, not in judgment,
but in universal absolution. _Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner_. And
in this benevolent neutrality towards the warring errors of human nature
all light would go out from art and from life.

We are at liberty then to quarrel with Maupassant's attitude towards our
world in which, like the rest of us, he has that share which his senses
are able to give him. But we need not quarrel with him violently. If
our feelings (which are tender) happen to be hurt because his talent is
not exercised for the praise and consolation of mankind, our intelligence
(which is great) should let us see that he is a very splendid sinner,
like all those who in this valley of compromises err by over-devotion to
the truth that is in them. His determinism, barren of praise, blame and
consolation, has all the merit of his conscientious art. The worth of
every conviction consists precisely in the steadfastness with which it is
held.

Except for his philosophy, which in the case of so consummate an artist
does not matter (unless to the solemn and naive mind), Maupassant of all
writers of fiction demands least forgiveness from his readers. He does
not require forgiveness because he is never dull.

The interest of a reader in a work of imagination is either ethical or
that of simple curiosity. Both are perfectly legitimate, since there is
both a moral and an excitement to be found in a faithful rendering of
life. And in Maupassant's work there is the interest of curiosity and
the moral of a point of view consistently preserved and never obtruded
for the end of personal gratification. The spectacle of this immense
talent served by exceptional faculties and triumphing over the most
thankless subjects by an unswerving singleness of purpose is in itself an
admirable lesson in the power of artistic honesty, one may say of
artistic virtue. The inherent greatness of the man consists in this,
that he will let none of the fascinations that beset a writer working in
loneliness turn him away from the straight path, from the vouchsafed
vision of excellence. He will not be led into perdition by the
seductions of sentiment, of eloquence, of humour, of pathos; of all that
splendid pageant of faults that pass between the writer and his probity
on the blank sheet of paper, like the glittering cortege of deadly sins
before the austere anchorite in the desert air of Thebaide. This is not
to say that Maupassant's austerity has never faltered; but the fact
remains that no tempting demon has ever succeeded in hurling him down
from his high, if narrow, pedestal.

It is the austerity of his talent, of course, that is in question. Let
the discriminating reader, who at times may well spare a moment or two to
the consideration and enjoyment of artistic excellence, be asked to
reflect a little upon the texture of two stories included in this volume:
"A Piece of String," and "A Sale." How many openings the last offers for
the gratuitous display of the author's wit or clever buffoonery, the
first for an unmeasured display of sentiment! And both sentiment and
buffoonery could have been made very good too, in a way accessible to the
meanest intelligence, at the cost of truth and honesty. Here it is where
Maupassant's austerity comes in. He refrains from setting his cleverness
against the eloquence of the facts. There is humour and pathos in these
stories; but such is the greatness of his talent, the refinement of his
artistic conscience, that all his high qualities appear inherent in the
very things of which he speaks, as if they had been altogether
independent of his presentation. Facts, and again facts are his unique
concern. That is why he is not always properly understood. His facts
are so perfectly rendered that, like the actualities of life itself, they
demand from the reader the faculty of observation which is rare, the
power of appreciation which is generally wanting in most of us who are
guided mainly by empty phrases requiring no effort, demanding from us no
qualities except a vague susceptibility to emotion. Nobody has ever
gained the vast applause of a crowd by the simple and clear exposition of
vital facts. Words alone strung upon a convention have fascinated us as
worthless glass beads strung on a thread have charmed at all times our
brothers the unsophisticated savages of the islands. Now, Maupassant, of
whom it has been said that he is the master of the _mot juste_, has never
been a dealer in words. His wares have been, not glass beads, but
polished gems; not the most rare and precious, perhaps, but of the very
first water of their kind.

That he took trouble with his gems, taking them up in the rough and
polishing each facet patiently, the publication of the two posthumous
volumes of short stories proves abundantly. I think it proves also the
assertion made here that he was by no means a dealer in words. On
looking at the first feeble drafts from which so many perfect stories
have been fashioned, one discovers that what has been matured, improved,
brought to perfection by unwearied endeavour is not the diction of the
tale, but the vision of its true shape and detail. Those first attempts
are not faltering or uncertain in expression. It is the conception which
is at fault. The subjects have not yet been adequately seen. His
proceeding was not to group expressive words, that mean nothing, around
misty and mysterious shapes dear to muddled intellects and belonging
neither to earth nor to heaven. His vision by a more scrupulous,
prolonged and devoted attention to the aspects of the visible world
discovered at last the right words as if miraculously impressed for him
upon the face of things and events. This was the particular shape taken
by his inspiration; it came to him directly, honestly in the light of his
day, not on the tortuous, dark roads of meditation. His realities came
to him from a genuine source, from this universe of vain appearances
wherein we men have found everything to make us proud, sorry, exalted,
and humble.

Maupassant's renown is universal, but his popularity is restricted. It
is not difficult to perceive why. Maupassant is an intensely national
writer. He is so intensely national in his logic, in his clearness, in
his aesthetic and moral conceptions, that he has been accepted by his
countrymen without having had to pay the tribute of flattery either to
the nation as a whole, or to any class, sphere or division of the nation.
The truth of his art tells with an irresistible force; and he stands
excused from the duty of patriotic posturing. He is a Frenchman of
Frenchmen beyond question or cavil, and with that he is simple enough to
be universally comprehensible. What is wanting to his universal success
is the mediocrity of an obvious and appealing tenderness. He neglects to
qualify his truth with the drop of facile sweetness; he forgets to strew
paper roses over the tombs. The disregard of these common decencies lays
him open to the charges of cruelty, cynicism, hardness. And yet it can
be safely affirmed that this man wrote from the fulness of a
compassionate heart. He is merciless and yet gentle with his mankind; he
does not rail at their prudent fears and their small artifices; he does
not despise their labours. It seems to me that he looks with an eye of
profound pity upon their troubles, deceptions and misery. But he looks
at them all. He sees--and does not turn away his head. As a matter of
fact he is courageous.

Courage and justice are not popular virtues. The practice of strict
justice is shocking to the multitude who always (perhaps from an obscure
sense of guilt) attach to it the meaning of mercy. In the majority of
us, who want to be left alone with our illusions, courage inspires a
vague alarm. This is what is felt about Maupassant. His qualities, to
use the charming and popular phrase, are not lovable. Courage being a
force will not masquerade in the robes of affected delicacy and
restraint. But if his courage is not of a chivalrous stamp, it cannot be
denied that it is never brutal for the sake of effect. The writer of
these few reflections, inspired by a long and intimate acquaintance with
the work of the man, has been struck by the appreciation of Maupassant
manifested by many women gifted with tenderness and intelligence. Their
more delicate and audacious souls are good judges of courage. Their
finer penetration has discovered his genuine masculinity without display,
his virility without a pose. They have discerned in his faithful
dealings with the world that enterprising and fearless temperament, poor
in ideas but rich in power, which appeals most to the feminine mind.

It cannot be denied that he thinks very little. In him extreme energy of
perception achieves great results, as in men of action the energy of
force and desire. His view of intellectual problems is perhaps more
simple than their nature warrants; still a man who has written _Yvette_
cannot be accused of want of subtlety. But one cannot insist enough upon
this, that his subtlety, his humour, his grimness, though no doubt they
are his own, are never presented otherwise but as belonging to our life,
as found in nature, whose beauties and cruelties alike breathe the spirit
of serene unconsciousness.

Maupassant's philosophy of life is more temperamental than rational. He
expects nothing from gods or men. He trusts his senses for information
and his instinct for deductions. It may seem that he has made but little
use of his mind. But let me be clearly understood. His sensibility is
really very great; and it is impossible to be sensible, unless one thinks
vividly, unless one thinks correctly, starting from intelligible premises
to an unsophisticated conclusion.

This is literary honesty. It may be remarked that it does not differ
very greatly from the ideal honesty of the respectable majority, from the
honesty of law-givers, of warriors, of kings, of bricklayers, of all
those who express their fundamental sentiment in the ordinary course of
their activities, by the work of their hands.

The work of Maupassant's hands is honest. He thinks sufficiently to
concrete his fearless conclusions in illuminative instances. He renders
them with that exact knowledge of the means and that absolute devotion to
the aim of creating a true effect--which is art. He is the most
accomplished of narrators.

It is evident that Maupassant looked upon his mankind in another spirit
than those writers who make haste to submerge the difficulties of our
holding-place in the universe under a flood of false and sentimental
assumptions. Maupassant was a true and dutiful lover of our earth. He
says himself in one of his descriptive passages: "Nous autres que seduit
la terre . . ." It was true. The earth had for him a compelling charm.
He looks upon her august and furrowed face with the fierce insight of
real passion. His is the power of detecting the one immutable quality
that matters in the changing aspects of nature and under the
ever-shifting surface of life. To say that he could not embrace in his
glance all its magnificence and all its misery is only to say that he was
human. He lays claim to nothing that his matchless vision has not made
his own. This creative artist has the true imagination; he never
condescends to invent anything; he sets up no empty pretences. And he
stoops to no littleness in his art--least of all to the miserable vanity
of a catching phrase.

Joseph Conrad