In 1874, a twenty-four-year-old government clerk called Guy de Maupassant, depressed and maddened by his boring work and philistine colleagues at the Naval Ministry in Paris, was desperate to embark on a new career. Thankfully, his father paid him a small allowance, and his job at the ministry left him plenty of spare time. He spent most of his money and leisure time boating on the Seine, fencing, shooting, picnicking with friends, and visiting prostitutes.
Recently, he had also been devoting some of his energy to writing. He was intending to enter a play in a competition run by the Gaîté theater and had been impressed by a “very remarkable” story written by one of his friends which had been serialized in the popular daily newspaper Paris-Journal. He sent the installments to his mother, who had always hoped to see Guy become a writer. In the accompanying letter, which he wrote on ministry paper, he asked his mother to “find me some good subjects for short stories. I’ll be able to work on them a little at the Ministry…and then I’ll try to get them published in some newspaper or other.”
It was just about possible at that time for a talented and prolific writer to earn a living as a storyteller. There had never been so many literary magazines. Some, such as La Vie littéraire, published nothing but short stories. Daily newspapers had been serializing novels since the late 1830s, and were now sold at newsstands instead of being available only to subscribers, which meant that fiction writers had a potential audience of many thousands. In Le Siècle, Le Temps, Le Figaro, and Le Petit Journal, highbrow literature rubbed shoulders with political reports and society gossip. They published scenes and anecdotes of modern life as a condiment to the serious news.
Aesthetes affected to despise this “commercialization” of literature, but very few works of the mid- to late nineteenth century that are still read today were never tainted by newsprint. Many of Baudelaire’s experimental prose poems—including the poem (“Le Chien et le flacon”) in which he likened the reading public to a dog who prefers the smell of excrement to that of “delicate perfumes”—first appeared in mass-circulation newspapers in the 1860s. Some long passages of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which came to be seen as a rejection of vulgar accessibility, had first appeared on the front page of Le Figaro.
From young Maupassant’s practical point of view, short stories were not only more marketable than full-length novels, they were also less likely to interfere with other, more pleasurable pursuits. He had seen a family friend toiling away at a long novel, and he knew what an exhausting and dispiriting activity it could be. The novelist was Gustave Flaubert, already famous as the author of Madame Bovary, Salammbô, and L’Éducation sentimentale. According to Maupassant, Flaubert sat at his desk for hours, staring at the paper with a mixture of longing and dread, his face bulging apoplectically,
and then he would begin to write, slowly, stopping and starting all the time, crossing out some words and adding others, filling up the margins, writing words across the page, covering twenty sheets of paper with black ink to produce a single page of finished text, groaning with the mental effort like a man laboriously sawing wood.
Once, Maupassant recalled, Flaubert was forced to take a break: “he was worn out and almost discouraged, and, as a rest-cure, he wrote the delightful volume, Trois contes ” (Three Tales).
Despite his job at the ministry, his boating, swimming, and whoring, and the rapid progress of his syphilis, which makes the story of his short life an increasingly macabre series of medical bulletins, Maupassant wrote three plays, several poems, some literary journalism, and six short stories over the next five years. His first tale, published in 1875, was a very short and conventional horror story titled “La Main d’écorché”: the severed, desiccated hand of a murderer wreaks terrible revenge on the frivolous young law student who attached it to his bellpull as a joke.
Five years after this unremarkable début, Maupassant’s seventh tale, “Boule de suif,” was hailed as a masterpiece by friends and critics and is still considered one of his finest works. It was published in 1880 in a collection of tales, Les Soirées de Médan, by writers of the naturalist school, the most prominent of whom was Émile Zola. The subject of the book was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. As Maupassant explained to Flaubert in a letter, the idea was to write about the war without the usual chauvinistic bluster. Soldiers and civilians were to be treated as subjects of scientific observation:
The Generals are simply mediocre creatures like everyone else…. They get men killed, not because of evil intentions but out of simple stupidity…. The book will not be anti-patriotic, merely true to life.
The naturalist approach suited Maupassant perfectly. The small, seedy details of everyday life were loaded with significance by a detached, ironic narrator. Drained of intellectual importance, the human protagonists were little more than an expression of their animal appetites and needs. “Boule de suif” was the story of a coach journey from Rouen to Dieppe shortly after the Prussian invasion of France. A patriotic prostitute known as Boule de suif (“Fat-Ball” or “Tub of Lard”) heroically agrees to sleep with a Prussian officer who refuses to allow the travelers to continue their journey until he has satisfied his lust.
The story was written in a style that one reviewer described as “tight, restrained, and condensed to the point of becoming almost sober and prim.” Maupassant seemed to have told his tale as simply as possible, without airing his political views and without trying to show off his vocabulary and literary skills. He had deliberately avoided the ostentatiously erudite and mannered écriture artiste that the Goncourt brothers had brought into fashion. This apparent simplicity, combined with his impeccable French and the convenient shortness of his tales, explains why the works of Maupassant have been included on so many school syllabuses in the English- speaking world as a model for students of French.
Considering his self-confessed laziness and his many distractions and ailments (stomach pains, heart tremors, failing sight, hair loss, and migraine), Maupassant’s precocious proficiency in the art of storytelling is a remarkable fact, as are the size and consistency of his life’s work: five novels, three collections of travel writing, and twenty volumes of tales in little more than a decade. Perhaps he owed some of his fluency and sureness of touch to his early experience of writing for newspapers. For many novelists of the time, journalism was a second literary education: the editor’s scissors, the merciless deadline, and the unforgiving readers taught them how to sacrifice and compromise, and to construct an amusing tale by means of a few infallible literary devices. But Maupassant also had a huge advantage over his contemporaries: when “Boule de suif” appeared in 1880, he had just completed what would later be called a creative writing course.
Maupassant’s tutors were two middle- aged gentlemen who were so much alike that they were sometimes mistaken for each other.1 Both were tubby, balding, and bug-eyed, with floppy mustaches and leonine locks. One was the poet Louis Bouilhet, who earned his living as head librarian at the municipal library in Rouen. Maupassant had introduced himself when he was still a schoolboy at the lycée in Rouen. For about six months, every Sunday, Bouilhet corrected the boy’s verse and urged him to practice patience and restraint: “A hundred lines or fewer are enough to make an artist’s name, provided that they are impeccable.” Maupassant was never more than an efficient poet, but the discipline of writing verse served him well as a writer of prose.
His other tutor was Bouilhet’s friend Gustave Flaubert, whom Maupassant first met in the early 1870s. Flaubert warmed to the young man immediately: he recognized in Maupassant some of the traits of his dear, lamented friend, Maupassant’s maternal uncle, Alfred Le Poittevin. For seven years, until his death in 1880, Flaubert subjected him to a series of strenuous tutorials that were supposed to “knock him into shape in much the same way that Napoleon used to shake up his favorite grenadiers.”
To judge by various letters and memoirs, the syllabus covered two broad domains. The first—mental and moral hygiene, or the general conduct of oneself as a writer—was not Maupassant’s forte. “You must—do you hear me, young man?—you must work harder,” Flaubert told him in 1878. “Too many whores! Too much boating! Too much exercise! Yes, that’s right: a civilized man does not require as much locomotion as doctors would have us believe.” For Flaubert, keeping fit was a frivolous waste of time and energy:
What you lack are principles. Say what you like, you can’t do without principles. The only question is: which ones? For an artist, there is only one: sacrifice everything to art. Life should be treated as a means to an end, and nothing more.
The other part of the syllabus was more to Maupassant’s liking. For seven years, he sent Flaubert everything he wrote. The following Sunday, over lunch, the master would criticize his work and “little by little, hammered into me two or three precepts that summed up his long and patient teachings.”
One of the first lessons was devoted to the question of originality. “If you have any originality,” Flaubert told him, “you must first dig it out. If you don’t have any, you must get some.” To help him acquire some originality, Flaubert set his student a task. He was to choose something ordinary and familiar—“a blazing fire or a tree in a plain”—and then search for the “unexplored” element in it. According to Flaubert, even the commonest thing contains something that no one has noticed, “because we are accustomed to seeing things only through the memory of what others have said about them.” Next, Maupassant recalled, “he forced me to describe, in a few phrases, a creature or an object so that it was clearly distinguishable from all other creatures or objects of the same race or species.”
Homework consisted of a practical exercise: observe a grocer on his doorstep, a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab-horse in a row of cabs, and then, “with a single word,” show how that particular grocer, concierge, or cab-horse resembles no other. That single word—a verb or an adjective—existed somewhere in the language, and it was the writer’s job to find it, no matter how long it took. “One should never be content with approximation; one should never try to avoid the difficulty by resorting to subterfuge—even if it fools the reader—or to linguistic trickery” (“des clowneries de langage“).
This is how Maupassant described his writing course in one of the few texts in which he discussed his own techniques (the preface to his novel Pierre et Jean). One of his recent biographers, Nadine Satiat, suggests that some of the other lessons can be deduced from Flaubert’s introduction to Bouilhet’s Dernières chansons (1872). Although the introduction predates Maupassant’s first tales by two or three years, it could easily serve as the basis of a description of Maupassant’s prose. Art should neither “teach, correct, nor moralize”: “dénouements are not conclusions; no general inferences can be drawn from a particular case.” “Prose, like verse, must be written so that it can be read out loud. Poorly written sentences never pass the test: they tighten the chest and impede the beating of the heart.” “His style goes straight to the point and leaves no impression of the author himself: the word disappears in the clarity of the thought, or rather, by sticking so closely to the thought, leaves it entirely unhampered.”
Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator of Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, notes that Enid Starkie "chose as frontispiece to her first volume [on Flaubert] a portrait of 'Gustave Flaubert by an unknown painter'.... The only trouble is, it isn't him. It's a portrait of Louis Bouilhet" (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), p. 79.↩
Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator of Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, notes that Enid Starkie “chose as frontispiece to her first volume [on Flaubert] a portrait of ‘Gustave Flaubert by an unknown painter’…. The only trouble is, it isn’t him. It’s a portrait of Louis Bouilhet” (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), p. 79.↩