Miniatures with a huge perspective

Guy de Maupassant
image credit: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer to my blog today with some insights into the writing of Guy de Maupassant.

Actor, writer and teacher, Michael Murray was born in Stepney, East London.
He trained for the stage at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Under his Equity name, Michael worked for many years as an actor and voice-over artist. His career also encompassed teaching, writing and directing. Michael is a Drama in Education specialist and holds an advanced qualification in the teaching of drama: the A.D.B. (Ed). He also has an M.A. in Education. Michael now writes full-time. His latest novel, ‘Leefdale’, was published earlier in 2018.
Michael is the author of:
Magnificent Britain 2012
Julia’s Room 2012
Learning Lines? (A Practical Guide for Drama Students and Aspiring Actors) 2014
A Single To Filey (A DCI Tony Forward Novel) (Amazon Bestseller 2015)
Leefdale 2018. Michael is also my other half and I’m delighted he agreed to my posting this fascinating article.

Whilst visiting relatives I found myself discussing my novella Julia’s Room with my sister-in-law. She mentioned her fondness for short stories and revealed that she’d recently downloaded on to her Kindle one of the volumes from Guy de Maupassant’s collection.

Guy de Maupassant! The mention of the name instantly transported me back to my days as a drama student when I’d first discovered that wonderful author’s little jewels of short stories and read every one I could find. As soon as my sister-in-law and I finished our conversation I began browsing in the Kindle Store for Maupassant’s work. I was delighted to find his complete output of short stories, including many I had never heard of before: his novels were there too. I downloaded the first volume of his collected short stories for free and began to consume them with relish one after the other: as a chocolate addict might devour a large box of chocolates.

Guy de Maupassant was born on August 5, 1850 near Dieppe, in France, into a prosperous family background which included minor Norman aristocracy. He was nineteen and studying Law in Paris when the Franco Prussian war broke out. Maupassant volunteered and saw action as a private before later serving in the Quartermaster Corps. This is why the war and the Prussian invasion of France permeate some of his most memorable stories.

After his demobilisation in July 1871 Maupassant returned to Paris and his Law studies and eventually, with his father’s assistance, became a successful civil servant. Maupassant’s parents had separated when he was thirteen. Laure, his mother, was a friend of Gustave Flaubert and she asked the writer to concern himself with her son’s welfare while he was in Paris. Thus began Maupassant’s literary apprenticeship. Whenever Flaubert was in Paris he invited Maupassant to lunch and cast a critical eye over his prose. Flaubert also introduced Maupassant to writers such as Emile Zola, Henry James, Ivan Turgenev and Edmond Goncourt.

Maupassant was virtually unknown until, in April 1880, he became one of six writers from Zola’s Medan Group who contributed to a collection of short stories on the Franco Prussian war published under the title “Les Soirées de Medan” (Evenings at Medan). The book takes its title from Zola’s home at Medan, near Paris, where his Medan group attended literary dinners. The most acclaimed story in “Les Soirées de Medan” was Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” (Ball of Lard or Ball of Tallow). It brought Maupassant not only fame but launched him on a decade of intense creativity.

Maupassant was a vigorous and athletic outdoors man. He was a keen swimmer and oarsman who loved rivers and the sea. Apparently he would row fifty miles a day on the Seine simply for pleasure. He was also vigorous in other ways and had a prodigious sexual appetite that he quite often satisfied with prostitutes. That is why we find prostitutes featuring prominently in so many of his stories, often portrayed in a positive light or even as heroines. In his masterpiece “Boule de Suif” it is the prostitute Elizabeth Rousset who is the true Christian and has greater generosity and stronger moral principles than any of her travelling companions despite their higher rank. Elizabeth is amongst a group of people representing a microcosm of French Society: they are fleeing from the advancing Prussian army in a coach towards Rouen. Knowing her occupation, the other passengers cold shoulder Elizabeth but change their attitude towards her when they are dying of hunger and she generously gives them food and wine from her picnic basket. The travellers arrive at an inn which they find is occupied by Prussian soldiers. A Prussian Officer detains the coach party and refuses them permission to continue with their journey unless Elizabeth Rousset sleeps with him. Elizabeth who is fiercely anti-Prussian and deeply patriotic refuses. At first her fellow travellers support her patriotism but gradually they grow angry with Elizabeth for impeding their progress. After all, they reason, why shouldn’t she sleep with the officer? It’s only her day job, isn’t it? Eventually, after much coercion, Elizabeth goes to bed with the Prussian. The party is allowed to move on but now, in the coach, Elizabeth’s fellow travellers will not even acknowledge her; nor will the self-righteous hypocrites give her any of their food even though she has none.

In “Boule de Suif” Maupassant is challenging the reader’s stereotypical assumptions and asking why we should automatically think that women who are prostitutes are lesser human beings than the rest of us. Why, Maupassant asks, should a prostitute be assumed to have given up all claims to humanity because of her choice of profession? Why should it be assumed that being a prostitute deprives one of all integrity, honesty, morality, patriotism? “Boule de Suif” is a piece of feminist literature because in it Maupassant asserts a woman’s right to choose. At times her body may be for sale but she still retains ownership of her essential self and that includes the right to deny any man her favours. It is obvious that Elizabeth Rousset’s fellow coach travellers are morally inferior to her. In return for permission to continue their journey across occupied France they have pressurized Elizabeth to allow the Prussian officer his conquest knowing that she regards it as an act of fraternization with the enemy. This is what makes these “virtuous” people traitors and the prostitute, Elizabeth Rousset, heroic. Similarly, in “Mademoiselle Fifi”, another story set in the context of the Franco Prussian war, a group of prostitutes are invited to dinner in a chateau occupied by officers of the invading Prussian army. After much abuse the girls refuse to be cowed by the triumphalism of their oppressors and it is Rachel, a prostitute, who displays the greatest heroism and strikes the patriotic blow.

Maupassant’s attitude towards prostitution is perhaps best articulated in his long short story, “Madame Tellier’s Establishment”. At the start of the story he describes the attitudes of the respectable tradesmen of the little town where Madame Tellier’s brothel is situated. We learn that Madame is highly respected, and that she came from a respectable family of peasant proprietors and had taken up her profession just as naturally as she would have become a milliner or a dressmaker. The men of the town visit the brothel as guiltlessly and as frequently as they would visit a café. Maupassant asserts that the prejudice against prostitution which is so profound and intense in France’s large towns is not found in the rural areas of Normandy where it is simply regarded as a paying business and the ambitious peasant sends his daughter to keep a brothel in the same spirit as he would send her to start up any other enterprise. There are strong elements of cynicism and shrewd commercialism here as well as chauvinistic attitudes towards women which deeply offend our modern sensibilities; yet how refreshingly free from moral cant and hypocrisy it is, particularly from a man writing in the Nineteenth Century. What lingers in the mind long after we have read “Madame Tellier’s Establishment” is the essential humanity of Madame Tellier and her group of working women.

Maupassant rarely lectures us. He makes no moral judgments about his characters but like Chekhov he simply presents them to us, sets them in motion and asks us to make up our own mind about their actions. His thought is not as profound as Chekhov’s and his characters are less reflective, driven more by their material desires and sensual appetites but, like Chekhov, Maupassant has the ability to capture in his stories the beating heart of life and expose its palpitating presence to our astounded sight. And again, like Chekhov, he brilliantly sets up a story, quickly establishing his actors and their setting with breathtaking spareness and economy; using only the exact and appropriate word, gesture, colour or tone to instantly create a complete world and its characters. And what a huge range of characters: Norman peasants; invading Prussians; bureaucrats; respectable bourgeoise; prostitutes; sporting types; tradesmen; businessmen; journalists; the nobility. All human life is there, as a newspaper once famously asserted. That is another affinity Maupassant has with Chekhov: he portrays people from all levels of society with complete authenticity. His dialogue convinces whether it is delivered out of the mouths of the peasants or the nobility.

All the time I am writing this I am conscious that I mustn’t divulge too much of Maupassant’s stories because I don’t want to spoil the reader’s appreciation of their denouement. I shall avoid calling these denouement “twists” because that would suggest that they have been put in at the end simply to supply the reader with a specious and meretricious thrill. The denouement in each of Maupassant’s short stories is always plausible and emanates naturally out of the plot. It gives us a start of recognition and the surprise of finding something unexpected and new amongst the familiar so that we say to ourselves ‘Oh, but now I see’ and are provided with a greater insight into the human condition than we had before. Yet there is no reason to suspect that, by supplying his denouement, Maupassant has tricked us by being dishonest or deceitful. Rather, we feel that our understanding has been enhanced or expanded. He convinces us that with simply an extra moment’s thought or the possession of just one more fact we surely would have anticipated the denouement all along. For example, in “Harriet”, Harriet’s first kiss must be one of the most unexpected, surprising and ghoulish in fiction, yet it seems strangely inevitable and fills us with compassion. In “Love. Three Pages from a Sportsman’s Book” when we learn the true identity of the dead lovers their love becomes so much more poignant, powerful and mysterious. And in “Mademoiselle Fifi” the ending, which reveals how the prostitute, Rachel, escapes retribution by the Prussians, is sublime.

In January 1892 Guy de Maupassant attempted suicide by cutting his throat and was committed to Dr Blanche’s nursing home in Paris. He was in the advanced stages of Syphilis. He died on the 6th July 1893, a month before his 43rd birthday. In addition to the six novels he produced, de Maupassant wrote over three hundred short stories and it is for these that he will be chiefly remembered. He was a miniaturist but his small canvases encompassed huge sections of nineteenth century French society. I have made a resolution to read his complete oeuvre even though I am, as ever, engrossed my own writing.

Details of all Michael’s books at on his Amazon Author Page.