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Maupassant, Guy de

Category: Writer

 

Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant (5 August 1850 – 6 July 1893) was a French writer, remembered as a master of the short story form, and as a representative of the naturalist school of writers, who depicted human lives, destinies and social forces in disillusioned and often pessimistic terms. 

He wrote some 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books, and one volume of verse.

BBC World Service – Tuesday 9th August 2000
Guy de Maupassant was that rare thing - a writer who was successful in his own time, immensely popular, prosperous and feted by society. But he was never married, was haunted by illness and depression and died alone in a mental institute. …Though he was fond of jokes and shocking people, he was over sensitive and often despairing. He was, as his friend Emile Zola put it, ‘the happiest and unhappiest of men’.

Two minutes with Venus, a lifetime with mercury

 

The illness that Guy de Maupassant had was syphilis, a not uncommon illness at the time; Cesare Borgia for example was afflicted with syphilis and there are a number of books that attribute Borgia‘s brutal mood swings and outrageous behaviour in part to his illness.

Guy de Maupassant contracted the illness fairly early on.  He fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 and then became a civil servant, spending his free time with literary luminaries like Gustav Flaubert, Emil Zola and Henry James.  And in his free time, he developed something of a liking for prostitutes – his first short story collection, La Maison Tellier, was unusually sympathetic in its portrayal of prostitutes. 

There is some speculation that Maupassant’s syphilis was congenital, as his father was a frequenter of brothels and his brother also had syphilis.  His lifestyle, however, was such that syphilis would probably have caught up with him anyway.

Britannica.com – Article by Martin Turnell and René Dumesnil
A major family crisis occurred in 1888. Maupassant’s brother was a man of minimal intelligence—today one would call it arrested development—and could work at nothing more demanding than nursery gardening. In 1888 he suddenly became violently psychotic, and he died in an asylum in 1889. Maupassant was reduced to despair by his brother’s death; but though his grief was genuine, it cannot have been unconnected with his own advanced case of syphilis.

 

In the 1870s he wrote to Flaubert of a ‘black depression’ that was preventing him from writing, to which Flaubert, not buying Maupassant’s diagnosis of a rheumatic complaint, responded:

“Come my dear friend you seem badly worried. You could use your time more agreeably. I’ve come to suspect you have become something of a loafer with too many whores”

Syphilis had been around hundreds of years.  The first written records of an outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494 or 1495 in Naples, Italy, during a French invasion (Italian War of 1494–98). As it was claimed to have been spread by French troops, it was initially known as the "French disease" by the people of Naples.

And the standard treatment for syphilis was mercury, both via 'herbal remedies' and doctor prescribed remedies.

Hist Sci Med. 1996;30(4):501-10.  [The treatment of syphilis with mercury: an exemplary therapeutic history].  [Article in French] Tilles G1, Wallach D.

Prior to the first use of penicillin against syphilis in 1943, mercury had a prominent position in the medical practice despite a tremendous toxicity and questionable efficacy. In fact, during 450 years mercury remained the [only treatment]. The modalities of use increased and the durations of treatment lengthened …. This history of an exceptional duration seems to be a good example of the weight of tradition or habit in the medical practice, and the difficulties to evaluate the treatments without error. PMID: 11625051

 

Most of the symptoms attributed to syphilis in those days – the mental problems, the appalling effects on the joints etc are a direct result of mercury poisoning.  In other words it was usually the treatment that killed the patient.  The brain damage that resulted from the mercury poisoning could produce schizophrenia, manic depression, dementia and then death.

Guy de Maupassant eventually went mad, but the stories that resulted from this terrible doctor inflicted damage were works of genius.

Except that they were not just ‘stories’, they were semi-autobiographical. 

Little of Maupassant’s correspondence survives, so biographers have long since pieced together his declining mental health through these 300-odd semi-autobiographical stories. For anyone interested in mental health, they represent a fascinating set of case histories of the effects of mercury poisoning.

Many of them are about madness.  The Inn, for example, is about two caretakers who go mad through isolation in an inn, and Le Horla, written in 1887 when Maupassant was becoming very ill, concerns the sanity of its, possibly syphilitic, protagonist.

 

By the late 1880s, the syphilis and effects of mercury poisoning had really taken hold and Maupassant became increasingly fond of solitude.

He was also apparently obsessed with the idea of flies eating his brain, was paranoid about death and suffered hallucinations.

His despair became so great that he tried to commit suicide, first with a gun and then with a paper knife, on 2nd January 1892, and was institutionalised in the private asylum of Esprit Blanche at Passy, in Paris.

He was there until he died, from “complications caused by syphilis” on 6th July 1893.

Life and work

Henri-René-Albert-Guy de Maupassant was born 5 August 1850 at the Château de Miromesnil near Dieppe, in the Seine-Inférieure (now Seine-Maritime) department in France. He was the first son of Laure Le Poittevin and Gustave de Maupassant, both from prosperous bourgeois families.

BBC World Service – Tuesday 9th August 2000
Underneath the solid family facade there were cracks. His father, Gustave, was a womaniser and his constant affairs led to a permanent separation from Guy’s mother.

When Guy was 11 and his brother Hervé was five, his mother obtained a legal separation from her husband.  Laure Le Poittevin kept her two sons.

 

With the father's absence, Maupassant's mother became the most influential figure in the young boy's life. She was an exceptionally well-read woman and was very fond of classical literature, particularly Shakespeare. Until the age of thirteen, the family lived in Étretat, in the Villa des Verguies, where, between the sea and the luxuriant countryside, he grew very fond of fishing and outdoor activities.

At age thirteen, however, Guy (along with his brother) became day boarders in a private school, the Institution Leroy-Petit, in Rouen—the Institution Robineau of Maupassant's story La Question du Latin.  From his early education he retained a marked hostility to religion, its ritual and discipline. Finding the place to be unbearable, he finally got himself expelled in his next-to-last year.

In 1868, in autumn, he was sent to the Lycée Pierre-Corneille in Rouen where he proved a better scholar indulging in poetry and taking a prominent part in theatricals.

Boating, rowing and other pursuits

The Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 and he enlisted as a volunteer. In 1871, he left Normandy and moved to Paris where he spent ten years as a clerk in the Navy Department. According to Wikipedia “During this time his only recreation and relaxation was boating on the Seine on Sundays and holidays”.  So they are being a little coy about his main recreational pursuits at the time.  This is the time he caught syphilis.

 

BBC World Service – Tuesday 9th August 2000
....by the age of 20 Guy had abandoned his studies to serve in the army during the Franco Prussian War. His letters from the field demonstrated to his parents a skill for writing and storytelling. 
On his return, his mother introduced him to one of her friends who was to become a huge influence in Maupassant’s life. His lasting friendship with the author of Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert not only provided him with a father figure, but also encouraged his entry into the world of literature. Soon he was mixing with the leading writers of the day, among them Emile Zola, Ivan Turgenev and Henry James and, despite his boring daytime work as a civil servant, his leisure time was spent having fun and mixing with women of dubious reputation.

And

Britannica.com – Article by Martin Turnell and René Dumesnil
One can see from a story like “Mouche” (1890; “Fly”) that the ‘boating expeditions on the Seine’ were more than merely boating expeditions and that the girls who accompanied Maupassant and his friends were usually prostitutes or prospective prostitutes. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the early years in Paris were the start of his phenomenal promiscuity.

Of this time he wrote:

‘She was absolutely crazy into the bargain. She told us that she had been born with a glass of absinthe in her belly, which her mother had drunk just before giving birth to her and she had never sobered up since…Every week we would travel along the Seine with a load of five strapping, light-hearted fellows, steered by a lively scatter brained creature under a parasol of painted paper. We adored her, first for a variety of reasons and then for one in particular…’

‘Write of the things that you know about’

In addition to ‘having fun’, Maupassant adhered to the words of his mentor, Flaubert, who counselled his disciple in his philosophy of writing. He advised his student to write of the things that he knew about and to disregard any ideas of making money from his art.  These words of profound wisdom served Guy for the rest of his writing career.  If one’s motive is to make money, then ‘desire’ comes in the way of obtaining inspiration.  And Maupassant did what he was told.  What is somewhat fascinating is that by doing so, he did make money, he eventually became a wealthy man.  Later in life, for example, he used his wealth to travel extensively in Algeria, Italy, England, Brittany, Sicily, Auvergne, and from each voyage brought back a new volume. He cruised on his private yacht Bel-Ami, named after his novel.

Maupassant’s symptoms at the time included heart palpitations and skin problems, usually a sign of stress, although mercury poisoning can result in these too.  The strain of working by day, writing at night and coping with his mother’s stream of illnesses took its toll. In a letter to Flaubert he made his feelings of despair clear:

‘For three weeks I have been trying to work every night and haven’t been able to write a single page…nothing. The result is that I am gradually falling into a black depression and will have a hard time climbing out again.’

Gustave Flaubert protected him and acted as a kind of literary guardian to him, guiding his debut in journalism and literature. Maupassant wrote and played himself in a comedy in 1875 "À la feuille de rose, maison turque".  The Maison Turque was a brothel.

In 1878, he was transferred to the Ministry of Public Instruction and became a contributing editor to several leading newspapers such as Le Figaro, Gil Blas, Le Gaulois and l'Écho de Paris. He devoted his ‘spare time’ to writing novels and short stories. 

Breakthrough

In 1880 he published "Boule de Suif", which met with instant and tremendous success. Flaubert, Maupassant, Emile Zola, plus a number of other writers had begun calling themselves ‘naturalists’. Their aim was to show the life, suffering and exploitation of ordinary people and in 1880 they published an anthology entitled Soirés de Medan, which included Maupassant’s Boule De Suif (Ball Of Fat).  As Flaubert counselled his disciple write of the things that you know about.

Britannica.com – Article by Martin Turnell and René Dumesnil
Maupassant’s story, “Boule de suif” (“Ball of Fat”), … is probably the finest story he ever wrote. In it, a prostitute traveling by coach is companionably treated by her fellow French passengers, who are anxious to share her provisions of food, but then a German officer stops the coach and refuses to let it proceed until he has possessed her; the other passengers induce her to satisfy him, and then ostracize her for the rest of the journey. “Boule de suif” epitomizes Maupassant’s style in its economy and balance.

 

 

At that time the short story was a very popular form of literature and Maupassant became a best-selling author almost overnight.

His ability to portray real people coupled with humour and candid sexuality won readers and throughout the 1880s he went on to create 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books and one volume of verse.

A life of luxury and excess

Although Maupassant’s literary career probably only lasted for about ten years, he was extremely successful.

He gave up his civil service work and whole heartedly pursued a career as a writer; his life became a round of luxury and sophistication. 

Britannica.com – Article by Martin Turnell and René Dumesnil

Maupassant prospered from his best-sellers and maintained an apartment in Paris with an annex for clandestine meetings with women, a house at Étretat, a couple of residences on the Riviera, and several yachts. He began to travel in 1881, visiting French Africa and Italy, and in 1889 he paid his only visit to England.

 

While lunching in a restaurant there as Henry James’s guest, he shocked his host profoundly by pointing to a woman at a neighbouring table and asking James to “get” her for him…………..
Maupassant’s most important full-length novels are Une Vie, Bel-Ami (1885; “Good Friend”), and Pierre et Jean (1888). Bel-Ami is drawn from the author’s observation of the world of sharp businessmen and cynical journalists in Paris, and it is a scathing satire on a society whose members let nothing stand in the way of their ambition to get rich quick. Bel-Ami, the amiable but amoral hero of the novel, has become a standard literary personification of an ambitious opportunist.
…as the successful writer became more closely acquainted with women of the nobility there was a change of angle in his fiction: a move from brothels and prostitution to the upper classes, from the brothel to the boudoir. Maupassant’s later books of short stories include for example, Le Rosier de Madame Husson (1888; “The Rose-Bush of Madame Husson”), and L’Inutile Beauté (1890; “The Useless Beauty”).

Perhaps of equal interest is that he saw the world of wealth for what it was – a tawdry unreal world of ‘dog eat dog’, where you are always looking over your shoulder to see if there are those about to stab you in the back, as you may have stabbed others.  Maupassant had discovered hell.  One of his influential short stories of the time was The Necklace:

Wikipedia

 

One of the themes within "The Necklace" is the dichotomy of reality vs. appearance. Madame Loisel is beautiful on the outside, but internally, she is filled with discontent for her less-than-wealthy lifestyle. This idea goes hand-in-hand with the notion that [she believes that] wealth is necessary in order for one to be happy. Mathilde is gripped by a greed that contrasts with the kind generosity of her husband. She believes that material wealth will bring her joy, and her pride prevents her from admitting to Madame Forestier [from whom she borrows the necklace] that she is not rich, and that she has lost the necklace that was lent to her.  Because of her pride and obsession with wealth, Mathilde loses years of her life and spends all of her savings on replacing the necklace, only to find out that the original necklace was a fake to begin with; a falsely wealthy appearance, just like Madame Loisel herself.

As Flaubert counselled his disciple write of the things that you know about

The Dark side

His life had started to catch up with him.  Maupassant’s mentor, Flaubert, had been key in his life, but in 1880 he died.

Britannica.com – Article by Martin Turnell and René Dumesnil
Whenever Flaubert was staying in Paris, he used to invite Maupassant to lunch on Sundays, lecture him on prose style, and correct his youthful literary exercises. He also introduced him to some of the leading writers of the time, such as Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, Edmond Goncourt, and Henry James. “He’s my disciple and I love him like a son,” Flaubert said of Maupassant. It was a concise description of a twofold relationship: if Flaubert was the inspiration for Maupassant the writer, he also provided the child of a broken marriage with a foster father. Flaubert’s sudden and unexpected death in 1880 was a grievous blow to Maupassant.

 

Then, the combined effects of the syphilis and mercury poisoning also started to really take a hold.  Although Maupassant appeared outwardly a sturdy, healthy, athletic man, his letters are full of lamentations about his health, particularly eye trouble and migraine headaches. His work began to reflect his macabre thoughts.  It often took the form of nightmarish stories and paranoid tales.

BBC World Service – Tuesday 9th August 2000
By the latter half of the 1880s, Maupassant's health was in decline. His friends began to remark on his unusual behaviour and his writing became shocking and, on occasion nothing short of outrageous. Maupassant had always had a taste for the macabre but, combined with his fears for himself, he now produced a series of disturbing stories such as Yvette, which detailed a bloody self abortion; Le Horla, presented a diary account of the narrator’s descent into madness and Pierre et Jean, a profile of two brothers was thought immoral as the hero is successful in his wrong doings.

As Flaubert counselled his disciple write of the things that you know about

There are two very key ‘stories’ of the time that show what it is like to experience psychosis from syphilis and mercury poisoning "Le Horla" and "Qui sait?", both of which describe his spiritual experiences of the realm of hell!

British Medical Journal London Saturday March 3 1951 - Visual Hallucination of the Self By Jean Lhermitte, M.D.  Honorary Professor, Faculty of Medicine, Paris

The phenomenon of the double as we find it in literature has long been considered to be a purely intellectual notion or the result of imagination. But in fact all we know to-day shows that nothing is created that has not been more or less deeply felt.  Many are the writers, novelists, philosophers, or poets who have used the image of the double in their work……………No doubt one can object that if so many authors have indulged in a description of the phenomenon one cannot consider them all to be ill or insane. Although I do not want to generalize to excess, let me remind you that all the writers who best described the vision of the double were singularly abnormal. …..Guy de Maupassant, when he described his hallucination in Le Horla, was already stricken with syphilis…………. was also visited by the apparition of his double, was subject to persecutions and hallucinations, and, finally, became insane.

Maupassant was fascinated by his illness and the ‘progress’ it took.  So much so that he attended the public lectures of Jean-Martin Charcot between 1885 and 1886.

Maupassant became increasingly sombre as the syphilis attacked his spinal cord and brain. In January 1892 he attempted to shoot himself, when he failed he rammed a paper knife into his throat and was committed to an asylum the next day. He died some months later, a little before his 43rd birthday.

 

References

 

Novels

  • Une Vie (1883)
  • Bel-Ami (1885)
  • Mont-Oriol (1887)
  • Pierre et Jean (1888)
  • Fort comme la mort (1889)
  • Notre Cœur (1890)

Short-story collections

  • Les Soirées de Médan (with Zola, Huysmans et al. Contains Boule de Suif by Maupassant) (1880)
  • La Maison Tellier (1881)
  • Mademoiselle Fifi (1883)
  • Contes de la Bécasse (1883)
  • Miss Harriet (1884)
  • Les Sœurs Rondoli (1884)
  • Clair de lune (1884) (contains "Les Bijoux")
  • Yvette (1884)
  • Contes du jour et de la nuit (1885) (contains "La Parure" or "The Necklace")
  • Monsieur Parent (1886)
  • La Petite Roque (1886)
  • Toine (1886)
  • Le Horla (1887)
  • Le Rosier de Madame Husson (1888)
  • La Main gauche (1889)
  • L'Inutile Beauté (1890)

Travel writing

  • Au soleil (1884)
  • Sur l'eau (1888)
  • La Vie errante (1890)

Poetry

  • Des Vers (1880) containing Nuit de Neige

Observations

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