Like Theophile Gautier before him, (see my ‘Clarimonde’ review of the 8th November) Guy de Maupassant was another protégé of Hoffmann and his tales of paranoid delusion. Striking in their difference – even to this novice - is the unnerving suspicion he merely enlarged upon what he himself experienced.
Among these sixteen swift tales it seems it is the author, rather than a character of his own devising, who narrates. Either Maupassant never bothered to delineate separate voices, or he remained happy to let the reader assume each were his own. Certainly, the narrators – if they are plural - are faceless, anonymous; separate names never given us.
Turning back to Arnold Kellett’s Introduction, a picture is painted, tactfully, between the lines, of a mother’s boy with an overactive imagination who - hating work - got lucky, fucking his way to a modest literary success. Flaubert – a friend of Mme. de Maupassant – initially guided him, Zola initially published him, and English poet Algernon Swinburne was rescued from drowning by him off the
What concerns Maupassant more than the ambiguous source of the terrors described is the effect these terrors had on his characters psyches. Or, should I say, his own. He is too scared to seek the source. In
at the time, it was best to keep away from such things in case they were ‘unholy’ or dangerously scientific. The excuse in Maupassant’s Britain was pleasingly more personal and pragmatic; keep away because your own mind is too powerful and this power we have yet to understand and harness. France
Clearly, he is communicating these effects based upon his own psychosis. He seems to be playing out his innermost fears in public as a means to, perhaps, overcome them.
What intrigues is precisely when this occurred in life. He’d contracted syphilis before he reached 30; on passing 40 it had reached his cerebral cortex, inciting hallucinations, some of which he turned against himself.
So, the paranoia described across this collection was, quite likely, his own.
In an earlier collection, Editor Gerald Gould claimed ‘Maupassant, of course, overwrote,’ whereas, here, Kellett states, ‘though he is easy to read, he is notoriously difficult to translate – mainly because of his strict economy of expression.’ Clearly, they cannot both be right. The good news is Kellett’s assertion rings truest. You will whip through these tales, without fear of any grandiose Gallic pretension or over-stylised description you might have anticipated.
‘The Horla’ is the most famous of these. A more accurate depiction of a nervous breakdown in progression – its transcendent highs and plummeted lows - you will not find among the files of your average psychotherapist. (This reviewer should know).
‘Who Knows?’ – a phrase of helpless resignation repeated throughout -appears last, from the private mental hospital Maupassant was staying at up to his death aged 43.
Don’t let this fool you, however. A second piece of good news for the first-timer to this author is the wry sense of humour, rarely mentioned and likely underused. The last line in ‘The Wolf’ gives away Maupassant’s true position as a creative artist and I won’t spoil things by repeating it here.