On August 5, 1850, French writer Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was born. Maupassant is remembered as a master of the short story form, and as a representative of the naturalist school of writers, who depicted human lives and destinies and social forces in disillusioned and often pessimistic terms. I’ve read Maupassant‘s Bel Ami by the time I graduated in computer science, a novel that did make a lasting impression. What I especially liked about the novel was that usually in a 19th century novel the “bad guy” in the end will get his punishment, more or less the typical morality. With Bel Ami, the unscrupulous beau takes advantage of the people to enable his rise in the French fin-de-siècle society … and succeeds. Bel-Ami has become a standard literary personification of an ambitious opportunist.
Henri-René-Albert-Guy de Maupassant was born at the Château de Miromesnil (Castle Miromesnil, near Dieppe in the Seine-Inférieure (now Seine-Maritime) department in France, as the first son of Laure Le Poittevin and Gustave de Maupassant, both from prosperous bourgeois families. Unfortunately, the marriage was a failure, and the couple separated permanently when Guy was eleven years old. Maupassant’s mother was an exceptionally well read woman and was very fond of classical literature, particularly Shakespeare. At age thirteen, his mother next placed Maupassant and his brother as day boarders in a private school, the Institution Leroy-Petit. From his early education he retained a marked hostility to religion. Finding the place to be unbearable, he finally got himself expelled in his next-to-last year.
In 1867, as he entered junior high school, Maupassant made acquaintance with Gustave Flaubert. He continued his education at the Lycée Pierre-Corneille in Rouen where he proved a good scholar indulging in poetry. In October 1868, at the age of 18, he saved the famous poet Algernon Charles Swinburne from drowning off the coast of Étretat. Soon after his graduation Maupassant enlisted as a volunteer for the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. First, he served as a private in the field, and later was transferred through his father’s intervention to the quartermaster corps. His firsthand experience of war was to provide him with the material for some of his finest stories. Maupassant was demobilized in July 1871 and resumed his law studies in Paris.
With the help of his father, Maupassant obtained a post in the Ministry of Marine, which was intended to support him until he qualified as a lawyer. He did not care much for the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, his father managed to have him transferred, at his own wish, to the Ministry of Public Instruction in 1879. Gustave Flaubert took him under his protection guiding his debut in journalism and literature. With Flaubert he met Émile Zola and the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, as well as many of the proponents of the realist and naturalist schools. 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.
In 1880 Maupassant published what is considered his first masterpiece, “Boule de Suif“, which met with instant and tremendous success with its withering criticism of the French society of the late 19th century. Maupassant takes representatives from the different classes of French Society and places them all in the same carriage, which is then accidentally driven behind enemy lines during the Franco-Prussian war. In time, the true character of each participant is revealed as Maupassant passes scathing judgement upon his fellow countrymen. Flaubert characterized it as “a masterpiece that will endure.” This was Maupassant’s first piece of short fiction set during the Franco-Prussian War, and was followed by short stories such as “Deux Amis“, “Mother Savage“, and “Mademoiselle Fifi“.
The 10 years from 1880 to 1890 were remarkable for their productivity; he published some 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books, and his only volume of verse. In 1881 Maupassant published his first rather successful volume of short stories under the title of La Maison Tellier. In 1883 he finished his first novel, Une Vie (A Woman’s Life). With its success, Maupassant’s life became a round of luxury and sophistication. His second and probably most famous novel Bel Ami, which came out in 1885, had thirty-seven printings in four months. In 1888, Pierre and Jean, maybe his most important work, was published. Pierre et Jean is the tale of a man’s tragic jealousy of his half-brother, who is the child of their mother’s adultery. Besides Bel Ami, I also want to mention another favorite of mine, the short story Le Horla (1887), which presents an intense diary account of the narrator’s descent into madness.
With a natural aversion to society, Maupassant loved retirement, solitude, and meditation. He traveled extensively in Algeria, Italy, England, Brittany, Sicily, Auvergne, and from each voyage brought back a new volume. He made friends among the literary celebrities of his day like Alexandre Dumas, fils, who had a paternal affection for him, while Flaubert continued to act as his literary godfather.
Maupassant was one of a fair number of 19th-century Parisians who did not care for the Eiffel Tower. He often ate lunch in the restaurant at its base, not out of preference for the food but because it was only there that he could avoid seeing its otherwise unavoidable profile. Although Maupassant appeared outwardly a sturdy, healthy, athletic man, his letters are full of lamentations about his health, particularly eye trouble and migraine headaches. With the passing of the years he had become more and more sombre. In his later years he developed a constant desire for solitude, an obsession for self-preservation, and a fear of death and paranoia of persecution caused by the syphilis he had contracted in his youth. In 1892, Maupassant tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat, and was committed to the a private asylum in Paris, where he died 6 July 1893.
At yovisto you can learn more about the daily life of the French people, esp. about the raise of the bourgeoisie in the lecture of Prof. John Merriman of Yale University.
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