In 1883, Guy de Maupassant published the first of his six novels, Une Vie. Asking psychological and formal questions about how to represent a life, the story spans almost thirty years in the existence of Jeanne de Lamare, whose experiences offer a brutal education in the gulf between reality and romantic fiction. Economy is a key characteristic in the presentation of Jeanne’s dreary life. Paragraphs are short, sentences are laconic, patterns of repetition and circularity are evoked by means of symbolic shorthand. The passage of time is evoked through recurrent glimpses of calendars, watches and Jeanne’s beehive-shaped clock, which poignantly summarizes a capacity for productivity that is never realized. If Une Vie offers an example of Maupassant’s skill in concision, there is something ironic in the publication of a sprawling new biography devoted to Maupassant’s own forty-two-year existence, its account of a life anything but economical. Marlo Johnston’s 1,336-page work is a densely packed compendium of detail about one of France’s most popular writers.
Maupassant’s life has long proved attractive to biographers. Johnston’s book is not the only account of his life to appear this year. A somewhat shorter volume was published by Frédéric Martinez in February. They describe a life of extremes: success, failure; creativity, morbidity; joie de vivre and jadedness. Maupassant was a writer who worked hard and played even harder. His career was characterized by a rapid rise to acclaim and fortune, but also by bouts of illness caused by the syphilis he contracted as a young man.
Born in Normandy in 1850, Guy was the elder son of the wealthy but feckless Gustave de Maupassant and the intelligent but febrile Laure Le Poittevin. The disharmony of his parents’ relationship became manifest in 1863, when they formally separated. Contact with literary figures during his adolescence proved memorable. As Johnston recounts, the teenage Maupassant saved the poet Swinburne from drowning while he was on holiday on the coast at Étretat; by way of thanks, he was invited to dine with Swinburne and his lover, George Powell, sampling spit-roast monkey and perusing gay pornography.
The Franco–Prussian war in 1870–71 saw Maupassant conscripted and, in the aftermath of the war, with the family finances overturned, he had to abandon his preparations for a legal career and became instead a minor civil servant, first in the Ministry for the Navy and later in the Ministry of Education. These experiences were formative: the tedium and penury of his time as a government pen-pusher compelled Maupassant to seek an alternative way of making money. Far from being inspired purely by literary ideals, he became a canny and productive writer, acutely aware that literary success could act as an emancipation from bureaucracy.
Maupassant first came to celebrity with the publication of his short story “Boule de Suif”, which appeared in the collection of Naturalist literature spearheaded by Émile Zola, Les Soirées de Médan (1880). The vivid tale of a generous-minded prostitute forced to flee her home during the war, it weaves together the personal humiliation of Boule de Suif, who sacrifices herself to the sexual demands of Prussian officers in order to secure the release of her hypocritical travelling companions, with the national humiliation experienced in the wake of military capitulation. After its success there followed a feverishly productive decade. Maupassant became known as a reporter and columnist; all six of his novels were published within seven years; he travelled widely and produced accounts of his journeys; he bought a yacht, engaged in numerous liaisons, and was celebrated for his parties.
In addition to the novels Maupassant was to publish more than 300 short stories, 200 articles, two plays and three works of travel writing. By the end of the 1880s he was earning around 120,000 francs a year (the equivalent of £275,000–£300,000 today); he had sold almost 350,000 copies of his works by the end of 1891. Such intense creativity was increasingly blighted, though, by the effects of syphilis. The migraines and poor eyesight associated with the disease made it particularly difficult to write, and for his later works, Maupassant did his plotting in his mind, rather than on paper. Productivity and success were accompanied by physical and mental decline, culminating in an attempted suicide on New Year’s Day 1892, when he slit his throat with a paper-knife. He died in a psychiatric clinic in July 1893.
Maupassant’s career stands out not only because of its heady success and dramatic demise. He was also one of the most famous literary apprentices in history: his “master”, Flaubert, was a childhood friend of Guy’s mother. Introduced to Flaubert as a young man, Maupassant was encouraged to write and to show Flaubert copies of his bawdy epic verse. An affectionate friendship developed between the two men, and Maupassant spent his Sunday afternoons at Flaubert’s literary gatherings. As the summary of Une Vie suggests, the style and content of Maupassant’s first novel owe a great deal to the rhythms and patterns of Madame Bovary.