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than the one they like a limitation excellent for a
reader but poor for a judge), the occasion happens to
be none of the best for saying so, for M. de Mau-
passant himself precisely presents all the symptoms
of a " case " in the most striking way, and shows us
how far the consideration of them may take us.
Embracing such an opportunity as this, and giving
ourselves to it freely, seems to me indeed to be a
course more fruitful in valid conclusions, as well as
in entertainment by the way, than the more common
method of establishing one's own premises. To make
clear to ourselves those of the author of Pierre et
Jean those to which he is committed by the very
nature of his mind is an attempt that will both
stimulate and repay curiosity. There is no way of
looking at his work less dry, less academic, for as we
proceed from one of his peculiarities to another, the
whole horizon widens, yet without our leaving firm
ground, and we see ourselves landed, step by step, in
the most general questions those explanations of
things which reside in the race, in the society. Of
course there are cases and cases, and it is the salient
ones that the disinterested critic is delighted to

What makes M. de Maupassant salient is two


facts : the first of which is that his gifts are remark-
ably strong and definite, and the second that he
writes directly from them, as it were : holds the
fullest, the most uninterrupted I scarcely know
what to call it the boldest communication with
them. A case is poor when the cluster of the artist's
sensibilities is small, or they themselves are wanting
in keenness, or else when the personage fails to
admit them either through ignorance, or diffidence,
or stupidity, or the error of a false ideal to what
may be called a legitimate share in his attempt. It
is, I think, among English and American writers
that this latter accident is most liable to occur;
more than the French we are apt to be misled by
some convention or other as to the sort of feeler
we ought to put forth, forgetting that the best one
will be the one that nature happens to have given
us. We have doubtless often enough the courage of
our opinions (when it befalls that we have opinions),
but we have not so constantly that of our percep-
tions. There is a whole side of our perceptive
apparatus that we in fact neglect, and there are
probably many among us who would erect this
tendency into a duty. M. de Maupassant neglects
nothing that he possesses ; he cultivates his garden
with admirable energy ; and if there is a flower you
miss from the rich parterre, you may be sure that
it could not possibly have been raised, his mind not
containing the soil for it. He is plainly of the
opinion that the first duty of the artist, and the


thing thai; makes him most useful to his fellow-men,
is to master his instrument, whatever it may happen
to be.

His own is that of the senses, and it is through
them alone, or almost alone, that life appeals to him;
it is almost alone by their help that he describes it,
that he produces brilliant works. They render him
this great assistance because they are evidently, in
his constitution, extraordinarily alive ; there is scarcety
a page in all his twenty volumes that does not testify
to their vivacity. Nothing could be further from his
thought than to disavow them and to minimise their
importance. He accepts them frankly, gratefully,
works them, rejoices in them. If he were told that
there are many English writers who would be sorry
to go with him in this, he would, I imagine, staring,
say that that is about what was to have been expected
of the Anglo-Saxon race, or even that many of them
probably could not go with him if they would. Then
he would ask how our authors can be so foolish as to
sacrifice such a moyen, how they can afford to, and
exclaim, "They must be pretty works, those they
produce, and give a fine, true, complete account of
life, with such omissions, such lacunae ! " M. de
Maupassant's productions teach us, for instance, that
his sense of smell is exceptionally acute as acute as
that of those animals of the field and forest whose
subsistence and security depend upon it. It might
be thought that he would, as a student of the human
race, have found an abnormal development of this


faculty embarrassing, scarcely knowing what to do
with it, where to place it. But such an apprehension
betrays an imperfect conception of his directness and
resolution, as well as of his constant economy of
means. Nothing whatever prevents him from repre-
senting the relations of men and women as largely
governed by the scent of the parties. Human life in
his pages (would this not be the most general descrip-
tion he would give of it ?) appears for the most part
as a sort of concert of odours, and his people are
perpetually engaged, or he is engaged on their behalf,
in sniffing up and distinguishing them, in some
pleasant or painful exercise of the nostril. "If every-
thing in life speaks to the nostril, why on earth
shouldn't we say so ? " I suppose him to inquire ;
" and what a proof of the empire of poor conventions
and hypocrisies, chez vous autres, that you should pre-
tend to describe and characterise, and yet take no
note (or so little that it comes to the same thing) of
that essential sign ! "

Not less powerful is his visual sense, the quick,
direct discrimination of his eye, which explains the
singularly vivid concision of his descriptions. These
are never prolonged nor analytic, have nothing of
enumeration, of the quality of the observer, who
counts the items to be sure he has made up the sum.
His eye selects unerringly, unscrupulously, almost
impudently catches the particular thing in which
the character of the object or the scene resides, and,
by expressing it with the artful brevity of a master,


leaves a convincing, original picture. If he is in-
veterately synthetic, he is never more so than in the
way he brings this hard, short, intelligent gaze to
bear. His vision of the world is for the most part
a vision of ugliness, and even when it is not, there is
in his easy power to generalise a certain absence of
love, a sort of bird's-eye-view contempt. He has
none of the superstitions of observation, none of our
English indulgences, our tender and often imaginative
superficialities. If he glances into a railway carriage
bearing its freight into the Parisian suburbs of a
summer Sunday, a dozen dreary lives map themselves
out in a flash.

"There were stout ladies in farcical clothes, those middle-
class goodwives of the banlieue who replace the distinction they
don't possess by an irrelevant dignity ; gentlemen weary of the
office, with sallow faces and twisted bodies, and one of their
shouldei's a little forced up by perpetual bending at work over
a table. Their anxious, joyless faces spoke moreover of domestic
worries, incessant needs for money, old hopes finally shattered ;
for they all belonged to the army of poor threadbare devils who
vegetate frugally in a mean little plaster house, with a flower-
bed for a garden." . . .

Even in a brighter picture, such as the admirable
vignette of the drive of Madame Tellier and her
companions, the whole thing is an impression, as
painters say nowadays, in which the figures are
cheap. The six women at the station clamber into
a country cart and go jolting through the Norman
landscape to the village.

"But presently the jerky trot of the nag shook the vehicle
so terribly that the chairs began to dance, tossing up the


travellers to right, to left, with movements like puppets, scared
grimaces, cries of dismay suddenly interrupted by a more
violent bump. They clutched the sides of the trap, their
bonnets turned over on to their backs, or upon the nose or the
shoulder ; and the white horse continued to go, thrusting out
his head and straightening the little tail, hairless like that of a
rat, with which from time to time he whisked his buttocks
Joseph Rivet, with one foot stretched upon the shaft, the other
leg bent under him, and his elbows very high, held the reins
and emitted from his throat every moment a kind of cluck
which caused the animal to prick up his ears and quicken his
pace. On either side of the road the green country stretched
away. The colza, in flower, produced in spots a great carpet
of undulating yellow, from which there rose a strong, whole-
some smell, a smell penetrating and pleasant, carried very far
by the breeze. In the tall rye the cornflowers held up their
little azure heads, which the women wished to pluck ; but M.
Rivet refused to stop. Then, in some place, a whole field
looked as if it were sprinkled with blood, it was so crowded
with poppies. And in the midst of the great level, taking
colour in this fashion from the flowers of the soil, the trap
passed on with the jog of the white horse, seeming itself to
carry a nosegay of richer hues ; it disappeared behind the big
trees of a farm, to come out again where the foliage stopped and
parade afresh through the green and yellow crops, pricked with
red or bine, its blazing cartload of women, which receded in
the sunshine."

As regards the other sense, the sense par excellence,
the sense which we scarcely mention in English
fiction, and which I am not very sure I shall be
allowed to mention in an English periodical, M. de
Maupassant speaks for that, and of it, with extra-
ordinary distinctness and authority. To say that it
occupies the first place in his picture is to say too
little ; it covers in truth the whole canvas, and his


work is little else but a report of its innumerable
manifestations. These manifestations are not, for
him, so many incidents of life ; they are life itself,
they represent the standing answer to any question
that we may ask about it. He describes them in
detail, with a familiarity and a frankness which
leave nothing to be added ; I should say with
singular truth, if I did not consider that in regard
to this article he may be taxed with a certain exag-
geration. M. de Maupassant would doubtless affirm
that where the empire of the sexual sense is con-
cerned, no exaggeration is possible : nevertheless it
may be said that whatever depths may be discovered
by those who dig for them, the impression of the
human spectacle for him who takes it as it comes has
less analogy with that of the monkeys' cage than this
admirable writer's account of it. I speak of the
human spectacle as we Anglo-Saxons see it as we
Anglo-Saxons pretend we see it, M. de Maupassant
would possibly say.

At any rate, I have perhaps touched upon this
peculiarity sufficiently to explain my remark that
his point of view is almost solely that of the senses.
If he is a very interesting case, this makes him also
an embarrassing one, embarrassing and mystifying for
the moralist. I may as well admit that no writer of
the day strikes me as equally so. To find M. de
Maupassant a lion in the path that may seem to
some people a singular proof of want of courage ; but
I think the obstacle will not be made light of by


those who have really taken the measure of the
animal. We are accustomed to think, we of the
English faith, that a cynic is a living advertisement
of his errors, especially in proportion as he is a
thorough-going one ; and M. de Maupassant's cynicism,
unrelieved as it is, will not be disposed of off-hand by
a critic of a competent literary sense. Such a critic
is not slow to perceive, to his no small confusion,
that though, judging from usual premises, the author
of Bel-Ami ought to be a warning, he somehow is
not. His baseness, as it pervades him, ought to be
written all over him ; yet somehow there are there
certain aspects and those commanding, as the
house-agents say in which it is not in the least to
be perceived. It is easy to exclaim that if he judges
life only from the point of view of the senses, many
are the noble and exquisite things that he must leave
out. What he leaves out has no claim to get itself
considered till after we have done justice to what he
takes in. It is this positive side of M. de Maupassant
that is most remarkable the fact that his literary
character is so complete and edifying. " Auteur a peu
pres irreprochabledans ungenrequi ne Test pas,"as that
excellent critic M. Jules Lemaitre says of him, he dis-
turbs us by associating a conscience and a high standard
with a temper long synonymous, in our eyes, with an
absence of scruples. The situation would be simpler
certainly if he were a bad writer ; but none the less it
is possible, I think, on the whole, to circumvent him,
even without attempting to prove that after all he is one.


The latter part of his introduction to Pierre d
Jean is less felicitous than the beginning, but we
learn from it and this is interesting that he re-
gards the analytic fashion of telling a story, which
has lately begotten in his own country some such
remarkable experiments (few votaries as it has at-
tracted among ourselves), as very much less profit-
able than the simple epic manner which "avoids
with care all complicated explanations, all disserta-
tions upon motives, and confines itself to making
persons and events pass before our eyes." M. de
Maupassant adds that in his view "psychology
should be hidden in a book, as it is hidden in
reality under the facts of existence. The novel con-
ceived in this manner gains interest, 'movement,
colour, the bustle of life." When it is a question of
an artistic process, we must always mistrust very
sharp distinctions, for there is surely in every
method a little of every other method. It is as
difficult to describe an action without glancing at
its motive, its moral history, as it is to describe a
motive without glancing at its practical consequence.
Our history and our fiction are what we do ; but it
surely is not more .easy to determine where what
we do begins than to determine where it ends
notoriously a hopeless task. Therefore it would
take a very subtle sense to draw a hard and fast
line on the borderland of explanation and illustra-
tion. If psychology be hidden in life, as, according
to M, de Maupassant, it should be in a book, the


question immediately comes up, "From whom is it
hidden 1 " From some people, no doubt, but very
much less from others; and all depends upon the
observer, the nature of one's observation, and one's
curiosity. For some people motives, reasons, rela-
tions, explanations, are a part of the very surface of
the drama, with the footlights beating full upon
them. For me an act, an incident, an attitude,
may be a sharp, detached, isolated thing, of which I
give a full account in saying that in such and such a
way it came off. For you it may be hung about
with implications, with relations, and conditions as
necessary to help you to recognise it as the clothes
of your friends are to help you know them in the
street. You feel that they would seem strange to
you without petticoats and trousers.

M. de Maupassant would probably urge that the
right thing is to know, or to guess, how events come
to pass, but to say as little about it as possible.
There are matters in regard to which he feels the
importance of being explicit, but that is not one of
them. The. contention to which I allude strikes me as
rather arbitrary, so difficult is it to put one's finger
upon the reason why, for instance, there should be
so little mystery about what happened to Christiane
Andermatt, in Mont-Oriol, when she went to walk on
the hills with Paul Bretigny, and so much, say, about
the forces that formed her for that gentleman's
convenience, or those lying behind any other odd
collapse that our author may have related. The


rule misleads, and the best rule certainly is the tact
of the individual writer, which will adapt itself to
the material as the material comes to him. The
cause we plead is ever pretty sure to be the cause of
our idiosyncrasies, and if M. de Maupassant thinks
meanly of " explanations," it is, I suspect, that they
come to him in no great affluence. His view of the
conduct of man is so simple as scarcely to require
them ; and indeed so far as they are needed he is,
virtually, explanatory. He deprecates reference to
motives, but there is one, covering an immense
ground in his horizon, as I have already hinted, to
which he perpetually refers. If the sexual impulse
be not a moral antecedent, it is none the less the wire
that moves almost all M. de Maupassant's puppets,
and as he has not hidden it, I cannot see that he has
eliminated analysis or made a sacrifice to discretion.
His pages are studded with that particular analysis ;
he is constantly peeping behind the curtain, telling
us what he discovers there. The truth is that the
admirable system of simplification which makes his
tales so rapid and so concise (especially his shorter
ones, for his novels in some degree, I think, suffer
from it), strikes us as not in the least a conscious
intellectual effort, a selective, comparative process.
He tells us all he knows, all he suspects, and if
these things take no account of the moral nature of
man, it is because he has no window looking in that
direction, and not because artistic scruples have com-
pelled him to close it up. The very compact


mansion in which he dwells presents on that side
a perfectly dead wall.

This is why, if his axiom that you produce the
effect of truth better by painting people from the
outside than from the inside has a large utility, his
example is convincing in a much higher degree. A
writer is fortunate when his theory and his limita-
tions so exactly correspond, when his curiosities may
be appeased with such precision and promptitude.
M. de Maupassant contends that the most that the
analytic novelist can do is to put himself his own
peculiarities into the costume of the figure analysed.
This may be true, but if it applies to one manner of
representing people who are not ourselves, it applies
also to any other manner. It is the limitation, the
difficulty of the novelist, to whatever clan or camp
he may belong. M. de Maupassant is remarkably
objective and impersonal, but he would go too far if
he were to entertain the belief that he has kept him-
self out of his books. They speak of him eloquently,
even if it only be to tell us how easy how easy,
given his talent of course he has found this imper-
sonality. Let us hasten to add that in the case of
describing a character it is doubtless more difficult
to convey the impression of something that is not
one's self (the constant effort, however delusive at
bottom, of the novelist), than in the case of de-
scribing some object more immediately visible. The
operation is more delicate, but that circumstance
only increases the beauty of the problem.


On the question of style our author has some
excellent remarks ; we may be grateful indeed for
every one of them, save an odd reflection about the
way to " become original " if we happen not to be so.
The recipe for this transformation, it would appear,
is to sit down in front of a blazing fire, or a tree in
a plain, or any object we encounter in the regular
way of business, and remain there until the tree, or
the fire, or the object, whatever it be, become differ-
ent for us from all other specimens of the same class.
I doubt whether this sy ? stem would always answer,
for surely the resemblance is what we wish to dis-
cover, quite as much as the difference, and the best
way to preserve it is not to look for something
opposed to it. Is not this indication of the road
to take to become, as a writer, original touched
with the same fallacy as the recommendation about
eschewing analysis? It is the only naivete I have
encountered in M. de Maupassant's many volumes.
The best originality is the most unconscious, and the
best way to describe a tree is the way in which it
has struck us. " Ah, but we don't always know how
it has struck us," the answer to that may be, " and it
takes some time and ingenuity much fasting and
prayer to find out." If we do not know, it probably
has not struck us very much : so little indeed that our
inquiry had better be relegated to that closed chamber
of an artist's meditations, that sacred back kitchen,
which no a priori rule can light up. The best thing
the artist's adviser can do in such a case is to trust


him and turn away, to let him fight the matter out
with his conscience. And be this said with a full
appreciation of the degree in which M. de Maupas-
sant's observations on the whole question of a writer's
style, at the point we have come to to-day, bear the
stamp of intelligence and experience. His own style
is of so excellent a tradition that the presumption is
altogether in favour of what he may have to say.

He feels oppressively, discouragingly, as many
another of his countrymen must have felt for the
French have worked their language as no other
people have done the penalty of coming at the
end of three centuries of literature, the difficulty of
dealing with an instrument of expression so worn
by friction, of drawing new sounds from the old
familiar pipe. "When we read, so saturated with
French writing as we are that our whole body gives
us the impression of being a paste made of words,
do we ever find a line, a thought, which is not
familiar to us, and of which we have not had at least
a confused presentiment ? " And he adds that the
matter is simple enough for the writer who only
seeks to amuse the public by means already known ;
he attempts little, and he produces " with confidence,
in the candour of his mediocrity," works which answer
no question and leave no trace. It is he who wants
to do more than this that has less and less an easy
time of it. Everything seems to him to have been
done, every effect produced, every combination already
made. If he be a man of genius, his trouble ig


lightened, for mysterious ways are revealed to him,
and new combinations spring up for him even after
novelty is dead. It is to the simple man of taste
and talent, who has only a conscience and a will,
that the situation may sometimes well appear des-
perate; he judges himself as he goes, and he can
only go step by step over ground where every step
is already a footprint.

If it be a miracle whenever there is a fresh tone,
the miracle has been wrought for M. de M'aupassant.
Or is he simply a man of genius to whom short cuts
have been disclosed in the watches of the night ? At
any rate he has had faith religion has come to his
aid ; I mean the religion of his mother tongue, which
he has loved well enough to be patient for her sake.
He has arrived at the peace which passeth under-
standing, at a kind of conservative piety. He has
taken his stand on simplicity, on a studied sobriety,
being persuaded that the deepest science lies in that
direction rather than in the multiplication of new
terms, and on this subject he delivers himself with
superlative wisdom. " There is no need of the queer,
complicated, numerous, and Chinese vocabulary which
is imposed on us to-day under the name of artistic
writing, to fix all the shades of thought ; the right
way is to distinguish with an extreme clearness all
those modifications of the value of a word which
come from the place it occupies. Let us have fewer
nouns, verbs and adjectives of an almost impercep-
tible sense, and more different phrases variously con-


structed, ingeniously cast, full of the science of sound
and rhythm. Let us have an excellent general form
rather than be collectors of rare terms." M. de
Maupassant's practice does not fall below his exhor-
tation (though I must confess that in the foregoing
passage he makes use of the detestable expression
"stylist," which I have not reproduced). Nothing
can exceed the masculine firmness, the quiet force of
his own style, in which every phrase is a close
sequence, every epithet a paying piece, and the
ground is completely cleared of the vague, the ready-
made and the second-best. Less than any one to-day
does he beat the air ; more than any one does he hit
out from the shoulder.


HE has produced a hundred short tales and only four
regular novels ; but if the tales deserve the first
place in any candid appreciation of his talent it is

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Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 15 of 24)