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not simply because they are so much the more
numerous : they are also more characteristic ; they
represent him best in his originality, and their
brevity, extreme in some cases, does not prevent
them from being a collection of masterpieces.
(They are very unequal, and I speak of the best.)
The little story is but scantily relished in England,
where readers take their fiction rather by the volume
than by the page, and the novelist's idea is apt to
resemble one of those old-fashioned carriages which
require a wide court to turn round. In America,
where it is associated pre-eminently with Hawthorne's
name, with Edgar Poe's, and with that of Mr. Bret
Harte, the short tale has had a better fortune.
France, however, has been the land of its great
prosperity, and M. de Maupassant had from the first
the advantage of addressing a public accustomed to
catch on, as the modern phrase is, quickly. In some
respects, it may be said, he encountered prejudices


too friendly, for he found a tradition of indecency
ready made to his hand. I say indecency with plain-
ness, though my indication would perhaps please
better with another word, for we suffer in English
from a lack of roundabout names for the conte leste
that element for which the French, with their grivois,
their gaillard, their dgrillard, their ga/udriole, have so
many convenient synonyms. It is an honoured tra-
dition in France that the little story, in verse or in
prose, should be liable to be more or less obscene (I
can think only of that alternative epithet), though I
hasten to add that among literary forms it does not
monopolise the privilege. Our uncleanness is less
producible at any rate it is less produced.

For the last ten years our author has brought
forth with regularity these condensed compositions,
of which, probably, to an English reader, at a first
glance, the most universal sign will be their licen-
tiousness. They really partake of this quality, how-
ever, in a very differing degree, and a second glance
shows that they may be divided into numerous
groups. It is not fair, I think, even to say that
what they have most in common is their being
extremely lestes. What they have most in common
is their being extremely strong, and after that their
being extremely brutal. A story may be obscene
without being brutal, and vice versd, and M. de
Maupassant's contempt for those interdictions which
are supposed to be made in the interest of good
morals is but an incident a very large one indeed


of his general contempt. A pessimism so great that
its alliance with the love of good work, or even with
the calculation of the sort of work that pays best in
a country of style, is, as I have intimated, the most
puzzling of anomalies (for it would seem in the light
of such sentiments that nothing is worth anything),
this cynical strain is the sign of such gems of
narration as La Maison Tellier L'Histoire d'une Fille de
Ferme, LAne, Le Chien, Mademoiselle Fiji, Monsieur
Parent, L' Heritage, En Famille, Le Bapt&me, Le Pere
Amable. The author fixes a hard eye on some small
spot of human life, usually some ugly, dreary, shabby,
sordid one, takes up the particle, and squeezes it
either till it grimaces or till it bleeds. Sometimes
the grimace is very droll, sometimes the wound is
very horrible ; but in either case the whole thing is
real, observed, noted, and represented, not an invention
or a castle in the air. M. de Maupassant sees human
life as a terribly ugly business relieved by the
comical, but even the comedy is for the most part the
comedy of misery, of avidity, of ignorance, helpless-
ness, and grossness. When his laugh is not for these
things, it is for the little salet6s (to use one of his own
favourite words) of luxurious life, which are intended
to be prettier, but which can scarcely be said to
brighten the picture. I like La Bete a Maitre Bel-
homme, La Ficelle, Le Petit Put, Le Cas de Madame
Luneau, Tribuneaux Rustigues, and many others of this
category much better than his anecdotes of the
mutual confidences of his little marquises and baronnes.


Not counting his novels for the moment, his tales
may be divided into the three groups of those which
deal with the Norman peasantry, those which deal
with the petit employe" and small shopkeeper, usually
in Paris, and the miscellaneous, in which the upper
walks of life are represented, and the fantastic, the
whimsical, the weird, and even the supernatural,
figure as well as the unexpurgated. These last
things range from Le Horla (which is not a specimen
of the author's best vein the only occasion on which
he has the weakness of imitation is when he strikes
us as emulating Edgar Poe) to Miss Harriet, and
from Boule de Suif (a triumph) to that almost in-
conceivable little growl of Anglophobia, D6couverte
inconceivable I mean in its irresponsibility and ill-
nature on the part of a man of M. de Maupassant's
distinction ; passing by such little perfections as Petit
Soldat, L' Abandonne', Le Collier (the list is too long
for complete enumeration), and such gross imper-
fections (for it once in a while befalls our author to
go woefully astray), as La Femme de Paul, Chdli, Les
Sceurs Rondoli. To these might almost be added as
a special category the various forms in which M. de
Maupassant relates adventures in railway carriages.
Numerous, to his imagination, are the pretexts for
enlivening fiction afforded by first, second, and third
class compartments ; the accidents (which have no-
thing to do with the conduct of the train) that occur
there constitute no inconsiderable part of our earthly


It is surely by his Norman peasant that his tales
will live ; he knows this worthy as if he had made
him, understands him down to the ground, puts him
on his feet with a few of the freest, most plastic
touches. M. de Maupassant does not admire him,
and he is such a master of the subject that it would
ill become an outsider to suggest a revision of judg-
ment. He is a part of the contemptible furniture of
the world, but on the whole, it would appear, the
most grotesque part of it. His caution, his canniness,
his natural astuteness, his stinginess, his general
grinding sordidness, are as unmistakable as that
quaint and brutish dialect in which he expresses
himself, and on which our author plays like a virtuoso.
It would be impossible to demonstrate with a finer
sense of the humour of the thing the fatuities and
densities of his ignorance, the bewilderments of his
opposed appetites, the overreachings of his caution.
His existence has a gay side, but it is apt to be the
barbarous gaiety commemorated in Farce Normande,
an anecdote which, like many of M. de Maupassant's
anecdotes, it is easier to refer the reader to than to
repeat. If it is most convenient to place La Maison
Tellier among the tales of the peasantry, there is no
doubt that it stands at the head of the list. It is
absolutely unadapted to the perusal of ladies and
young persons, but it shares this peculiarity with
most of its fellows, so that to ignore it on that
account would be to imply that we must forswear M.
de Maupassant altogether, which is an incongruous


and insupportable conclusion. Every good story is
of course both a picture and an idea, and the more
they are interfused the better the problem is solved.
In La Maison Tellier they fit each other to perfection ;
the capacity for sudden innocent delights latent in
natures which have lost their innocence is vividly
illustrated by the singular scenes to which our
acquaintance with Madame and her staff (little as it
may be a thing to boast of), successively introduces
us. The breadth, the freedom, and brightness of all
this give the measure of the author's talent, and of
that large, keen way of looking at life which sees the
pathetic and the droll, the stuff of which the whole
piece is made, in the queerest and humblest patterns.
The tone of La Maison Tellier and the few com-
positions which closely resemble it, expresses M. cle
Maupassant's nearest approach to geniality. Even
here, however, it is the geniality of the showman
exhilarated by the success with which he feels that
he makes his mannikins (and especially his woman-
kins) caper and squeak, and who after the performance
tosses them into their box with the irreverence of a
practised hand. If the pages of the author of Bel-
Ami maybe searched almost in vain for a manifestation
of the sentiment of respect, it is naturally not by
Mme. Tellier and her charges that we must look most
to see it called forth ; but they are among the things
that please him most.

Sometimes there is a sorrow, a misery, or even a
little heroism, that he handles with a certain tender-


ness ( Une Vie is the capital example of this), without
insisting on the poor, the ridiculous, or, as he is fond
of saying, the bestial side of it. Such an attempt,
admirable in its sobriety and delicacy, is the sketch,
in L 'Abandonne, of the old lady and gentleman,
Mme. de Cadour and M. d'Apreval, who, staying
with the husband of the former at a little watering-
place on the Normandy coast, take a long, hot
walk on a summer's day, on a straight, white road,
into the interior, to catch a clandestine glimpse of a
young farmer, their illegitimate son. He has been
pensioned, he is ignorant of his origin, and is a com-
monplace and un conciliatory rustic. They look at
him, in his dirty farmyard, and no sign passes be-
tween them ; then they turn away and crawl back,
in melancholy silence, along the dull French road.
The manner in which this dreary little occurrence is
related makes it as large as a chapter of history.
There is tenderness in Miss Harriet, which sets forth
how an English old maid, fantastic, hideous, senti-
mental, and tract-distributing, with a smell of india-
rubber, fell in love with an irresistible French painter,
and drowned herself in the well because she saw him
kissing the maid-servant ; but the figure of the lady
grazes the farcical. Is it because we know Miss
Harriet (if we are not mistaken in the type the
author has had in his eye) that we suspect the good
spinster was not so weird and desperate, addicted
though her class may be, as he says, to " haunting all
the tables d'hdte in Europe, to spoiling Italy, poisoning


Switzerland, making the charming towns of the
Mediterranean uninhabitable, carrying everywhere
their queer little manias, their nueurs de vestales p6tri-
fiees, their indescribable garments, and that odour of
india-rubber which makes one think that at night
they must be slipped into a case 1 " What would
Miss Harriet have said to M de Maupassant's friend,
the hero of the Decouverte, who, having married a
little Anglaise because he thought she was charming
when she spoke .broken French, finds she is very flat
as she becomes more fluent, and has nothing more
urgent than to denounce her to a gentleman he meets
on the steamboat, and to relieve his wrath in ejacula-
tions of " Sales Anglais " ?

M. de Maupassant evidently knows a great deal
about the army of clerks who work under govern-
ment, but it is a terrible tale that he has to tell of
them and of the petit bourgeois in general. It is true
that he has treated the petit bourgeois in Pierre et Jean
without holding him up to our derision, and the
effort has been so fruitful, that we owe to it the work
for which, on the whole, in the long list of his suc-
cesses, we are most thankful But of Pierre et Jean,
a production neither comic nor cynical (in the degree,
that is, of its predecessors), but serious and fresh, I
will speak anon. In Monsieur Parent, L' Heritage,
En Famille, Une Partie de Campagne, Promenade, and
many other pitiless little pieces, the author opens the
windoAv wide to his perception of everything mean,
narrow, and sordid. The subject is ever the struggle


for existence in hard conditions, lighted up simply
by more or less polissonnerie. Nothing is more strik-
ing to an Anglo-Saxon reader than the omission of
all the other lights, those with which our imagination.
and I think it ought to be said our observation, i>
familiar, and which our own works of fiction at any
rate do not permit us to forget : those of which the
most general description is that they spring from a
certain mixture of good -humour and piety piety, I
mean, in the civil and domestic sense quite as much
as in the religious. The love of sport, the sense of
decorum, the necessity for action, the habit of respect,
the absence of irony, the pervasiveness of childhood,
the expansive tendency of the race, are a few of the
qualities (the analysis might, I think, be pushed much
further) which ease us off, mitigate our tension and
irritation, rescue us from the nervous exasperation
which is almost the commonest element of life as
depicted by M. de Maupassant. No doubt there is
in our literature an immense amount of conventional
blinking, and it may be questioned whether pessi-
mistic representation in M. de Maupassant's manner
do not follow his particular original more closely
than our perpetual quest of pleasantness (does not
Mr. Rider Haggard make even his African carnage
pleasant?) adheres to the lines of the world we our-
selves know.

Fierce indeed is the struggle for existence among
even our pious and good-humoured millions, and it is
attended with incidents as to which after all little


testimony is to be extracted from our literature of
fiction. It must never be forgotten that the optimism
of that literature is partly the optimism of women
and of spinsters; in other words the optimism of
ignorance as well as of delicacy. It might be sup-
posed that the French, with their mastery of the arts
d'agrdment, would have more consolations than we,
but such is not the account of the matter given by
the new generation of painters. To the French we
seem superficial, and we are certainly open to the
reproach ; but none the less even to the infinite
majority of readers of good faith there will be a
wonderful want of correspondence between the
general picture of Bel-Ami, of Mont-Oriol, of Une Fie,
Yvette and En Famille, and our own vision of reality.
It is an old impression of course that the satire of
the French has a very different tone from ours ; but
few English readers will admit that the feeling of
life is less in ours than in theirs. The feeling of life
is evidently, de part et d'autre, a very different thing.
If in ours, as the novel illustrates it, there are super-
ficialities, there are also qualities which are far from
being negatives and omissions : a large imagination
and (is it fatuous to say ?) a large experience of the
positive kind. Even those of our novelists whose
manner is most ironic pity life more and hate it less
than M. de Maupassant and his great initiator Flau-
bert. It comes back I suppose to our good-humour
(which may apparently also be an artistic force) ; at
any rate, we have reserves about our shames and our


sorrows, indulgences and tolerances about our Philis-
tinism, forbearances about our blows, and a general
friendliness of conception about our possibilities,
which take the cruelty from our self -derision and
operate in the last resort as a sort of tribute to our
freedom. There is a horrible, admirable scene in
Monsieur Parent, which is a capital example of trium-
phant ugliness. The harmless gentleman who gives
his name to the tale has an abominable wife, one of
whose offensive attributes is a lover (unsuspected
by her husband), only less impudent than herself.
M. Parent comes in from a walk with his little boy,
at dinner-time, to encounter suddenly in his abused,
dishonoured, deserted home, convincing proof of her
misbehaviour. He waits and waits dinner for her,
giving her the benefit of every doubt ; but when at
last she enters, late in the evening, accompanied by
the partner of her guilt, there is a tremendous
domestic concussion. It is to the peculiar vividness
of this scene that I allude, the way we hear it and
see it, and its most repulsive details are evoked for
us : the sordid confusion, the vulgar noise, the dis-
ordered table and ruined dinner, the shrill insolence
of the wife, her brazen mendacity, the scared in-
feriority of the lover, the mere momentary heroics
of the weak husband, the scuffle and somersault, the
eminently unpoetic justice with which it all ends.

When Thackeray relates how Arthur Pendennis
goes home to take pot-luck with the insolvent New-
comes at Boulogne, and how the dreadful Mrs.


Mackenzie receives him, and how she makes a scene,
when the frugal repast is served, over the diminished
mutton-bone, we feel that the notation of that order
of misery goes about as far as we can bear it. But
this is child's play to the history of M. and Mme.
Caravan and their attempt, after the death (or
supposed death) of the husband's mother, to transfer
to their apartment before the arrival of the other
heirs certain miserable little articles of furniture
belonging to the deceased, together with the frustra-
tion of the manoeuvre not only by the grim resur-
rection of the old woman (which is a sufficiently
fantastic item), but by the shock of battle when a
married daughter and her husband appear. No one
gives us like M. de Maupassant the odious words
exchanged on such an occasion as that : no one
depicts with so just a hand the feelings of small
people about small things. These feelings are very
apt to be " fury " ; that word is of strikingly frequent
occurrence in his pages. L' Heritage is a drama of
private life in the little world of the Ministere de la
Marine a world, according to M. de Maupassant, of
dreadful little jealousies and ineptitudes. Readers
of a robust complexion should learn how the wretched
M. Lesable was handled by his wife and her father
on his failing to satisfy their just expectations, and
how he comported himself in the singular situation
thus prepared for him. The story is a model oi
narration, but it leaves our poor average humanity
dangling like a beaten rag.


Where does M. de Maupassant find the great
multitude of his detestable women 1 or where at
least does he find the courage to represent them in
such colours 1 Jeanne de Lamare, in Une Vie, re-
ceives the outrages of fate with a passive fortitude ;
and there is something touching in Mme. Roland's
dme tendre de caissiere, as exhibited in Pierre et Jean.
But for the most part M. de Maupassant's heroines
are a mixture of extreme sensuality and extreme
mendacity. They are a large element in that general
disfigurement, that illusion de Vignoble, qui attire tant
d'Mres, which makes the perverse or the stupid side
of things the one which strikes him first, which leads
him, if he glances at a group of nurses and children
sunning themselves in a Parisian square, to notice
primarily the yeux de brute of the nurses ; or if he
speaks of the longing for a taste of the country which
haunts the shopkeeper fenced in behind his counter,
to identify it as the amour Mte de la nature ; or if he
has occasion to put the boulevards before us on a
summer's evening, to seek his effect in these terms :
" The city, as hot as a stew, seemed to sweat in the
suffocating night. The drains puffed their pestilential
breath from their mouths of granite, and the under-
ground kitchens poured into the streets, through
their low windows, the infamous miasmas of their
dishwater and old sauces." I do not contest the
truth of such indications, I only note the particular
selection and their seeming to the writer the most


Is it because of the inadequacy of these indications
when applied to the long stretch that M. de Mau-
passant's novels strike us as less complete, in pro-
portion to the talent expended upon them, than his
conies and nouvelles ? I make this invidious distinction
in spite of the fact that Une Vie (the first of the
novels in the order of time) is a remarkably in-
teresting experiment, and that Pierre et Jean is, so far
as my judgment goes, a faultless production. Bel-
Ami is full of the bustle and the crudity of life (its
energy and expressiveness almost bribe one to like
it), but it has the great defect that the physiological
explanation of things here too visibly contracts the
problem in order to meet it The world represented
is too special, too little inevitable, too much to take
or to leave as we like a world in which every man
is a cad and every woman a harlot. M. de Mau-
passant traces the career of a finished blackguard
who succeeds in life through women, and he represents
him primarily as succeeding in the profession of
journalism. His colleagues and his mistresses are as
depraved as himself, greatly to the injury of the
ironic idea, for the real force of satire would have
come from seeing him engaged and victorious with
natures better than his own. It may be remarked
that this was the case with the nature of Mme.
Walter ; but the reply to that is hardly ! More-
over the author's whole treatment of the episode of
Mme. Walter is the thing on which his admirers
have least to congratulate him. The taste of it is so


atrocious, that it is difficult to do justice to the way
it is made to stand out. Such an instance as this
pleads with irresistible eloquence, as it seems to me,
the cause of that salutary diffidence or practical
generosity which I mentioned on a preceding page.
I know not the English or American novelist who
could have written this portion of the history of Bel-
Ami if he would. But I also find it impossible to
conceive of a member of that fraternity who would
have written it if he could. The subject of Mont-
Oriol is full of queerness to the English mind. Here
again the picture has much more importance than
the idea, which is simply that a gentleman, if he
happen to be a low animal, is liable to love a lady
very much less if she presents him with a pledge of
their affection. It need scarcely be said that the
lady and gentleman who in M. de Maupassant's
pages exemplify this interesting truth are not united
in wedlock that is with each other.

M. de Maupassant tells us that he has imbibed
many of his principles from Gustave Flaubert, from
the study of his works as well as, formerly, the en-
joyment of his words. It is in Une Vie that Flaubert's
influence is most directly traceable, for the thing has
a marked analogy with L'Education Sentimentale.
That is, it is the presentation of a simple piece of a
life (in this case a long piece), a series of observations
upon an episode quelconque, as the French say, with
the minimum of arrangement of the given objects.
It is an excellent example of the way the impression


of truth may be conveyed by that form, but it would
have been a still better one if in his search for the
effect of dreariness (the effect of dreariness may be
said to be the subject of Une Fie, so far as the
subject is reducible) the author had not eliminated
excessively. He has arranged, as I say, as little as
possible; the necessity of a "plot" has in no degree
imposed itself upon him, and his effort has been to
give the uncomposed, unrounded look of life, with its
accidents, its broken rhythm, its queer resemblance
to the famous description of "Bradshaw" a com-
pound of trains that start but don't arrive, and trains
that arrive but don't start. It is almost an arrange-
ment of the history of poor Mme. de Lamare to have
left so many things out of it, for after all she is
described in very few of the relations of life. The
principal ones are there certainly ; we see her as a
daughter, a wife, and a mother, but there is a certain
accumulation of secondary experience that marks
any passage from youth to old age which is a wholly
absent element in M. de Maupassant's narrative, and
the suppression of which gives the thing a tinge of
the arbitrary. It is in the power of this secondary
experience to make a great difference, but nothing
makes any difference for Jeanne de Lamare as M. de
Maupassant puts her before us. Had she no other
points of contact than those he describes ? no friends,
no phases, no episodes, no chances, none of the mis-
cellaneous remplissage of life ? No doubt M. de Mau-
passant would say that he has had to select, that the


most comprehensive enumeration is only a condensa-

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Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 16 of 24)