UNE VIE - A PIECE OF STRING AND OTHER STORIES
UNE VIE - A PIECE OF STRING AND OTHER STORIES
GUY DE MAUPASSANT
A Piece of String
And Other Stories
Albert M. C. McMaster B.A.
A. E. Henderson B.A.
Mme. Quesada and Others
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INTRODUCTION BY POL. NEVEUX
UNE VIE (The History of a Heart)
I. The Home by the Sea
II. Happy Days
III. M. de Lamare
IV. Marriage and Disillusion
V. Corsica and a New Life
VII. Jeanne's Discovery
IX. Death of La Baronne
XI. The Development of Paul
XII. A New Home
XIII. Jeanne in Paris
XIV. Light at Eventide
THE FISHING HOLE
IN THE WOOD
A PIECE OF STRING
[Illustration: Guy de Maupassant]
GUY DE MAUPASSANT
A Study by Pol. Neveux
"I entered literary life as a meteor and I shall leave it like a
thunderbolt." These words of Maupassant to Jose Maria de Heredia on
the occasion of a memorable meeting are in spite of their morbid
solemnity not an inexact summing up of the brief career during which
for ten years the writer by turns undaunted and sorrowful with the
fertility of a master hand produced poetry novels romances and
travels only to sink prematurely into the abyss of madness and
In the month of April 1880 an article appeared in the "Le Gaulois"
announcing the publication of the Soirees de Medan. It was signed by a
name as yet unknown: Guy de Maupassant. After a juvenile diatribe
against romanticism and a passionate attack on languorous literature
the writer extolled the study of real life and announced the
publication of the new work. It was picturesque and charming. In the
quiet of evening on an island in the Seine beneath poplars instead
of the Neapolitan cypresses dear to the friends of Boccaccio amid the
continuous murmur of the valley and no longer to the sound of the
Pyrennean streams that murmured a faint accompaniment to the tales of
Marguerite's cavaliers the master and his disciples took turns in
narrating some striking or pathetic episode of the war. And the issue
in collaboration of these tales in one volume in which the master
jostled elbows with his pupils took on the appearance of a manifesto
the tone of a challenge or the utterance of a creed.
In fact however the beginnings had been much more simple and they
had confined themselves beneath the trees of Medan to deciding on a
general title for the work. Zola had contributed the manuscript of the
"Attaque du Moulin" and it was at Maupassant's house that the five
young men gave in their contributions. Each one read his story
Maupassant being the last. When he had finished Boule de Suif with a
spontaneous impulse with an emotion they never forgot filled with
enthusiasm at this revelation they all rose and without superfluous
words acclaimed him as a master.
He undertook to write the article for the Gaulois and in cooperation
with his friends he worded it in the terms with which we are
familiar amplifying and embellishing it yielding to an inborn taste
for mystification which his youth rendered excusable. The essential
point he said is to "unmoor" criticism.
It was unmoored. The following day Wolff wrote a polemical
dissertation in the Figaro and carried away his colleagues. The volume
was a brilliant success thanks to Boule de Suif. Despite the novelty
the honesty of effort on the part of all no mention was made of the
other stories. Relegated to the second rank they passed without
notice. From his first battle Maupassant was master of the field in
At once the entire press took him up and said what was appropriate
regarding the budding celebrity. Biographers and reporters sought
information concerning his life. As it was very simple and perfectly
straightforward they resorted to invention. And thus it is that at
the present day Maupassant appears to us like one of those ancient
heroes whose origin and death are veiled in mystery.
I will not dwell on Guy de Maupassant's younger days. His relatives
his old friends he himself here and there in his works have
furnished us in their letters enough valuable revelations and touching
remembrances of the years preceding his literary debut. His worthy
biographer H. Edouard Maynial after collecting intelligently all the
writings condensing and comparing them has been able to give us some
definite information regarding that early period.
I will simply recall that he was born on the 5th of August 1850 near
Dieppe in the castle of Miromesnil which he describes in Une Vie....
Maupassant like Flaubert was a Norman through his mother and
through his place of birth he belonged to that strange and adventurous
race whose heroic and long voyages on tramp trading ships he liked to
recall. And just as the author of "Education sentimentale" seems to
have inherited in the paternal line the shrewd realism of Champagne
so de Maupassant appears to have inherited from his Lorraine ancestors
their indestructible discipline and cold lucidity.
His childhood was passed at Etretat his beautiful childhood; it was
there that his instincts were awakened in the unfoldment of his
prehistoric soul. Years went by in an ecstasy of physical happiness.
The delight of running at full speed through fields of gorse the
charm of voyages of discovery in hollows and ravines games beneath
the dark hedges a passion for going to sea with the fishermen and on
nights when there was no moon for dreaming on their boats of
Mme. de Maupassant who had guided her son's early reading and had
gazed with him at the sublime spectacle of nature put off as long as
possible the hour of separation. One day however she had to take the
child to the little seminary at Yvetot. Later he became a student at
the college at Rouen and became a literary correspondent of Louis
Bouilhet. It was at the latter's house on those Sundays in winter when
the Norman rain drowned the sound of the bells and dashed against the
window panes that the school boy learned to write poetry.
Vacation took the rhetorician back to the north of Normandy. Now it
was shooting at Saint Julien-l'Hospitalier across fields bogs and
through the woods. From that time on he sealed his pact with the
earth and those "deep and delicate roots" which attached him to his
native soil began to grow. It was of Normandy broad fresh and
virile that he would presently demand his inspiration fervent and
eager as a boy's love; it was in her that he would take refuge when
weary of life he would implore a truce or when he simply wished to
work and revive his energies in old-time joys. It was at this time
that was born in him that voluptuous love of the sea which in later
days could alone withdraw him from the world calm him console him.
In 1870 he lived in the country then he came to Paris to live; for
the family fortunes having dwindled he had to look for a position.
For several years he was a clerk in the Ministry of Marine where he
turned over musty papers in the uninteresting company of the clerks
of the admiralty.
Then he went into the department of Public Instruction where
bureaucratic servility is less intolerable. The daily duties are
certainly scarcely more onerous and he had as chiefs or colleagues
Xavier Charmes and Leon Dierx Henry Roujon and Rene Billotte but his
office looked out on a beautiful melancholy garden with immense plane
trees around which black circles of crows gathered in winter.
Maupassant made two divisions of his spare hours one for boating and
the other for literature. Every evening in spring every free day he
ran down to the river whose mysterious current veiled in fog or
sparkling in the sun called to him and bewitched him. In the islands
in the Seine between Chatou and Port-Marly on the banks of
Sartrouville and Triel he was long noted among the population of
boatmen who have now vanished for his unwearying biceps his cynical
gaiety of goodfellowship his unfailing practical jokes his broad
witticisms. Sometimes he would row with frantic speed free and
joyous through the glowing sunlight on the stream; sometimes he
would wander along the coast questioning the sailors chatting with
the ravageurs or junk gatherers or stretched at full length amid the
irises and tansy he would lie for hours watching the frail insects
that play on the surface of the stream water spiders or white
butterflies dragon flies chasing each other amid the willow leaves
or frogs asleep on the lily-pads.
The rest of his life was taken up by his work. Without ever becoming
despondent silent and persistent he accumulated manuscripts poetry
criticisms plays romances and novels. Every week he docilely
submitted his work to the great Flaubert the childhood friend of his
mother and his uncle Alfred Le Poittevin. The master had consented to
assist the young man to reveal to him the secrets that make
chefs-d'oeuvre immortal. It was he who compelled him to make copious
research and to use direct observation and who inculcated in him a
horror of vulgarity and a contempt for facility.
Maupassant himself tells us of those severe initiations in the Rue
Murillo or in the tent at Croisset; he has recalled the implacable
didactics of his old master his tender brutality the paternal advice
of his generous and candid heart. For seven years Flaubert slashed
pulverized the awkward attempts of his pupil whose success remained
Suddenly in a flight of spontaneous perfection he wrote Boule de
Suif. His master's joy was great and overwhelming. He died two months
Until the end Maupassant remained illuminated by the reflection of the
good vanished giant by that touching reflection that comes from the
dead to those souls they have so profoundly stirred. The worship of
Flaubert was a religion from which nothing could distract him neither
work nor glory nor slow moving waves nor balmy nights.
At the end of his short life while his mind was still clear he wrote
to a friend: "I am always thinking of my poor Flaubert and I say to
myself that I should like to die if I were sure that anyone would
think of me in the same manner."
During these long years of his novitiate Maupassant had entered the
social literary circles. He would remain silent preoccupied; and if
anyone astonished at his silence asked him about his plans he
answered simply: "I am learning my trade." However under the
pseudonym of Guy de Valmont he had sent some articles to the
newspapers and later with the approval and by the advice of
Flaubert he published in the "Republique des Lettres" poems signed
by his name.
These poems overflowing with sensuality where the hymn to the Earth
describes the transports of physical possession where the impatience
of love expresses itself in loud melancholy appeals like the calls of
animals in the spring nights are valuable chiefly inasmuch as they
reveal the creature of instinct the fawn escaped from his native
forests that Maupassant was in his early youth. But they add nothing
to his glory. They are the "rhymes of a prose writer" as Jules
Lemaitre said. To mould the expression of his thought according to the
strictest laws and to "narrow it down" to some extent such was his
aim. Following the example of one of his comrades of Medan being
readily carried away by precision of style and the rhythm of
sentences by the imperious rule of the ballad of the pantoum or the
chant royal Maupassant also desired to write in metrical lines.
However he never liked this collection that he often regretted having
published. His encounters with prosody had left him with that
monotonous weariness that the horseman and the fencer feel after a
period in the riding school or a bout with the foils.
Such in very broad lines is the story of Maupassant's literary
The day following the publication of "Boule de Suif" his reputation
began to grow rapidly. The quality of his story was unrivalled but at
the same time it must be acknowledged that there were some who for
the sake of discussion desired to place a young reputation in
opposition to the triumphant brutality of Zola.
From this time on Maupassant at the solicitation of the entire
press set to work and wrote story after story. His talent free from
all influences his individuality are not disputed for a moment. With
a quick step steady and alert he advanced to fame a fame of which
he himself was not aware but which was so universal that no
contemporary author during his life ever experienced the same. The
"meteor" sent out its light and its rays were prolonged without limit
in article after article volume on volume.
He was now rich and famous.... He is esteemed all the more as they
believe him to be rich and happy. But they do not know that this young
fellow with the sunburnt face thick neck and salient muscles whom
they invariably compare to a young bull at liberty and whose love
affairs they whisper is ill very ill. At the very moment that
success came to him the malady that never afterwards left him came
also and seated motionless at his side gazed at him with its
threatening countenance. He suffered from terrible headaches followed
by nights of insomnia. He had nervous attacks which he soothed with
narcotics and anesthetics which he used freely. His sight which had
troubled him at intervals became affected and a celebrated oculist
spoke of abnormality asymetry of the pupils. The famous young man
trembled in secret and was haunted by all kinds of terrors.
The reader is charmed at the saneness of this revived art and yet
here and there he is surprised to discover amid descriptions of
nature that are full of humanity disquieting flights towards the
supernatural distressing conjurations veiled at first of the most
commonplace the most vertiginous shuddering fits of fear as old as
the world and as eternal as the unknown. But instead of being
alarmed he thinks that the author must be gifted with infallible
intuition to follow out thus the taints in his characters even
through their most dangerous mazes. The reader does not know that
these hallucinations which he describes so minutely were experienced
by Maupassant himself; he does not know that the fear is in himself
the anguish of fear "which is not caused by the presence of danger or
of inevitable death but by certain abnormal conditions by certain
mysterious influences in presence of vague dangers" the "fear of
fear the dread of that horrible sensation of incomprehensible
How can one explain these physical sufferings and this morbid distress
that were known for some time to his intimates alone? Alas! the
explanation is only too simple. All his life consciously or
unconsciously Maupassant fought this malady hidden as yet which was
latent in him.
Those who first saw Maupassant when the Contes de la Becasse and Bel
Ami were published were somewhat astonished at his appearance. He was
solidly built rather short and had a resolute determined air rather
unpolished and without those distinguishing marks of intellect and
social position. But his hands were delicate and supple and beautiful
shadows encircled his eyes.
He received visitors with the graciousness of the courteous head of a
department who resigns himself to listen to demands allowing them to
talk as he smiled faintly and nonplussing them by his calmness.
How chilling was this first interview to young enthusiasts who had
listened to Zola unfolding in lyric formula audacious methods or to
the soothing words of Daudet who scattered with prodigality striking
thrilling ideas picturesque outlines and brilliant synopses.
Maupassant's remarks in tetes-a-tetes as in general conversation
were usually current commonplaces and on ordinary time-worn topics.
Convinced of the superfluousness of words perhaps he confounded them
all in the same category placing the same estimate on a thought nobly
expressed as on a sally of coarse wit. One would have thought so to
see the indifference with which he treated alike the chatter of the
most decided mediocrities and the conversation of the noblest minds of
the day. Not an avowal not a confidence that shed light on his life
work. Parsimonious of all he observed he never related a typical
anecdote or offered a suggestive remark. Praise even did not move
him and if by chance he became animated it was to tell some practical
joke some atelier hoaxes as if he had given himself up to the
pleasure of hoaxing and mystifying people.
He appeared besides to look upon art as a pastime literature as an
occupation useless at best while he willingly relegated love to the
performance of a function and suspected the motives of the most
Some say that this was the inborn basis of his personal psychology. I
do not believe it. That he may have had a low estimate of humanity
that he may have mistrusted its disinterestedness contested the
quality of its virtue is possible even certain. But that he was not
personally superior to his heroes I am unwilling to admit. And if I
see in his attitude as in his language an evidence of his inveterate
pessimism I see in it also a method of protecting his secret thoughts
from the curiosity of the vulgar.
Perhaps he overshot the mark. By dint of hearing morality art and
literature depreciated and seeing him preoccupied with boating and
listening to his own accounts of love affairs which he did not always
carry on in the highest class many ended by seeing in him one of
those terrible Normans who all through his novels and stories
carouse and commit social crimes with such commanding assurance and
such calm unmorality.
He was undoubtedly a Norman and according to those who knew him
best many of his traits of character show that atavism is not always
an idle word....
To identify Maupassant with his characters is a gross error but is
not without precedent. We always like to trace the author in the hero
of a romance and to seek the actor beneath the disguise. No doubt as
Taine has said "the works of an intelligence have not the
intelligence alone for father and mother but the whole personality of
the man helps to produce them...."
That is why Maupassant himself says to us "No I have not the soul of
a decadent I cannot look within myself and the effort I make to
understand unknown souls is incessant involuntary and dominant. It is
not an effort; I experience a sort of overpowering sense of insight
into all that surrounds me. I am impregnated with it I yield to it I
submerge myself in these surrounding influences."
That is properly speaking the peculiarity of all great novelists.
Who experiences this insight this influence more than Balzac or
Flaubert in Madame Bovary? And so with Maupassant who pen in hand
is the character he describes with his passions his hatreds his
vices and his virtues. He so incorporates himself in him that the
author disappears and we ask ourselves in vain what his own opinion
is of what he has just told us. He has none possibly or if he has he
does not tell it.
This agrees admirably with the theory of impassivity in literature so
much in vogue when Maupassant became known. But despite that theory he
is if one understands him quite other than
"A being without pity who contemplated suffering."
He has the deepest sympathy for the weak for the victims of the
deceptions of society for the sufferings of the obscure. If the
successful adventurer Lesable and the handsome Maze are the objects
of his veiled irony he maintains or feels a sorrowful though
somewhat disdainful tenderness for poor old Savon the old copying
clerk of the Ministry of Marine who is the drudge of the office and
whose colleagues laugh at him because his wife deceived him _sans
Why did Maupassant at the start win universal favor? It is because he
had direct genius the clear vision of a "primitive" (an artist of the
pre-Renaissance). His materials were just those of a graduate who
having left college has satisfied his curiosity. Grasping the simple
and ingenious but strong and appropriate tools that he himself has
forged he starts out in the forest of romance and instead of being
overcome by the enchantment of its mystery he walks through it
unfalteringly with a joyful step....
He was a minstrel. Offspring of a race and not the inheritor of a
formula he narrated to his contemporaries bewildered by the lyrical
deformities of romanticism stories of human beings simple and
logical like those which formerly delighted our parents.
The French reader who wished to be amused was at once at home on the
same footing with him.... More spontaneous than the first troubadours
he banished from his writings abstract and general types
"romanticized" life itself and not myths those eternal legends that
stray through the highways of the world.
Study closely these minstrels in recent works; read M. Joseph Bedier's
beautiful work Les Fabliaux and you will see how in Maupassant's
prose ancestors whom he doubtless never knew are brought to life.
The Minstrel feels neither anger nor sympathy; he neither censures
nor moralizes; for the self-satisfied Middle Ages cannot conceive the
possibility of a different world. Brief quick he despises aims and
methods his only object is to entertain his auditors. Amusing and
witty he cares only for laughter and ridicule....
But Maupassant's stories are singularly different in character. In the
nineteenth century the Gallic intellect had long since foundered amid
vileness and debauchery. In the provinces the ancient humor had
disappeared; one chattered still about nothing but without point
without wit; "trifling" was over as they call it in Champagne. The
nauseating pabulum of the newspapers and low political intrigue had
withered the French intellect that delicate rare intellect the last
traces of which fade away in the Alsatian stories of Erckman-Chatrian