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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

That Maupassant's pessimism is most obvious


As

for the character of Maupassant's "illusions," there could never be much doubt about some of them. _Boule de Suif_ itself pretty clearly indicated, and _La Maison Tellier_ shortly after showed, at the very opening of his literary career, the scenes, the society, and the solaces which he most affected: while it was impossible to read even two or three of his stories without discovering that, to M. de Maupassant, the world was most emphatically _not_ the best of all possible worlds. This was by no means principally shown in the stories of supernatural terror to which, with an inconsistency by no means uncommon in declared materialists, and, had it not been for his unhappy end, very amusing, he was so much given. The chief of these, _Le Horla_, has not been much of a favourite with the lovers of "ghost-stories" in general. I think they are rather unjust to it. But if it has a fault, that fault lies (and, to avoid the charge of being wise after the event, I may observe that I thought so at the time) in too much conviction. The darkness is darkness which has been felt, and felt so much by the artist that he has lost his artistic grasp and command. There was, perhaps, in his own actual state, too much reason for this. In earlier things of the kind it is less perceptible. _Fou?_ is rather splendid. _Aupres d'un Mort_--an anecdote of the death-bed of Schopenhauer, whom Maupassant naturally admired as the greatest of _saccageurs de reves_, though there are some who, admiring the first
master of thoroughly good German prose style and one of the best of German critics, have kept the fort of their dreams safe from all he could do--has merits. _Lettre trouvee sur un noye_ is good; _L'Horrible_ not quite so good; _Le Loup_ (a sort of fancy from the "bete du Gevaudan" story) better; _Apparition_ of the best, with _La Morte_ to pair it, and _Un Cas de Divorce_ and _Qui sait?_ to make up the quartette. Perhaps the best of all (I do not specify its title in order that those who do not know it may read till they find it out) is that where the visionary sees the skeletons of the dead rising and transforming their lying epitaphs into confessions--the last tomb now bearing the true cause of his own mistress's death. But the double-titled _La Nuit--Cauchemar_ runs it hard.

Yet it is not in these stories of doubt and dread, or in the ostensible and rather shallow philosophisings of the travel-books, that Maupassant's pessimism is most obvious. His preference for the unhappy ending amounts almost to a _tic_, and would amount wholly to a bore--for _toujours_ unhappy-ending is just as bad as _toujours_ marriage-bells--if it were not relieved and lightened by a real presence of humour. With this sovereign preservative for self, and more sovereign charm for others, Guy de Maupassant was more richly provided than any of his French contemporaries, and more than any but a very few of his countrymen at any time. And as humour without tenderness is an impossibility, so, too, he could be and was tender. Yet it was seldom and _malgre lui_, while he allowed the mere exercise of his humour itself too scantily for his own safety and his readers' pleasure. That there was any more _fanfaronnade_ either of vice or of misanthropy about him, I do not believe. An unfortunate conformity of innate temperament and acquired theory made such a _fanfaronnade_ as unnecessary as it would have been repugnant to him. But illusion, in such cases, is more dangerous, if less disgusting, than imposture. And so it happened that, in despite of the rare and vast faculties just allowed him, he was constantly found applying them to subjects distasteful if not disgraceful, and allowing the results to be sicklied over with a persistent "soot-wash" of pessimism which was always rather monotonous, and not always very impressive.


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