Afloat (New York Review of Books Classics)
by Guy De Maupassant and Douglas Parmée
Reviewed by Graham Robb
New York Review of Books
In 1874, a twenty-four-year-old government clerk called Guy de Maupassant, depressed and maddened by his boring work and philistine colleagues at the Naval Ministry in Paris, was desperate to embark on a new career. Thankfully, his father paid him a small allowance, and his job at the ministry left him plenty of spare time. He spent most of his money and leisure time boating on the Seine, fencing, shooting, picnicking with friends, and visiting prostitutes.
Recently, he had also been devoting some of his energy to writing. He was intending to enter a play in a competition run by the Gaite theater and had been impressed by a "very remarkable" story written by one of his friends which had been serialized in the popular daily newspaper Paris-Journal. He sent the installments to his mother, who had always hoped to see Guy become a writer. In the accompanying letter, which he wrote on ministry paper, he asked his mother to "find me some good subjects for short stories. I'll be able to work on them a little at the Ministry...and then I'll try to get them published in some newspaper or other."
It was just about possible at that time for a talented and prolific writer to earn a living as a storyteller. There had never been so many literary magazines. Some, such as La Vie litteraire, published nothing but short stories. Daily newspapers had been serializing novels since the late 1830s, and were now sold at newsstands instead of being available only to subscribers, which meant that fiction writers had a potential audience of many thousands. In Le Siecle, Le Temps, Le Figaro, and Le Petit Journal, highbrow literature rubbed shoulders with political reports and society gossip. They published scenes and anecdotes of modern life as a condiment to the serious news.
Aesthetes affected to despise this "commercialization" of literature, but very few works of the mid- to late nineteenth century that are still read today were never tainted by newsprint. Many of Baudelaire's experimental prose poems -- including the poem ("Le Chien et le flacon") in which he likened the reading public to a dog who prefers the smell of excrement to that of "delicate perfumes" -- first appeared in mass-circulation newspapers in the 1860s. Some long passages of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, which came to be seen as a rejection of vulgar accessibility, had first appeared on the front page of Le Figaro.
From young Maupassant's practical point of view, short stories were not only more marketable than full-length novels, they were also less likely to interfere with other, more pleasurable pursuits. He had seen a family friend toiling away at a long novel, and he knew what an exhausting and dispiriting activity it could be. The novelist was Gustave Flaubert, already famous as the author of Madame Bovary, Salammbo, and L'Education sentimentale. According to Maupassant, Flaubert sat at his desk for hours, staring at the paper with a mixture of longing and dread, his face bulging apoplectically,
and then he would begin to write, slowly, stopping and starting all the time, crossing out some words and adding others, filling up the margins, writing words across the page, covering twenty sheets of paper with black ink to produce a single page of finished text, groaning with the mental effort like a man laboriously sawing wood.
Once, Maupassant recalled, Flaubert was forced to take a break: "he was worn out and almost discouraged, and, as a rest-cure, he wrote the delightful volume, Trois contes " (Three Tales).
Despite his job at the ministry, his boating, swimming, and whoring, and the rapid progress of his syphilis, which makes the story of his short life an increasingly macabre series of medical bulletins, Maupassant wrote three plays, several poems, some literary journalism, and six short stories over the next five years. His first tale, published in 1875, was a very short and conventional horror story titled "La Main d'ecorche": the severed, desiccated hand of a murderer wreaks terrible revenge on the frivolous young law student who attached it to his bellpull as a joke.
Five years after this unremarkable début, Maupassant's seventh tale, "Boule de suif," was hailed as a masterpiece by friends and critics and is still considered one of his finest works. It was published in 1880 in a collection of tales, Les Soirees de Medan, by writers of the naturalist school, the most prominent of whom was Emile Zola. The subject of the book was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. As Maupassant explained to Flaubert in a letter, the idea was to write about the war without the usual chauvinistic bluster. Soldiers and civilians were to be treated as subjects of scientific observation:
The Generals are simply mediocre creatures like everyone else.... They get men killed, not because of evil intentions but out of simple stupidity.... The book will not be anti-patriotic, merely true to life.
The naturalist approach suited Maupassant perfectly. The small, seedy details of everyday life were loaded with significance by a detached, ironic narrator. Drained of intellectual importance, the human protagonists were little more than an expression of their animal appetites and needs. "Boule de suif" was the story of a coach journey from Rouen to Dieppe shortly after the Prussian invasion of France. A patriotic prostitute known as Boule de suif ("Fat-Ball" or "Tub of Lard") heroically agrees to sleep with a Prussian officer who refuses to allow the travelers to continue their journey until he has satisfied his lust.
The story was written in a style that one reviewer described as "tight, restrained, and condensed to the point of becoming almost sober and prim." Maupassant seemed to have told his tale as simply as possible, without airing his political views and without trying to show off his vocabulary and literary skills. He had deliberately avoided the ostentatiously erudite and mannered ecriture artiste that the Goncourt brothers had brought into fashion. This apparent simplicity, combined with his impeccable French and the convenient shortness of his tales, explains why the works of Maupassant have been included on so many school syllabuses in the English- speaking world as a model for students of French.
Considering his self-confessed laziness and his many distractions and ailments (stomach pains, heart tremors, failing sight, hair loss, and migraine), Maupassant's precocious proficiency in the art of storytelling is a remarkable fact, as are the size and consistency of his life's work: five novels, three collections of travel writing, and twenty volumes of tales in little more than a decade. Perhaps he owed some of his fluency and sureness of touch to his early experience of writing for newspapers. For many novelists of the time, journalism was a second literary education: the editor's scissors, the merciless deadline, and the unforgiving readers taught them how to sacrifice and compromise, and to construct an amusing tale by means of a few infallible literary devices. But Maupassant also had a huge advantage over his contemporaries: when "Boule de suif" appeared in 1880, he had just completed what would later be called a creative writing course.
Maupassant's tutors were two middle- aged gentlemen who were so much alike that they were sometimes mistaken for each other. Both were tubby, balding, and bug-eyed, with floppy mustaches and leonine locks. One was the poet Louis Bouilhet, who earned his living as head librarian at the municipal library in Rouen. Maupassant had introduced himself when he was still a schoolboy at the lycee in Rouen. For about six months, every Sunday, Bouilhet corrected the boy's verse and urged him to practice patience and restraint: "A hundred lines or fewer are enough to make an artist's name, provided that they are impeccable." Maupassant was never more than an efficient poet, but the discipline of writing verse served him well as a writer of prose.
His other tutor was Bouilhet's friend Gustave Flaubert, whom Maupassant first met in the early 1870s. Flaubert warmed to the young man immediately: he recognized in Maupassant some of the traits of his dear, lamented friend, Maupassant's maternal uncle, Alfred Le Poittevin. For seven years, until his death in 1880, Flaubert subjected him to a series of strenuous tutorials that were supposed to "knock him into shape in much the same way that Napoleon used to shake up his favorite grenadiers."
To judge by various letters and memoirs, the syllabus covered two broad domains. The first -- mental and moral hygiene, or the general conduct of oneself as a writer -- was not Maupassant's forte. "You must -- do you hear me, young man? -- you must work harder," Flaubert told him in 1878. "Too many whores! Too much boating! Too much exercise! Yes, that's right: a civilized man does not require as much locomotion as doctors would have us believe." For Flaubert, keeping fit was a frivolous waste of time and energy:
What you lack are principles. Say what you like, you can't do without principles. The only question is: which ones? For an artist, there is only one: sacrifice everything to art. Life should be treated as a means to an end, and nothing more.
The other part of the syllabus was more to Maupassant's liking. For seven years, he sent Flaubert everything he wrote. The following Sunday, over lunch, the master would criticize his work and "little by little, hammered into me two or three precepts that summed up his long and patient teachings."
One of the first lessons was devoted to the question of originality. "If you have any originality," Flaubert told him, "you must first dig it out. If you don't have any, you must get some." To help him acquire some originality, Flaubert set his student a task. He was to choose something ordinary and familiar -- "a blazing fire or a tree in a plain" -- and then search for the "unexplored" element in it. According to Flaubert, even the commonest thing contains something that no one has noticed, "because we are accustomed to seeing things only through the memory of what others have said about them." Next, Maupassant recalled, "he forced me to describe, in a few phrases, a creature or an object so that it was clearly distinguishable from all other creatures or objects of the same race or species."
Homework consisted of a practical exercise: observe a grocer on his doorstep, a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab-horse in a row of cabs, and then, "with a single word," show how that particular grocer, concierge, or cab-horse resembles no other. That single word -- a verb or an adjective -- existed somewhere in the language, and it was the writer's job to find it, no matter how long it took. "One should never be content with approximation; one should never try to avoid the difficulty by resorting to subterfuge -- even if it fools the reader -- or to linguistic trickery" ("des clowneries de langage").
This is how Maupassant described his writing course in one of the few texts in which he discussed his own techniques (the preface to his novel Pierre et Jean). One of his recent biographers, Nadine Satiat, suggests that some of the other lessons can be deduced from Flaubert's introduction to Bouilhet's Dernieres chansons (1872). Although the introduction predates Maupassant's first tales by two or three years, it could easily serve as the basis of a description of Maupassant's prose. Art should neither "teach, correct, nor moralize": "denouements are not conclusions; no general inferences can be drawn from a particular case." "Prose, like verse, must be written so that it can be read out loud. Poorly written sentences never pass the test: they tighten the chest and impede the beating of the heart." "His style goes straight to the point and leaves no impression of the author himself: the word disappears in the clarity of the thought, or rather, by sticking so closely to the thought, leaves it entirely unhampered."
"Boule de suif" itself was corrected by Flaubert: he urged Maupassant to take account of his "pedantic remarks," which, to judge by the variants listed in the Pleiade edition, related mainly to repetitions and superfluous adjectives. But even the original draft of the story delighted Flaubert. Proudly calling him his "disciple," he told Maupassant, "I consider Boule de suif a masterpiece. Yes, young man! Nothing less than a masterpiece." A "masterpiece" (" chef-d'oeuvre ") is the work that an apprentice completes at the end of his training to show that he has learned the secrets of his trade. After rereading the tale, Flaubert wrote to him again with what must have been his last piece of advice: "Try to write a dozen more like that, and then you'll be a man!"
Less than three weeks later, Flaubert died unexpectedly. In an act of filial devotion, Maupassant helped to prepare the body for burial, "bathing it in eau de Cologne, dressing it in silk underwear and a suit, complete with waistcoat, cravat, and skin gloves, and brushing the famous mustache." He inherited Flaubert's toad-shaped inkwell and soon came to be seen as his literary successor. He was even rumored to be Flaubert's illegitimate son, which was untrue but appropriate. Like the author of Madame Bovary and Bouvard et Pecuchet, he was fascinated by the monotonous lives of simple-minded creatures: lowly office clerks, laborers and peasants, domestic servants and animals. His narrators, following Flaubert's precepts, were coolly detached from their subjects, so that the reader could never be quite certain that the effect was intended by the author. His humble subjects seemed to be a pretext for his faultless prose, which somehow made the casual horrors and perversions that blight his scenes of happy mediocrity acceptable.
Tolstoy, who was at first repelled by Maupassant's tales of lesbians and prostitutes, came to admire the "moral relation" of the author to his subject, and (no doubt remembering Maupassant's account of Flaubert's lesson in the introduction to Pierre et Jean) "that peculiar, strained attention, directed upon an object, in consequence of which the author sees entirely new features in the life which he is describing." Henry James, similarly, regretted the "disproportionate place" assigned by Maupassant to "the erotic element" -- "it is discouraging to find what low views are compatible with mastery" -- but he found him "impeccable" as well as "licentious," and was inclined to attribute his "drollery" to the objective reality of "the thick-witted rustic world" he chose to portray.
The darkly comic tales that sprang from Flaubert's inkwell made Maupassant one of the most highly paid writers in France. He was soon able to resign from the ministry. He bought a yacht, then another yacht, and then a villa at Etretat on the Normandy coast, a house for his mother on the Cote d'Azur, and a farm for his brother at Antibes. He took long, luxurious holidays and enjoyed romantic adventures with society ladies. Without the disturbing symptoms of his illness and his bouts of depression, he would have been living the sort of life of which struggling writers dreamed. Ignoring his late master's advice to have nothing to do with journalism, he contributed almost weekly articles to newspapers. These articles reinforced the impression of a successful and happily efficient writer, as Henry James observed in 1889:
Between the lines of them we seem to read of that partly pleasant and wholly modern invention, a roving existence in which for art no impression is wasted. M. de Maupassant travels, explores, navigates, shoots, goes up in balloons, and writes. He treats of the North and of the South, evidently makes "copy" of everything that happens to him, and in the interest of such copy and such happenings, ranges from Etretat to the depths of Algeria.
The little-known work Sur l'eau, expertly translated by Douglas Parmee as Afloat, seems to belong to that sunny, journalistic suburb of Maupassant's work. Maupassant presents it as the pleasantly inconsequential diary of a short cruise along the Mediterranean coast in April 1887:
What I saw was water, sun, cloud, and rocks and that's all. I had only simple thoughts, the kind you have when you're being carried drowsily along on the cradle of the waves.
Afloat appears to consist of the random musings of a worldly writer who longs to escape from the stifling, artificial world of Paris society:
The train may be dashing along the coast but I'm in my floating home which has wings, swaying to and fro like a pretty little nest, more comfortable than a hammock.... To look after me and show me the way, I've got two sailors who do what I order them to do, a few books to read, and enough food for a fortnight. A whole fortnight without having to talk. What bliss!
On the surface, Afloat, first published in 1888 in the illustrated magazine Les Lettres et les Arts, is a typical example of late-nineteenth-century highbrow literary journalism. Rediscovering the original context of such works is not just a bibliographic exercise. Seeing the writer's elegant sentences crammed into newspaper columns like dandies forced to take the omnibus, it becomes obvious how efficiently the literary depiction of daily life functioned as a public service. Like Proust, Maupassant provided his newspaper readers with a kind of user's (or would-be user's) manual: how to make the most of your telephone, automobile, or yacht; where to go on holiday and what to do there; how to cope with boredom and anxiety; which drugs to take. A reader of Maupassant's articles and tales would never have been short of ideas for weekend excursions. Many of his tales could still be used today as a practical guide to the leafy environs of Paris. Maupassant was offering his readers an alternative to mass-market guidebooks, which, he claimed in an account of his trip to Brittany in 1882, gave "odious and false descriptions, invariably erroneous information, and purely imaginary directions."
The holiday destinations described in Afloat lay along the "Cote d'Azur." (The name had first been used, by railway companies and property speculators, in 1877.) Much of the hinterland and even parts of the coast of southeastern Provence were still unknown and undeveloped -- as late as 1902, traveling through the Massif des Maures above Saint-Tropez, Willa Cather noted that "the coast, for a hundred miles on either side of us, is quite as wild as it was when the Saracens held it" -- but some of the small towns and fishing villages on the Mediterranean had been made fashionable by wealthy invalids who had discovered them on their way to Italy, when rough weather, pirates, or, in the days of Napoleon, the British fleet forced them to take the land route. Once the railway had reached Nice in 1868, then Monaco and Menton in 1869, these resorts were increasingly visited by healthy tourists, rich artists, and, as Maupassant testily points out, Parisians, English, and Americans, "and assorted flashy foreign gentlemen."
Almost as soon as he sets sail, however, it becomes clear that something is wrong. Instead of enjoying the soothing effect of the waves, the vacationing writer finds himself stranded with his own obsessions. He stands on the deck of his yacht, watching the pretty lights of Cannes curve along the bay, and recalls in vivid detail the horrors from which he is supposed to be escaping. In all those illuminated villas and hotels, people are busy chatting "about nothing":
You have to bite the bullet really hard in order not to weep with grief, disgust, and shame when you listen to people talking.... It seems to me that I'm looking into their ghastly souls and discovering a monstrous fetus preserved in alcohol. And I'm watching them slowly give birth to commonplaces that they'll go on producing again and again....
From this point on, Maupassant's Mediterranean holiday becomes a descent into Hell. Occasionally, he goes ashore -- at Cannes, Agay, Saint-Raphael, Saint-Tropez, and Antibes. He makes observations and hears stories, all of which fill him with pity and loathing for the human race. Young invalids suffering from tuberculosis walk by "with deep-set eyes full of despair and hatred." Soldiers practicing their shooting on the beach at Antibes inspire a long diatribe against the ghastly stupidity of war: "whole plains of flesh squashed into blood-soaked mud, piles of corpses, arms or legs torn off, brains turned into pulp, without benefit to anyone." At Saint-Raphael, a wedding strikes him as a "funereal ceremony." At Saint-Tropez, two old office clerks are "bound and gagged in their misery" like denizens of Dante's Inferno. One of the rare moments of happiness is provided by the bottle of ether that brings temporary relief from his excruciating headaches.
The overrated Cote d'Azur itself is an objective correlative of his state of mind: the festering swamp of the Argens estuary, the forests of cork oaks which, stripped of their bark, resemble torture victims, the constant threat of sudden, violent storms, and the distant Alpine range, "itself a mountainous wave, threatening, a wave of granite crowned with snow." Taken as a literal expression of his mental state, this engrossingly dismal chronicle would suggest that Maupassant's similarly nightmarish short stories were mirrors of his soul. In fact, says Douglas Parmee in his introduction, the book is "best read as fiction": "his claim that Afloat is the diary of a single cruise made in April 1887 has been proved to be blatantly spurious." In his comprehensive edition of Sur l'eau, Jacques Dupont explains that Maupassant pieced his "diary" together from thirty-two short tales and articles that had already appeared in various newspapers and reviews, and that his "logbook" was based on at least ten separate visits to the Cote d'Azur.
Maupassant's chronicle, which he describes, unconvincingly (and deliberately so), as "inconsequential, unassuming, and badly composed," is a polished and professional work. This is not just a canny repackaging of circumstantial writings. It is a highly original description of a mind disintegrating under the weight of its own obsessions. The "diary" does, of course, spring from Maupassant's personal experience of the Cote d'Azur, but, for both Parmee and Dupont, its chief interest lies in its literary artifice. Parmee admires it as a mini-anthology of narrative techniques, while Dupont shows that it could be used as a sampler of the devices by which a skillful writer merges miscellaneous texts into a complete work of art.
The evident professionalism of Maupassant's work may reflect his deliberate acquisition of literary techniques. Perhaps any writer who successfully completes a creative writing course tends to produce work that lends itself to pedagogical purposes. But then, as Parmee also observes, it is impossible to read Afloat without remembering that Maupassant's thoughts really were on the verge of becoming seriously "inconsequential," and that "five years later he lay dead in a mental hospital." The book was, after all, rooted in reality, and its disciplined depiction of a writer tortured by his own imagination can also be seen as an attempt by the ailing Maupassant to alleviate his condition by applying the hardest of Flaubert's lessons: "Life should be treated as a means to an end, and nothing more."
Maupassant's presentation of Afloat as a slice of his own life was a double bluff. Many of his readers, having been "educated" by Flaubert and other modern novelists, knew that autobiography was a form of fiction and that a confessional writer could never be taken at his word. But artifice is also a means of self-discovery. Even in its skillful distortions of biographical fact, Afloat is a voyage into the writer's mind, and a variation on Maupassant's first published tale, "La Main d'ecorche": this time, the writer himself is slowly throttled by the hand that holds the pen.
In this, too, Maupassant's terrifying logbook has a certain pedagogical value. Like his other vices -- drug-taking, whoring, an obsession with physical fitness -- writing is a curse. It exacerbates his misanthropy and ruins his vacation. It is no more "therapeutic" than the ether bottle. This mesmerizing concerto of dream, anecdote, diatribe, and confession is a warning to anyone who looks to creative writing for a form of personal salvation. On this evidence, no one should learn to write in order to be happy but only in order to produce good writing.
Graham Robb has written biographies of Balzac, Rimbaud, and Victor Hugo. His latest book is The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War.