In discussing a certain French author, there’s a temptation to illustrate with fluffy and sensuous impressionist pieces evoking his era and favourite locations: pictures by Manet and Renoir depicting the delights of late 19th century Paris, the Seine on weekends, and so forth. But see here:
Above are pictures by the academy painter, Meissonier. Still eclipsed by the ongoing fad for impressionism, he was nonetheless one of the great professionals, specialising in war and mess.
Meissonier makes an unlikely and comical appearance as a character in Guy de Maupassant’s Sundays of a Paris Bourgeois; and if anything serves to illustrate Maupassant, it is the grim clarity of this underrated master, who was probably an acquaintance of the writer.
Napoleon rides through dirty snow from a defeat on French soil: a defeat by Blücher after Moscow and before Waterloo. No impressions here. Meissonier’s definition and balance make a clear statement of pessimism matched by grand persistence.
That picture – not the emperor – is Maupassant. A godless clarity. An alluring desolation. Guy de Maupassant really is unforgivable…
…yet we forgive. Why?
Some of the answer lies in that for which he is most often and justly praised. Style. Maupassant’s style goes far beyond the clarity already mentioned. He treats his readers as royal guests, and in this he stands supreme: consciousness of the other, the reader.
No misanthrope was ever so compulsively courteous.
Les Dimanches d’un Bourgeois de Paris, Sundays of a Paris Bourgeois, fell to hand (or, I should say, to mouse) at a time when I was reading distractedly and without relish. It was short, episodic, and broken by illustrations, something that usually appeals. Though I’ve read and re-read much of Maupassant over the years, this one was new to me.
Maupassant encountered Flaubert through family ties, and it was Flaubert who encouraged him to write never elaborately, but always laboriously; to seek out the right phrase, to put it in the perfect spot within its sentence, to relate sentence to paragraph so that the reader digests all with gusto and ease. The point is always made, the character or place is sketched unforgettably…yet the labour is for the writer, never for the reader.
And Maupassant surpassed his teacher, as we see in the case of Les Dimanches.
A loose series of sketches, the book describes the late-life aspirations of a narrow, unmarried Paris bureaucrat, M. Patissot, his attempts to widen his horizons after the age of fifty. It’s funny, sharpish, and full of those situations that we all recognise from our own attempts to “break out” and “widen horizons” and so on. So typically of Maupassant, while pretending to be about very little, it burrows to our secret, embarrassing cores.
Patissot’s purchase of outdoor equipment has a particularly contemporary feel. Even today, in Paris it’s a hideously complicated and expensive affair. The customer of a single business may be obliged to walk to a different street for each different item, and to pay up to five times the price of a good internet outlet. The French are the biggest suckers for the famous présentation franςaise.
The account of the protagonist’s first weekend outing with his new equipment is full of a gentle mockery that, in Maupassant’s earlier and happier period, stayed within bounds. A fall, a broken wine bottle and wet lunch, getting lost, a chance romantic hookup that comes to nothing…little happens, yet how we feel for this man! And for ourselves?
To this day, a Paris bureaucrat is a creature of fear and habit. Yet the book, while taking the protagonist from one mild failure to another, does not end with him scampering back to his office and old ways. Maupassant does not betray his character. While M. Patissot’s romantic fumblings, his excruciating encounters with Zola and Meissonier, his miserable efforts at fishing etc all come to nothing, he shows a surprising curiosity and capacity for friendship.
At the very end, he meets yet another chance acquaintance – a skeptic at at a radical feminist symposium! – and drifts off for a drink and a chat.
The worst of this book, like the worst of Maupassant, are the vulgar and “suggestive” episodes, the useless dross that excited Victorian readers and earned Maupassant his “reputation” in the Anglosphere. God knows what the purpose of that was. Sales? The French are bad at that sort of thing, and none worse than Maupassant, a normand, orthodox and conservative to the bone. The sleaze was such a bad fit, and got worse as his mental health declined and syphilis set in.
But the famous and boring immoralité is not today’s subject.
Les Dimanches is a great book because we start by disliking Patissot as a bluffing mediocrity, as we hate our own bluff and mediocrity. We finish by enjoying his wholesome aspirations to know more and do more, however futile; we admire his obtuse curiosity, and belated discovery of his fellow man, if only on weekends. Unlike many reading types, and unlike me, Patissot is a startlingly tolerant fellow. We wish him many more silly and adventurous Sundays.
Because of his background and insight into petty livelihoods, one might imagine Maupassant as an inadequate bookish type who, like Patissot with his fishing, ventured into short fiction, only with luck.
Guy de Maupassant was able to use his early impoverished experiences to shape his stories of muddlers and mediocrities. The man himself was dynamic with, obviously, a stupendous capacity for work. He was also a competitive athlete, and, if you peer behind the 19th century face-hair, a heartthrob. Frenetic sex cost him his life and sanity, yet, as with Liszt, the sex usually came to him.
He did venture into long fiction: one of his novels, Bel Ami, was a blockbuster and another, Une Vie, one of the great novels of the century. Maupassant the non-novelist is a myth, perhaps caused by the great popularity of his shorter pieces. The mindless repetition of the myth is entirely mysterious, since Bel Ami and Une Vie are known and available everywhere.
But he was not one of his own mediocre characters. Syphilis aside, Maupassant’s tragedy was maybe spiritual. Pascalian. Misère de l’homme sans dieu, and so on. But let that rest. It’s another subject.
Examine just the first paragraph of Les Dimanches. It fairly shimmers on the page, inviting you in. It is simple, funny, masterful. Four lines, and so much is achieved…for the reader. All is for the reader, something that should not be rare, but is very rare.
I haven’t found this particular book online in English, but I haven’t looked hard. Plenty of English translations of Guy’s tales here for free online reading.
To write as he did, Maupassant must have loved us a little bit. God is in that style, somewhere.