Friday, 19 August 2011

Psyches and Psychoses

Boule de Suif, Guy de Maupassant

One of the things I learned by reading the Bible in Latin is that one good route to lasting popular success is to say profound things in a simple way. That is what the Bible does: the Latin Bible is not difficult to read and nor is the Greek New Testament. Until you get to St Paul, that is. He may or may not be saying profound things, but he’s certainly not saying them in a simple way. That doubt doesn’t attach to Guy de Maupassant: he combined great simplicity with great profundity in a way that’s reminiscent of Mozart. But music doesn’t convey meaning so clearly, and Mozart doesn’t generally have Mauppassant’s melancholy. Both seemed to have a kind of mystic’s acceptance of the world, however: it is what it is, in all its beauty and horror. People do some very unpleasant things in Maupassant’s stories, but he has compassion and understanding for both victims and perpetrators. The victims don’t have to be human, either: he can write with equal power and memorability about the suffering of horses, dogs and birds. He understands that people do what they do because they are what they are: imperfect beings in particular situations with particular histories and natures. He doesn’t have the shallow message that society is the real sinner, but sin does take place within a society and is shaped and sometimes caused by that fact. The plump, good-natured prostitute of “Boule de Suif” (Ball of Tallow), which brought him his first real fame, befriends the bourgeoisie who share her coach as they flee their common enemy during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and is repaid with manipulation, callousness and cruelty.
Those themes occur again and again in Maupassant’s stories, as does that war, which shamed, horrified and fascinated him, but he has a gift for humor and absurdity too and a deep insight into both male and female psychology. Canine too: the disturbing “Une vendetta” is about the way a bereaved mother conditions her dead son’s dog to kill his murderer. But canine psychology is in part human psychology, because dogs and men have been shaped by the same world and have a common ancestor. Maupassant is pre-scientific and even pre-Darwinian in his world-view, but his intuition and intelligence revealed these unities and he was a greater psychologist than many who later claimed the title. The simplicity of his prose means that he survives translation well too, but should also be an incentive for attempting him in the original. And if you want more, try Maugham: an Anglophone disciple of Maupassant who may sometimes have matched him in composition and clarity, if not in originality, and whose own prose seems universal, perhaps because English wasn’t really his mother tongue. Maugham is post-Christian like Maupassant but doesn’t write about the supernatural as often, perhaps because, unlike Maupassant, he didn’t start to go mad from syphilis and end his life in a lunatic asylum.
The supernatural stories Maupassant wrote as his madness emerged and deepened are among the most disturbing and authentic I’ve ever read, but some of the loneliest too. Madness began to wall him off from the world whose richness and complexity he had portrayed so well, and the stories he wrote under its influence are about individuals struggling against mysterious unhuman forces rather than individuals in interaction: from general psychology his interest shifted to particular psychoses. Regrettable as the circumstances under which these later stories were written, they add to the already great range and power of Maupassant’s œuvre. Nineteenth-century French literature contains some very great names but Maupassant’s is secure among them.

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