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Œuvres complètes by Guy de Maupassant
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The quality of his stories was certainly uneven, but enough of them—perhaps as many as one-quarter—were of such high quality, and a number of them so innovative in concept and technique, that Maupassant is today generally accorded the distinction of having made the greatest contribution to the development of the French short story.
Outside of France, too, Maupassant is widely regarded as a major figure in the short story and as an inescapable influence. Few are the twentieth-century writers, in Europe or America, who do not acknowledge having studied Maupassant's work and learned something of the craft of storytelling from him. In the nineteenth century, when the history of the modern artistic short story began, few writers could have conceived the ambition of specializing in the short story at the outset of their careers, because it was not a viable option at the time.
Maupassant certainly did not set out to be the short story specialist he eventually became. He did not even start out as a writer of any kind. In his twenties he earned his living as a civil servant and dabbled in literature in his spare time; he tried his hand at poems, plays, and stories and wrote occasional reviews for various journals, hoping to attract attention and make a start. Meanwhile, he eagerly availed himself of the offer of a family friend and fellow-Norman, Gustave Flaubert , who proposed to help him with his writing and encouraged him in his ambition to become a novelist, like Flaubert himself.
Afterwards Maupassant always acknowledged Flaubert as his master and his model and was wont to say that Flaubert taught him everything he knew about writing fiction. Although his mentor did not live to see his pupil's success, Maupassant did indeed go on to write six successful novels, three of which are still widely read and admired. Nevertheless, at the age of 30, Maupassant discovered his own talent for the shorter forms of fiction when a novella he had written about the Franco-Prussian War won wide and enthusiastic acclaim.
This was the story called "Ball-of-Fat," which first appeared in as one in a volume of six antiwar stories and made Maupassant a literary celebrity overnight. His career thus launched and his storytelling talent uncovered, Maupassant became a regular contributor to several journals, turning out stories at an amazing rate, most of them relatively short—about 3, words—to meet the stringent space needs of journals. By he had enough stories that met his personal artistic standards learned from his mentor, Flaubert to publish a first collection. It would be followed by at least a dozen more such volumes before illness put an end to his career.
The most conspicuous hallmarks of Maupassant's storytelling skill were rapidity of movement and precise observation. He learned to "set up" a story situation with just a few brief sentences, carefully selecting and describing the details of character and place most essential for grasping the significance of the story, and he then moved the reader swiftly and with stunning economy through the action of the plot, stopping the moment the meaning of the narrative had become fully revealed to the alert reader.
The procedure also had the advantage of transforming the handicap of space limitation imposed by journals into a rich source of narrative power. Maupassant developed to a high degree of perfection the art of making enforced brevity work to his own advantage.
The celebrated tale "The Necklace" can be profitably studied as a consummate example of what Maupassant's techniques of precise observation and rapid narration can accomplish. The ending of that story is particularly noteworthy, because it not only brings sudden enlightenment to the reader but to the story's characters as well.
Maupassant was, of course, not content to let his basic storytelling techniques decline into a formula to be applied mechanically to any number of different plots. He became ingeniously inventive at finding ways to shift attention away from the ending, for example, by placing a dramatic climax in the center of a story and allowing the ending to be quietly reflective, as happens in the farcical novella about a house of prostitution called "La Maison Tellier.
The variety of means in Maupassant's stories is more than matched by the variety of the subjects he managed to treat and the variety of narrative manners—from frivolous to solemn, from satirical to compassionate, from ribald to sentimental—that he was capable of employing. One could, for example, make up a sizable anthology of Maupassant's stories about the Franco-Prussian War , and they would reveal the many moods, both gay and bitter, with which Maupassant, who served in the war, regarded his experiences.
Another anthology could be constructed of Maupassant's stories about the fantastic and the terrifying, including the most famous example, "Le Horla"; these stories have often been read as foreshadowings of the insanity Maupassant suffered at the end of his life, thus investing those tales with a prophetic spookiness the author never intended. An objective reading of those tales would reveal, instead, a very objective and clear-headed attempt to analyze the irrational fear of the unknown in human nature. The two largest thematically related story groups in all of Maupassant's vast output of stories are those that concern the peasants of Normandy "The Piece of String" is the best-known example of that group and those that concern the Parisian petite bourgeoisie: Those two different worlds, both of which he knew intimately from personal experience, seemed to bring out the very best in Maupassant, and that very best is certainly an uncanny ability to penetrate into the deepest and darkest secrets of the human soul and, by deft and sensitive narrative techniques, to bring those secrets to the surface, where others can see and understand what otherwise goes unnoticed in the human comedy.