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Guy de Maupassant

August 5, 1850, is the birthday of Henry Rene Albert Guy de Maupassant.  Born in Normandy, he is regarded as the greatest French short story writer of all time.  His paternal ancestors were noble, and his maternal grandfather, Paul Le Poittevin, was Gustave Flaubert's godfather.  His parents separated when he was 11 years old, and he was raised in Normandy.  His gift of a photographic memory enabled him to gather a storehouse of information, which he later used in recreating his stories about the Norman people.

In 1869, de Maupassant began studying law in Paris, but by the age of 20, he decided against a legal profession.  He volunteered to serve in the army during the Franco-Prussian War, and between the years 1872 and 1880, he was a civil servant, first at the ministry of maritime affairs, and then at the ministry of education.

Within the span of a decade between 1880 and 1890, he wrote most of the work for which he is remembered, including three hundred stories, six novels, three travel books, and a book of verse.  De Maupassant made his debut as a poet with Des Vers (1880).  In the same year, he published the anthology, Soirées de Medan, edited by Emile Zola, which contained his masterpiece, "Boule De Suif" ("Ball of Fat", 1880).  For nearly ten years, de Maupassant had been an apprentice of French writer Gustave Flaubert, who used to invite him to lunch on Sundays, lecture him on the style of prose, and correct his early work.  Flaubert also introduced him to some of the leading writers of the day, including Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Henry James.  De Maupassant threw away nearly everything he wrote until he felt that he'd mastered his craft.

In 1881, de Maupassant published his short story collection, La Maison Tellier (Madame Tellier's Establishment, in which he portrayed French prostitutes sympathetically.  He had more than an academic interest in bordellos at the time, having been a frequent patron, himself.  As a result, he
suffered from syphilis, which he caught early in life.  It later caused increasing mental disorder. 

Some critics track his growing illness with his nightmarish stories, often comparing them to those of Edgar Allan Poe.  However, de Maupassant's theme of mental disorder is present even in his first collection, La Maison Tellier (1881), published at the peak of his health.

The author's most memorable horror story, Le Horla (1887), is about madness and suicide.  The nameless protagonist is likely a syphilitic.  In the beginning of the tale, the narrator - a prosperous young Norman gentleman - sees a Brazilian three-masted ship sail by his home.  He salutes it, and the gesture summons the Horla, an invisible being.

Cousins to the vampires, the Horla mean the end of mankind's very existence.  The narrator eventually sets fire to his own house in an attempt to destroy the Horla, but the act only results in the deaths of his servants.  He realizes in time that the Horla are still alive and decides to kill himself to escape them.

Other de Maupassant works are based more on the reality that the author saw around him in his everyday life.  His episodic novel, Bel Ami (1885), depicts an unscrupulous journalist, Georges Duroy, whose success is built on hypocrisy, decadence, and the corruption of society.

"Now listen carefully: Marriage, to me, is not a chain but an association.  I must be free, entirely unfettered, in all my actions--my coming and my going; I can tolerate neither control, jealousy, nor criticism as to my conduct.  I pledge my word, however, never to compromise the name of the man I marry, nor to render him ridiculous in the eyes of the world.  But that man must promise to look upon me as an equal, an ally, and not as an inferior, or as an obedient, submissive wife.  My ideas, I know, are not like those of other people, but I shall never change them." - from Bel Ami, 1885  

An activist throughout his life, de Maupassant was rarely satisfied when he was not shaking the tree rooted in society.  He joined a group of concerned French artists and writers that counted prominently among their ranks the author's friend, Alexandre Dumas.  In 1889, while the world was praising the daring and spectacle of the center of Parisian architectural splendor, the Eiffel Tower, the group sent a collaborative note of disdain to the French Minister of Commerce:

"Is this the horror that the French have created in order to impress us with their vaunted taste? . . . We loathe the prospect of a dizzily ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black factory chimney."

But below the exterior that appeared so strong, the ravages of his disease were steadily taking their toll.  Internally, he was growing increasingly psychotic and unpredictable.  On January 2, 1892, de Maupassant attempted suicide by cutting his throat.  He was committed to the celebrated private asylum of Dr. Esprit Blanche at Passy, in Paris, where he died on July 6, 1893, at the age of 43.

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