Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

4. Guy De Maupassant—1904
To introduce Maupassant to English readers with apologetic explanations as
though his art were recondite and the tendency of his work immoral would be a
gratuitous impertinence.
Maupassant's conception of his art is such as one would expect from a practical
and resolute mind; but in the consummate simplicity of his technique it ceases to
be perceptible. This is one of its greatest qualities, and like all the great virtues it
is based primarily on self-denial.
To pronounce a judgment upon the general tendency of an author is a difficult
task. One could not depend upon reason alone, nor yet trust solely to one's
emotions. Used together, they would in many cases traverse each other,
because emotions have their own unanswerable logic. Our capacity for emotion
is limited, and the field of our intelligence is restricted. Responsiveness to every
feeling, combined with the penetration of every intellectual subterfuge, would
end, not in judgment, but in universal absolution. TOUT COMPRENDRE C'EST
TOUT PARDONNER. And in this benevolent neutrality towards the warring
errors of human nature all light would go out from art and from life.
We are at liberty then to quarrel with Maupassant's attitude towards our world in
which, like the rest of us, he has that share which his senses are able to give
him. But we need not quarrel with him violently. If our feelings (which are tender)
happen to be hurt because his talent is not exercised for the praise and
consolation of mankind, our intelligence (which is great) should let us see that he
is a very splendid sinner, like all those who in this valley of compromises err by
over-devotion to the truth that is in them. His determinism, barren of praise,
blame and consolation, has all the merit of his conscientious art. The worth of
every conviction consists precisely in the steadfastness with which it is held.
Except for his philosophy, which in the case of so consummate an artist does not
matter (unless to the solemn and naive mind), Maupassant of all writers of fiction
demands least forgiveness from his readers. He does not require forgiveness
because he is never dull.
The interest of a reader in a work of imagination is either ethical or that of simple
curiosity. Both are perfectly legitimate, since there is both a moral and an
excitement to be found in a faithful rendering of life. And in Maupassant's work
there is the interest of curiosity and the moral of a point of view consistently
preserved and never obtruded for the end of personal gratification. The spectacle
of this immense talent served by exceptional faculties and triumphing over the
most thankless subjects by an unswerving singleness of purpose is in itself an
admirable lesson in the power of artistic honesty, one may say of artistic virtue.
The inherent greatness of the man consists in this, that he will let none of the
fascinations that beset a writer working in loneliness turn him away from the
straight path, from the vouchsafed vision of excellence. He will not be led into
perdition by the seductions of sentiment, of eloquence, of humour, of pathos; of
all that splendid pageant of faults that pass between the writer and his probity on
the blank sheet of paper, like the glittering cortege of deadly sins before the