Though it provides plenty of fodder for legitimate satire, French intellectual life must remain admirable and even inspirational to an American observer. To begin with, it is deeper and certainly more socially approved than in our country. You still meet a fair number of people who, without self-consciousness, actually refer to themselves and others as “intellectuals." The American “public intellectuals,” fairly recent cultural arrivals—one might call them nouveaux intelligents—may change this. But the French news kiosks and television programs are practically clogged with public pundits and rock-star professors.
The French truly do love, respect, and cherish their rich literary heritage. One very often sees what look like ordinary people sitting in the métro, deeply absorbed in some classic work of philosophy or fiction. Our publishing industry appears unduly to prize novelty—what’s new. In France, even the trendiest of publishers is likely to have an excellent sideline of “classics."
Several years ago, I discovered a series simply called “Bouquins” from the publisher Robert Laffont. It includes two fat volumes of Guy de Maupassant. This is not the “complete works,” of which several multi-volume editions have been published, but it has about as much of a prolific author as one could conceivably schlepp onto an airplane. I think it has most of the short stories (he wrote 300-some), several of the well-known novellas, and a couple of full novels. Furthermore there is a no-holds-barred scholarly apparatus of the kind one would find only in an academic book here. This is dipable de Maupassant, but you can dip almost as deep as you want.
Guy de Maupassant experienced a fair amount of history for a man who died at 42. He was born in 1850 during the short-lived Second Republic, grew up during the Second Empire of Napoleon III, and lived out his nearly frantic literary career in the Third Republic, which had been born in the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War and continued for most of the writer’s life in a serious and prolonged economic depression. He is usually and rightly regarded as one of the great realists, though the realism is more on the psychological and moral side than on that of the historical and material. One concrete historical moment does seem to be of particular significance: the Franco-Prussian War. It is the setting for the story called “Boule de Suif” (“Ball of Fat”), the hugely successful piece that put him on the literary map in 1880, and for several of his others.
Like all readers of short stories, I was already familiar with several of his better-known pieces. Many people have enjoyed “The Diamond Necklace” (“La Parure” in French), which has one of the great trick or surprise endings in the genre. It makes pretty clear where O. Henry was coming from. In a general sense, it typifies a couple of Maupassant’s recurrent characteristics, precision and economy of plot. His frequent sexual themes, which once gave him a reputation for naughtiness and lubricity, now seem pretty tame if mildly obsessive. What I was unprepared for was such a coherent and grand tragic vision of the human condition in short story form.
Guy de Maupassant came by his neuroses honestly. He was an upper-middle class heir to a sharply contested revolutionary tradition; a syphilitic; a free-thinker tempted by the occult; and a workaholic. Though bathed in professional success, he worried constantly about his health and essentially withdrew from society for the last decade of his short life. Although he died relatively young, one of his most fully mastered themes is the inexorability of growing old.
It is a theme recurrent in the short stories and central to one of novels for which the editor of this anthology, large as it is, could find no room, though his commentary has sent me to it: "Fort comme la mort (Strong as Death)." I had never even heard of this book, though I recognized the biblical citation from the Song of Songs: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.”
"Fort comme la mort" was published in 1889. That was the same year that Sigmund Freud gave his first son the French name Jean-Martin after his old professor Jean-Martin Charcot, the same Charcot whose lectures Guy de Maupassant had attended at the Salpêtrière. I don’t usually go for instant intellectual history in microwavable plastic cups, but it really is all there in this novel: love, death, incest, Electra, the Pygmalion myth, the doomed search for immortality through art. I have not read all that many works of fiction that brilliantly depict growing old. The best one that comes to mind is Arnold Bennett’s "The Old Wives Tale." It is pretty clear that "Strong as Death," which I have not yet finished, will give Bennett a run for his money. I won’t pretend to tell you what it is “about” (senescence), but the three points of the tragic triangle are an aging painter, his aging married mistress, and her nubile daughter. A contemporary Parisian critic called it “the chastest of Mons. de Maupassant’s works but also the most awful." That is the kind of review to die for.