The Sex Specialist

Lorin Stein in Harper’s:

In a career that spanned barely a decade — the 1880s and early 1890s — Maupassant produced some 300 stories, 200 articles, three travel books, a collection of poems, three plays, and six novels, and the bulk of this production was consumed with the pursuit of illicit sex. His specialty was the conte leste, a kind of bawdy comic story we have very little of in English after Chaucer (think Boccaccio or The Arabian Nights). Maupassant modernized this tradition, testing the boundaries of what was permissible even in the Paris tabloids, where many of his stories first appeared. He was the best-selling writer of his generation. . . .

By the time he was in his early thirties, not just Flaubert and Zola but Turgenev, James, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, and millions of ordinary French people, were reading everything he wrote. He had become “a lion in the path,” as James put it — a writer so “strong and definite” that he seemed able to reduce life almost solely to a matter of animal urges. “In the face of the demands made by the art of Maupassant,” Chekhov complained, “it is difficult to work.” His French was notoriously vivid and to the point. When Isaac Babel has a narrator say, “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place,” in the story “Guy de Maupassant,” it is a tribute to this style.

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Maupassant is among the few to be as influential a realist as he was a fantasist: historical happenstance or personal inclination? Bachelors in general were greatly influential figures for the early fantastique, in fiction and life. The macabre is the constant twilit underside to Maupassant’s appetite for life. Just over a tenth of his stories are fantastical (thirty-three, to be exact). At the age of 18, Maupassant saved Swinburne from drowning, for which the English poet, among other displays of gratitude, introduced him to that macabre artifact, a dried human hand, which Maupassant later came to own, and which features in no less than three of those tales. His valet Tassart claimed his master was a man to stroke cats at length in the shadows, to see sparks fly from their fur, and to turn the house upside down chasing after imaginary spiders. In the same classic story Stein quotes above, Babel memorialized the author’s lamentable demise from syphilitic madness at a private asylum in Passy with the line: “Monsieur de Maupassant va s’animaliser.”

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