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Une Vie, a Piece of String and Other Stories

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"I entered literary life as a meteor, and I shall leave it like athunderbolt." These words of Maupassant to José Maria de Heredia onthe occasion of a memorable meeting are, in spite of their morbidsolemnity, not an inexact summing up of the brief career during which,for ten years, the writer, by turns undaunted and sorrowful, with thefertility of a master hand produced poetry, novels, romances andtravels, only to sink prematurely into the abyss of madness anddeath....

In the month of April, 1880, an article appeared in the "Le Gaulois"announcing the publication of the Soirées de Médan. It was signed by aname as yet unknown: Guy de Maupassant. After a juvenile diatribeagainst romanticism and a passionate attack on languorous literature,the writer extolled the study of real life, and announced thepublication of the new work. It was picturesque and charming. In thequiet of evening, on an island in the Seine, beneath poplars insteadof the Neapolitan cypresses dear to the friends of Boccaccio, amid thecontinuous murmur of the valley, and no longer to the sound of thePyrennean streams that murmured a faint accompaniment to the tales ofMarguerite's cavaliers, the master and his disciples took turns innarrating some striking or pathetic episode of the war. And the issue,in collaboration, of these tales in one volume, in which the masterjostled elbows with his pupils, took on the appearance of a manifesto,the tone of a challenge, or the utterance of a creed.

In fact, however, the beginnings had been much more simple, and theyhad confined themselves, beneath the trees of Médan, to deciding on ageneral title for the work. Zola had contributed the manuscript of the"Attaque du Moulin," and it was at Maupassant's house that the fiveyoung men gave in their contributions. Each one read his story,Maupassant being the last. When he had finished Boule de Suif, with aspontaneous impulse, with an emotion they never forgot, filled withenthusiasm at this revelation, they all rose and, without superfluouswords, acclaimed him as a master.

He undertook to write the article for the Gaulois and, in coöperationwith his friends, he worded it in the terms with which we arefamiliar, amplifying and embellishing it, yielding to an inborn tastefor mystification which his youth rendered excusable. The essentialpoint, he said, is to "unmoor" criticism.

It was unmoored. The following day Wolff wrote a polemicaldissertation in the Figaro and carried away his colleagues. The volumewas a brilliant success, thanks to Boule de Suif. Despite the novelty,the honesty of effort, on the part of all, no mention was made of theother stories. Relegated to the second rank, they passed withoutnotice. From his first battle, Maupassant was master of the field inliterature.

At once the entire press took him up and said what was appropriateregarding the budding celebrity. Biographers and reporters soughtinformation concerning his life. As it was very simple and perfectlystraightforward, they resorted to invention. And thus it is that atthe present day Maupassant appears to us like one of those ancientheroes whose origin and death are veiled in mystery.

I will not dwell on Guy de Maupassant's younger days. His relatives,his old friends, he himself, here and there in his works, havefurnished us in their letters enough valuable revelations and touchingremembrances of the years preceding his literary début. His worthybiographer, H....