Thursday, September 3, 2015

Troubled Guy de Maupassant, 42, “coveted everything, took pleasure in nothing,” dead of syphilis in an asylum

Guy de Maupassant deplored the structure that has become the quintessential symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. He lunched regularly at the restaurant on its ground floor because it was the only place in Paris from which the looming image of the Tower was not visible. Along with other intellectuals including Charles Gounod, Alexandre Dumas fils, and Victorien Sardou,  Maupassant published a vituperative protest deploringthe useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower” with which Paris was “making itself irreparably ugly.”

Maupassant, who achieved fame with his short stories and novels, lived a troubled life and died in a lunatic asylum where he was confined after plunging a sharp letter opener into his throat. Born in a chateau to a privileged family in Étretat, near Dieppe, on the English Channel, on August 5, 1850, Guy and his mother were abandoned by his father, a notorious womanizer, when the boy was eleven. His well-read mother brought him up on literary classics and then sent him to a rigid church school, which he hated and which inculcated in him a lifelong aversion to religion. Later he was sent to the more congenial Lycée Pierre Corneille, where he excelled in academics, poetry, and dramatics. 

When he was eighteen, Maupassant saved the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne from drowning off the coast near Étretat, and Swinburne expressed his gratitude by inviting young Guy to lunch, serving monkey-meat, plying him with liquor, showing him a portfolio of pornographic pictures, and trying without success to seduce him. It wasn’t that Guy was prudish; he simply preferred the affections of women of dubious morals to that of decadent male poets.

After serving briefly in the army, Maupassant got a job as a government clerk and began to write short stories on the side. He moved in Parisian literary circles and was friendly with Gustave Flaubert, who became his mentor, and with Alexandre Dumas fils, Émile Zola, Henry James, Charles Gounod, Hippolyte Taine, Ivan Turgenev, and many other artistic figures. In 1880 he published a short story called “Roly-Poly” (“Boule de Suif”), and it was a huge success with the reading public. A prolific writer, he turned out three or four volumes of stories every year, grew wealthy, acquired a yacht, traveled widely, and lived a seemingly carefree bachelor’s life in Paris, where he was no stranger to the allure of fashionable brothels.

It was his penchant for prostitutes that brought Maupassant’s downfall. When he was in his late thirties, he began to feel unwell, suffering a skin rash and heart palpitations. His doctor diagnosed a rheumatic condition, but his old friend Flaubert suggested another cause: “Come, my dear friend,” he wrote to Maupassant, “you seem very worried. You could make better use of your time. I suspect you have become a bit of a loafer, and have weakened yourself with too many whores, too much rowing and too much exercise.”  Flaubert was not far off the mark, for Maupassant’s symptoms were the onset of syphilis. 

As the disease attacked his spinal cord, he grew despondent and attempted to shoot himself.  Having failed at that attempt at suicide, he plunged a letter-opener into this throat, which also fell short of fatality.  The next day he was committed to the asylum of Esprit Blanche in Passy, near Paris. He died there a few months later of the ravages of syphilis, on July 6, 1893, a month short of his forty-third birthday.

Maupassant is buried in the Cemetery of Montparnasse.  The epitaph he wrote for himself is a sad commentary on his life: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.”

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