Home  »  Walter Schnaffs’ Adventure & Two Friends  »  Criticism and Interpretation. By Arthur Symons

Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893). Walter Schnaffs’ Adventure & Two Friends.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticism and Interpretation. By Arthur Symons

EVERY artist has his own vision of the world. Maupassant’s vision was of solid superficies, of texture which his hands could touch, of action which his mind could comprehend from the mere sight of its incidents. He saw the world as the Dutch painters saw it, and he was as great a master of form, of rich and sober colour, of the imitation of the outward gestures of life, and of the fashion of external things. He had the same view of humanity, and shows us, with the same indifference, the same violent ferment of life, the life of full-blooded people who have to elbow their way through the world. His sense of desire, of greed, of all the baser passions, was profound; he had the terrible logic of animalism. Love-making, drunkennes, cheating, quarrelling the mere idleness of sitting drowsily in a chair, the gross life of the farmyard and the fields, civic dissensions, the sordid provincial dance of the seven deadly sins, he saw in the same direct, unilluminating way as the Dutch painters; finding, indeed, to beauty in any of these things, but getting his beauty in the deft arrangement of them, in the mere act of placing them in a picture. The world existed for him as something formless which could be cut up into little pictures. He saw no further than the lines of his frame. The interest of the thing began inside that frame, and what remained outside was merely material.

As a writer, Maupassant was de race, as the French say; he was the lineal descendant of the early conteurs. Trained under the severe eye of the impeccable Flaubert, he owed infinitely, no doubt, to that training, and much to the actual influence of the great novelist, who, in “L’Education sentimentale,” has given us the type of the modern novel. But his style is quite different from that of Flaubert, of which it has none of the splendid, subdued richness, the harmonious movement; it is clear, precise, sharply cut, without ornament or elaboration; with much art, certainly in its deliberate plainness, and with the admirable skill of an art which conceals art.…

Not Swift himself had a surer eye or hand for the exact, brief, malicious notation of things and ideas. He seems to use the first words that come to hand, in the order in which they naturally fall; and when he has reached this point he stops, not conceiving that there is anything more to be done.…

A story of Maupassant, more than almost anything in the world, gives you the impression of manual dexterity. It is adequately thought out, but it does not impress you by its thought; it is clearly seen, but it does not impress you especially by the fidelity of its detail; it has just enough of ordinary human feeling for the limits it has imposed on itself. What impresses you is the extreme ingenuity of its handling; the way in which this juggler keep his billiard-balls harmoniously rising and falling in the air. Often, indeed, you cannot help noticing the conscious smile which precedes the trick, and the confident bow which concludes it. He does not let you into the secret of the trick, but he prevents you from ignoring that it is after all only a trick which you have been watching.—From “Studies in Prose and Verse” (1899).