June 13, 2009

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla

Posted in Maupassant Guy de, Melville House at 8:00 am by John Self

After reading three books in a row that I had mixed feelings about (and one or two more that I didn’t even finish), I needed a palate cleanser. Melville House came to the rescue with their ‘Art of the Novella’ reissue of Guy de Maupassant’s astonishing The Horla: a wonder in a few dozen pages.

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
This volume contains three stories: two versions of ‘The Horla’ from 1886 and 1887, and ‘Letter from a Madman’, first published in 1885. The two earlier stories work at the themes but only in the final version of ‘The Horla’ – presented here first – does Maupassant achieve a thoroughly satisfying telling.

Our unnamed narrator begins with unexplained mood swings: “Where do these mysterious influences come from that change our happiness into despondency and our confidence into distress?”

I wake up full of joy, with songs welling up in my throat. Why? I go down to the water; and suddenly, after a short walk, I come back disheartened, as if some misfortune were awaiting me at home. Why?

It is his desire to find an explanation – for what we might otherwise call the affliction of being human – that drives him to further anxiety and despair. He begins to believe that another being is accompanying him and influencing his existence (“My nights are eating up my days … Last night, I felt someone squatting over me, who, with his mouth over mine, was drinking in my life through my lips”). He sees sinister occurrences in displays of hypnotism, and even in nothing at all: when he arrives home, filled with premonitions of horror, “there was nothing there, yet I was more surprised and anxious than if I had had another fantastic vision.”

It is a perfect exploration of human irrationality. Lack of evidence makes the narrator more fearful still: knowing the limitations of our senses, he wonders what else is happening which could only be judged by senses we do not have. He imagines otherworldly beings:

What do the sentient beings in those distant universes know, more than we do? What more are they capable of doing than we? What do they see that we have not the least knowledge of? Some day or other, won’t one of them, crossing space, appear on our earth to conquer it, just as long ago the Normans crossed the seas to subjugate people who were weaker?

We are so infirm, so helpless, so ignorant, so small, we others, on this spinning grain of mud mixed with a drop of water.

(This passage, particularly with its ending on “a drop of water,” seems such a proto-H.G. Wells idea – so close in spirit to the opening of The War of the Worlds, published a dozen years later, that it cannot be coincidence. Did Wells read ‘The Horla’?) The whole story is a perfectly judged crescendo of fear’s cannibalism. “After mankind, the Horla”:

Oh my God! My God! Is there a God? If there is, set me free, save me! Help me! Forgive me! Have pity on me! Mercy! Save me! Save me from this suffering – this torture – this horror!

Charlotte Mandell, whose translation reads faultlessly, suggests that Maupassant was “haunted by his own dementia” and reminds us that he died in a private asylum a few years after completing ‘The Horla’. If it is true that Maupassant took his own suffering and made art from it, then what greater gift can a writer leave us?

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  1. Steerforth said,

    I think the greatest example of this was Bel Ami – a novel that was ahead of its time in so many ways. For my money, it stands head and shoulders above anything written by Flaubert of Stendahl.

  2. I read this a long time ago in French, when I was in school and you certainly got a lot more out of it than I did at the time. Even though I was fascinated by the story, I think I was even more puzzled. I probably should reread de Maupassant one of these days – in translation.

  3. Beth said,

    Just whipped through my collection of Maupassant short stories, hoping to find this one. How clever of Melville House to re-issue it with the earlier versions. ‘The Horla’ does look to be the perfect palette cleanser – those quotes are extremely appetizing.

  4. Myrthe said,

    Like Anna, I read some of de Maupassant’s stories in French in high school. Earlier this year I came across a collection of his stories in English so I decided a revisit was in order. I’m glad I did, because I thoroughly enjoyed de Maupassant’s writing. Anna, I highly recommend reading his stories in English or Dutch translation, I have a feeling you’ll enjoy them.

  5. deucekindred said,

    I had to study Maupassant’s Quinze Contes for my French A level and out of curiosity I decided to seek out the other writings. Without doubt The Horla is my favourite, and most creepy story, I also hold that no other author (and Sadegh Hedayat’s Blind Owl) has captured madness so well – at least how I picture it.

  6. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone; I’m interested to see that Maupassant seems to be standard reading in French schools. I can’t think of any English equivalent; I suppose that when Maupassant was writing, the fat novel was the favoured form in English, rather than the silky story.

    And I must admit I don’t know if I have read any other of his stories, though famous titles like ‘Boule de Suif’ and ‘The Necklace’ are lodged in my head, probably more through reputation than my own experience. I have however read Bel-Ami, Steerforth. I bought it in a second-hand bookshop in Belfast in 1992, and was intrigued by the fact that the owner had written on the flyleaf, “Best book in the shop!”

    Deucekindred, I’ve been tempted by The Blind Owl, as I like the look of those Oneworld Classics, but haven’t picked it up yet.

  7. john h. said,

    this is an off-topic response to this post, John. Just wanted to let you know I read a book by Brian Moore, largely on the basis of your interest in him. The book was called “The Lies of Silence.” I don’t know how representative it is of his ouevre but I enjoyed it very much. Probably learned more about the troubles in Northern Ireland than I ever would watching a newscast. I wasn’t expecting it to be so, but it was actually a thriller. I’m wondering if his other books are like this. Any in particular you would recommend? My local library has quite a few by him.

  8. John Self said,

    Hi John

    Moore turned to the thriller form (or back to it, as he started his career writing thrillers under assumed names) late in his life. Lies of Silence and The Colour of Blood are probably the best, with The Statement bringing up the rear (though still worth reading, of course).

    His early novels – which are the ones I’ve covered here, as I’ve been (re)reading them in chronological order – tend to be along the lines of “portrait of a person in crisis”. Of these the best in my opinion are Judith Hearne, The Luck of Ginger Coffey and the much-undervalued The Emperor of Ice-Cream.

    Then there are his uncategorisable books like Catholics and Black Robe, both excellent, and some I haven’t yet read which seem to have supernatural elements (The Great Victorian Collection, Cold Heaven).

    Of interest also is his mid-period novel The Doctor’s Wife, which combines the two approaches: strongly plot-driven but also acutely focused on the central character. It’s one of my favourite of his books, but then, I’ve never read one of his novels (I’ve read 16 of his 20) I didn’t like.

    • john h. said,

      Thanks for the brief overview of Moore’s work. It will come in hand in the future as I’ll definitely read more of him. Probably not right away as I don’t like reading two books in a row by the same author. I’ve found in the past that it can put me off an author.

      In the meantime, I’m off to the library. I visited ReadingMatters and have found that the local library has a couple books off Kimbofo’s list of favorite Australian novels. I haven’t read that much of their literature aside from a few of the major figures and thought I would check it out.

  9. Sam Jordison said,

    Sold! Excellent blog. One more for the to read pile.

  10. HART said,

    Maupassant was not the Madman people said he was. He was (just) syphilitic. Without this disease, he would not have been considered as mad. His short story Horla is, on the contrary, a literary creation. But till the 19th century, he is still seen as nuts…
    See the French website on this author : http://www.maupassantiana.fr and you will read in the newspapers of that time that during his illness at the asylum of Passy the journalists were particularly exited and gave false informations about his state.
    Read you soon.


  11. John Self said,

    Thanks raphi. Sadly my schoolboy French est trop mal to read the site, but I hope the link is of benefit to others.

  12. […] Ivan Ilyich, as well as less known (to me) but equally brilliant works such as Maupassant’s The Horla (a highlight of my reading year so far) and Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas (the […]

  13. […] Grabiński (1887-1936) suffered from tuberculosis all his relatively short life, and a heightened awareness of the corporeal and sensory is everywhere present in the stories selected here.  In the opening story ‘White Virak,’ children squeeze up sooty, claustrophobic chimneys, and people break out “in a peculiar rash, which covered our bodies with large white spots like pearly eruptions.”  Such is the heightened awareness of the characters that the sensory becomes neatly muddled with the extra-sensory, which is where the Poe comparisons come in.  When the narrator of ‘The Grey Room’ experiences disturbing visions, he suggests that they are simply dreams carried through into waking hours, normally blocked by “the misleading senses” and the “intellect in its arrogance. … For the stars exist in daytime too, though outshone by the mighty rays of the sun.”  (I was reminded a little here of Maupassant’s superlative The Horla.) […]

  14. […] Guy de Maupassant: The Horla Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read.  It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them.  The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time.  ”After mankind, the Horla!” […]

  15. I’m wandering on your blog today, I’m quite knew at blogging.

    I’m French, I read Le Horla in Junior High, like lots of students. I’m not sure that being a “standard reading” in French schools (or in any school) is the best thing that can happen to an author. If the teacher is boring, which was the case for mine, you can’t help associating the writer with the teacher. That’s how I turned my back on Maupassant, Balzac, Racine, Corneille, Saint-Exupéry, Kessel, and some others I forget.

    If you’re interested in mad writers turning their illness into art, maybe you’ll like Aurelia, by Gérard de Nerval

  16. John Self said,

    Thanks bookaroundthecorner, for bringing up some older posts on my blog! I like it when that happens.

    Funny you should mention Gérard de Nerval. I have his Sylvie somewhere, which was published in a slim little volume by Penguin about 15 years ago (their Syrens range, which are gone but not forgotten, and I still have a dozen or more of them). I will look out for my copy, and also for Aurelia, so thanks for the suggestion.

  17. nickd said,

    I read The Horla (along with other Maupassant stories in a collection) when I was quite young — about ten, I think. It scared the bejesus out of me. I must re-read it to remember why…

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