Some books, you pursue all your life. Some other ones. pursue you all your life.
A French teacher once told us forthrightly: “ I know you like Maupassant…He’s a witty, funny, concise narrator that had a flamboyant lifestyle and a tragically premature demise due to syphilis. But avoid Contes Fantastiques because you might never be able to calmly fall asleep again.” She warned us to never read Le Horla with a camouflaged whisper, as if she were fearful of the tale. Not inclined to have any surprises in our reading material, we dutifully followed her advice.
A few years ago, our daughter Noël Marie attended an Italian language course in Venezia during the summertime; when she came back to Miami, she proudly showed us the presents she bought. –“Dad, I went to an open-air bookstore in La Giudecca on a Saturday and found these for you.” She ceremoniously pulled out three vintage-looking bound collections of stories, a city map, and an innocuously looking soft cover white booklet. What was it? Contes Fantastiques… It found us.
Guy de Maupassant was born on August 5, 1850 in the Chateau de Miromesmil, Normandy, into a bourgeois family of freethinkers; his parents divorced when he was 11 years old and he briefly attended a Catholic school until he purposefully provoked his expulsion from it. He went to a lycée in Le Havre and in the fall of 1869, he started to study Law in Paris; the following year he volunteered as an infantryman in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, which resulted in a humiliating defeat for France. He was demobilized in 1871 and returned to Paris to finish his Law studies. His father helped him get a commission first in the Ministry of Marine and then of Public Instruction. Laure, his mother, was friendly with Alfred LePoittevin, a close friend of Gustave Flaubert; she asked the latter to “keep an eye” on the young man and help him in his budding literary career. Introducing him to other writers, Flaubert said: “He’s my disciple and I consider him like a son,”
Maupassant enjoyed swimming and boating in the Seine with his coterie friends on weekends; oftentimes they invited des “filles gaies” to accompany them along their excursions. Once he became rich with his publications, he bought several boats and even resided in one of them. Like his brother, he discovered that he had syphilis at an early age but refused any kind of treatment. In 1880 he contributed his short story Boule de Suif to a compilation of six stories about the Franco-German war that Emile Zola was preparing; it was the best one and became an instant hit with the public. It narrates the vicissitudes of a prostitute in a stagecoach that gets raped by a German officer without being helped by any of her previously obsequious voyage companions. It depicts the hypocrisy of society at large and its somber tone would mark all his later works. A fierce naturalist.
As his brain was suffering the ravages of Neurosyphilis, he wrote his scariest stories with a clear mind, dismissing the naysayers’ critique that he had been possessed by maddening hallucinations. Le Horla was written in 1887, a few months before he turned psychotic and admitted to an asylum. In a gripping emotional crescendo, it tells the story of a young bourgeois that, after spontaneously waving at a Brazilian four-mast boat, has the certitude that an invisible entity jumped off the ship and took residence in his home. Horla is a composite of “hors” which means “outside of”, and “la”, which means “there.” He maniacally feels its presence in all the little details of his home.
The central character believed that this “uninvited” visitor was only the advance scout of a larger army of similar beings that were waiting for the right moment to take over our planet. He noticed that one glass of water that he had left full one night, was inexplicable empty the following day. He believed that the mysterious invaders liked to drink water and milk when he was distracted. He had nightmares and when he woke up, he felt observed or that somebody was kneeling on his body.
How many times did we have the fleeting sensation that there was a goblin at home? We can’t find our keys-chain, even though we swear that we had put it on the table the night before… We chastise whomever lives with us for drinking our beer, even though they said they didn’t …. We can’t find the 20 bucks we had in our pocket, even though our hubbies swear they didn’t search our pants… And worse of all, for those like us that like to bring a glass of water to the nightstand, we have the impression that someone might have drunk some of it during our sleep. Never happened to you?
A last-minute development: that copy of Contes Fantastiques is nowhere to be found now. Is it lurking in a darkened corner of our flat ready to jump on us when we are at our very weakest?
What do you think? Please tell us.
Don’t leave me alone.