Guy de Maupassant on the art of seeing the unexpected
The first Spring sun sends young men half-mad. Pretty Parisian girls twirl their hair and bat their eyelashes. Behind the happy facade of every couple lies a twisted web of infidelity. Prostitutes, dressed in sequined dresses and feathered hats, command the respect of sleepy little towns. Prussian soldiers stroke their mustaches and make threats. Bourgeoise men hunt and fish, ignoring the scenes of love and death.
This is the intoxicating world you step into the moment you start reading Guy De Maupassant’s short stories. Most tell of simple events: a first communion, a country walk, a coach ride - perhaps with a twist at the end. But the twist is never the point. Maupassant’s charm lies in his ability to observe people’s true motivations, to draw out their fears and hopes, to recognise the lurking taboos.
He finds unique ideas in the mundane.
In the introduction to the Penguin Classics collection of some of Maupassant’s best short stories, Roger Colet gives an intriguing explanation of the technique the doomed novelist used to generate ideas. It’s a counterintuitive, yet a fantastic way of finding new writing topics. But it also works for other forms of creativity, like finding business ideas.
Maupassant was mentored by the older French novelist Gustave Flaubert - the kind of mentor most young writers would kill for. Flaubert was not the gold star giving type. While he supported his protege, he wanted to ensure Maupassant learned a particular lesson:
“He [Maupassant] had begun writing poetry with the encouragement of...Flaubert himself. Gradually Flaubert and Maupassant had drawn together into an affectionate relationship..and the master of the Croisset had persuaded his young friend to try his hand at prose. Deciding that Maupassant was worthy of his tuition, he spent several years patiently coaching him in the art of seeing.
Reminding his pupil that ‘talent is a long patience’, he told him again and again: ‘There is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown. We must find it.’”
I’ll repeat that in a different way because it’s such an important idea: there is a part of everything which is unexplored. For this reason, the person who learns to truly see will always find something new and interesting.
We rarely see anew whatever is in front of us. It exists in conjunction to whatever we’ve been taught to view it as. Maupassant’s genius was in looking at people and situations and ferreting out the truth, beyond the assumptions and surface appearances.
Imagine I take you to a crowded place, start pointing out people and asking you to write a paragraph describing who they are, what they want, what they believe and so on. You can’t talk to them, you don’t know them - all you can do is observe.
So I point out a muscular, shaven headed man with runes tattooed all over his face, neck and hands. A young woman with bleached hair towing two small children with chocolate on their faces. A neatly dressed couple, holding hands and laughing. A bearded man wearing a beanie, a sleeping bag draped over his arm.
You take note and start writing. But, of course, you’re not seeing the person. You see salient features and connect them to the memory of what others have associated with them. Studies have carried out that experiment. Give someone a short description of a person and they’ll extrapolate a whole lot of meaning.
That’s what we all do most of the time. We don’t really see. We glance, we make assumptions, we go with the conventional perspective.
Flaubert taught Maupassant to go beyond that. His characters might be prostitutes, adulterers, murderers, liars or fools - but he doesn’t concern himself with superficialities. Beneath that are layers and layers of complexity. The trick is to express it simply:
“Having discovered what aspect of a person or object distinguished it from every other of the same race or species, Maupassant then had to describe it for his exacting mentor. ‘Whatever you want to say’ he later quotes Flaubert as telling him, ‘there is only one word to express it, only one verb to give it movement, only one adjective to qualify it. You must search for that word, that verb, that adjective and never be content with an approximation, never resort to tricks, even clever ones, and never have to recourse to verbal sleight of hand to avoid a difficulty.’
Flaubert was so exacting in the standards he set that Maupassant initially published his work in secret, furtively sending it to obscure publications under a pseudonym. When he made his debut, it was stunning and well worth the long mentorship.
Although Maupassant applied this technique to fiction, it works for any form of writing. No matter what you’re looking at, there’s always an unexplored facet. The trick is to master the art of seeing - not looking, seeing.