Guy de Maupassant and neurosyphilis



In a tenuous way, this post was inspired by reading Sarah Dunant’s wonderful novel about the Borgias, ‘Blood and Beauty’, (my review for For Books Sake is here) because Cesare Borgia had syphilis. He died before it could take hold of his brain, though his brutal mood swings and outrageous behaviour may have resulted in part from his illness.

Aside from syphilis, Guy de Maupassant, a brilliant 19th century French writer widely regarded as a leading exponent of the short story, doesn’t have a lot in common with Cesare Borgia. He was born in Normandy on 5th August 1850, fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 and then became a civil servant, spending his free time with literary luminaries like Gustav Flaubert, Emil Zola and Henry James.


Cesare Borgia

He was also, unfortunately, keen on prostitutes (which does make him a bit more like Cesare Borgia) – his first short story collection, La Maison Tellier, was unusually sympathetic in its portrayal of prostitutes – and probably contracted syphilis in a brothel during his 20s. Certainly in the 1870s he wrote to Flaubert of a ‘black depression’ that was preventing him from writing, to which Flaubert, not buying Maupassant’s diagnosis of a rheumatic complaint, responded:

“Come my dear friend you seem badly worried. You could use your time more agreeably. I’ve come to suspect you have become something of a loafer with too many whores, too much rowing and too much exercise.”

The rowing not withstanding, Flaubert’s diagnosis of ‘too many whores’ was spot on.

Illustration for La Maison Tellier, by Steinlen

Illustration for La Maison Tellier, by Steinlen

Unfortunately little of Maupassant’s correspondence survives, so biographers have largely pieced together his declining mental health through his 300-odd semi-autobiographical stories. Many of them are about madness (The Inn, for example, is about two caretakers who go mad through isolation in an inn, and Le Horla, written in 1887 when Maupassant was becoming very ill, concerns the sanity of its, possibly syphilitic, protagonist), and critics have read Maupassant’s own delusions and obsessions into them.

By the late 1880s the syphilis had properly taken hold and Maupassant became increasingly fond of solitude. He was also apparently obsessed with the idea of flies eating his brain, was paranoid about death and suffered hallucinations. His despair became so great that he tried to commit suicide, first with a gun and then with a paper knife, on 2nd January 1892, and was institutionalised in an asylum in Paris. He was there until he died, from complications caused by syphilis, on 6th July 1893.

Maupassant’s entire short story collection is available for free on Project Gutenberg.


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