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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Who was akin to Cazotte in many ways


[246]

Although there is a good deal of merit in some of these tales, none of them approaches the charming _Diable Amoureux_ which Cazotte produced in 1772, twenty years before his famous and tragical death after once escaping the Revolutionary fangs. This little story, which is at least as much of a fairy tale as many things "cabinetted," would be nearly perfect if Cazotte had not unluckily botched it with a double ending, neither of the actual closes being quite satisfactory. If, in one of them, he had had the pluck to stop at the outcry of the succubus Biondetta when she has at last attained her object,

"Je suis le diable! mon cher Alvare, je suis le diable!"

and let the rest be "wrop in mystery," it would probably have been the best way. But the bulk of the book is beyond improvement: and there is a fluid grace about the autobiographical _recit_ which is very rare indeed, at least in French, except in the unfortunate Gerard de Nerval, who was akin to Cazotte in many ways, and actually edited him. A very carping critic may object to the not obvious nor afterwards explained interposition of a pretty little spaniel between the original diabolic avatar of the hideous camel's head and the subsequent incarnation of the beautiful Biondetto-Biondetta; especially as the later employment of another dog, to prevent Alvare's succumbing to temptation earlier than he did, is confusing. But this would be "seeking a knot in

a reed." Perhaps the greatest merit of the story, next to the pure tale-telling charm above noted, is the singular taste and skill with which Biondetta, except for her repugnance to the marriage ceremony, is prevented from showing the slightest diabolic character during her long cohabitation with Alvare, and her very "comingnesses" are arranged so as to give the idea, not in the least of a temptress, but of an extra-innocent but quite natural _ingenue_. Monk Lewis, of course, knew Cazotte, but he has coarsened his original woefully. It may perhaps be added that the first illustrations, reproduced in Gerard's edition as curiosities, are such in the highest degree. They are ushered with an ironic Preface: and they sometimes make one rub one's eyes and wonder whether Futurism and Cubism are not, like so many other things, merely recooked cabbage.

CHAPTER IX

THE SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY NOVEL--II

_From "Francion" to "La Princesse de Cleves"_--_Anthony Hamilton_[247]

[Sidenote: The material of the chapter.]

Justice has, it is hoped, been done to the great classes of fictitious work which, during the seventeenth century, made fiction, as such, popular with high and of low in France. But it is one of the not very numerous safe generalisations or inductions which may be fished out from the wide and treacherous Syrtes of the history of literature, that it is not as a rule from "classes" that the best work comes; and that, when it does so come, it generally represents a sort of outside and uncovenanted element or constituent of the class. We have, unfortunately, lost the Greek epic, as a class; but we know enough about it, with its few specimens, such as Apollonius Rhodius earlier and Nonnus later, to warn us that, if we had more, we should find Homer not merely better, but different, and this though probably every practitioner was at least trying to imitate or surpass Homer. Dante stands in no class at all, nor does Milton, nor does Shelley; and though Shakespeare indulgently permits himself to be classed as an "Elizabethan dramatist," what strikes true critics most is again hardly more his "betterness" than his difference. The very astonishment with which we sometimes say of Webster, Dekker, Middleton, that they come near Shakespeare, is not due, as foolish people say, to any only less foolish idolatry, but to a true critical surprise at the approximation of things usually so very distinct.


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