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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

The Roman Comique of Paul Scarron


The

examples in higher forms of literature just chosen for comparison do not, of course, show any wish in the chooser to even any French seventeenth-century novelist with Homer or Shakespeare, with Dante or Milton or Shelley. But the work noticed in the last chapter certainly includes nothing of strong idiosyncrasy. In other books scattered, in point of time of production, over great part of the period, such idiosyncrasy is to be found, though in very various measure. Now, idiosyncrasy is, if not the only difference or property, the inseparable accident of all great literature, and it may exist where literature is not exactly great. Moreover, like other abysses, it calls to, and calls into existence, yet more abysses of its own kind or not-kind; while school- and class-work, however good, can never produce anything but more class- and school-work, except by exciting the always dubious and sometimes very dangerous desire "to be different." The instances of this idiosyncrasy with which we shall now deal are the _Francion_ of Charles Sorel; the _Roman Comique_ of Paul Scarron; the _Roman Bourgeois_ of Antoine Furetiere; the _Voyages_, as they are commonly called (though the proper title is different[248]), _a la Lune et au Soleil_, of Cyrano de Bergerac, and the _Princesse de Cleves_ of Mme. de La Fayette; while last of all will come the remarkable figure of Anthony Hamilton, less "single-speech"[249] than the others and than his namesake later, but possessor of greater genius than any.

style="text-align: justify;">[Sidenote: Sorel and _Francion_.]

The present writer has long ago been found fault with for paying too much attention to _Francion_, and he may possibly (if any one thinks it worth while) be found fault with again for placing it here. But he does so from no mere childish desire to persist in some rebuked naughtiness, but from a sincere belief in the possession by the book of some historical importance. Any one who, on Arnoldian principles, declines to take the historic estimate into account at all, is, on those principles, justified in neglecting it altogether; whether, on the other hand, such neglect does not justify a suspicion of the soundness of the principles themselves, is another question. Charles Sorel, historiographer of France, was a very voluminous and usually a very dull writer. His voluminousness, though beside the enormous compositions of the last chapter it is but a small thing, is not absent from _Francion_, nor is his dulness. Probably few people have read the book through, and I am not going to recommend anybody to do so. But the author does to some extent deserve the cruel praise of being "dull in a new way" (or at least of being evidently in quest of a new way to be dull in), as Johnson wrongfully said of Gray. His book is not a direct imitation of any one thing, though an attempt to adapt the Spanish picaresque style to French realities and fantasies is obvious enough, as it is likewise in Scarron and others. But this is mixed with all sorts of other adumbrations, if not wholly original, yet showing that quest of originality which has been commended. It is an almost impossible book to analyse, either in short or long measure. The hero wanders about France, and has all sorts of adventures, the recounting of which is not without touches of Rabelais, of the _Moyen de Parvenir_, perhaps of the rising fancies about the occult, which generated Rosicrucianism and "astral spirits" and the rest of it--a whole farrago, in short, of matters decent and indecent, congruous seldom and incongruous often. It is not like Sterne, because it is dull, and at the same time quasi-romantic; while "sensibility" had not come in, though we shall see it do so within the limits of this chapter. It has a resemblance, though not very much of one, to the rather later work of Cyrano. But it is most like two English novels of far higher merit which were not to appear for a century or a century and a half--Amory's _John Buncle_ and Graves's _Spiritual Quixote_. As it is well to mention things together without the danger of misleading those who run as they read, and mind the running rather than the reading, let me observe that the liveliest part of _Francion_ is duller than the dullest of _Buncle_, and duller still than the least lively thing in Graves. The points of resemblance are in pillar-to-postness, in the endeavour (here almost entirely a failure, but still an endeavour) to combine fancy with realism, and above all in freedom from following the rules of any "school." Realism in the good sense and originality were the two things that the novel had to achieve. Sorel missed the first and only achieved a sort of "distanced" position in the second. But he tried--or groped--for both.


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