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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

The system of inset Histoires


is, however, with this pleasant book itself that we are concerned. Here again, of course, the picaresque model comes in, and there is a good deal of directly borrowed matter. But a much greater talent, and especially a much more acute and critical wit than Sorel's, brings to that scheme the practical-artistic French gift, the application of which to the novel is, in fact, the subject of this whole chapter. Not unkindly judges have, it is true, pronounced it not very amusing; and an uncritical comparer may find it injured by Gautier's book. The older novel has, indeed, nothing of the magnificent style of the overture of this latter. _Le Chateau de la Misere_ is one of the finest things of the kind in French; for exciting incident there is no better duel in literature than that of Sigognac and Lampourde; and the delicate pastel-like costumes and manners and love-making of Gautier's longest and most ambitious romance are not to be expected in the rough "rhyparography"[253] of the seventeenth century. But in itself the _Roman Comique_ is no small performance, and historically it is almost great. We have in it, indeed, got entirely out of the pure romance; but we have also got out of the _fatrasie_--the mingle-mangle of story, jargon, nonsense, and what not,--out of the mere tale of adventure, out of the mere tale of _grivoiserie_. We have borrowed the comic dramatist's mirror--the "Muses' Looking-glass"--and are holding it up to nature without the intervention of the conventionalities
of the stage. The company to which we are introduced is, no doubt, pursuing a somewhat artificial vocation; but it is pursuing it in the way of real life, as many live men and women have pursued it. The mask itself may be of their trade and class; but it is taken off them, and they are not merely _personae_, they are persons.

To re-read the _Roman Comique_ just after reading the _Grand Cyrus_ came into the present plan partly by design and partly by accident; but I had not fully anticipated the advantage of doing so. The contrast of the two, and the general relation between them could, indeed, escape no one; but an interval of a great many years since the last reading of Scarron's work had not unnaturally caused forgetfulness of the deliberate and minute manner in which he himself points that contrast, and even now and then satirises the _Cyrus_ by name. The system of inset _Histoires_,[254] beginning with the well-told if borrowed story of Don Carlos of Aragon and his "Invisible Mistress," is, indeed, hardly a contrast except in point of the respective lengths of the digressions, nor does it seem to be meant as a parody. It has been said that this "inset" system, whether borrowed from the episodes of the ancients or descended from the constant divagations of the mediaeval romances, is very old, and proved itself uncommonly tenacious of life. But the difference between the opening of the two books can hardly have been other than intentional on the part of the later writer; and it is a very memorable one, showing nothing less than the difference between romance and novel, between academic generalities and "realist" particularism, and between not a few other pairs of opposites. It has been fully allowed that the overture of the _Grand Cyrus_ is by no means devoid of action, even of bustle, and that it is well done of its kind. But that kind is strongly marked in the very fact that there is a sort of faintness in it. The burning of Sinope, the distant vessel, the street-fighting that follows, are what may be called "cartoonish"--large washes of pale colour. The talk, such as there is, is stage-talk of the pseudo-grand style. It is curious that Scarron himself speaks of the _Cyrus_ as being the most "furnitured" romance, _le roman le plus meuble_, that he knows. To a modern eye the interiors are anything but distinct, despite the elaborate _ecphrases_, some of which have been quoted.[255]

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