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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Though Turcaret is something like a masterpiece in comedy


Some

of his best and least unequal work is indeed denied us. We have nothing to do with his drama, though _Turcaret_ is something like a masterpiece in comedy, and _Crispin Rival de son Maitre_ a capital farce. We cannot even discuss that remarkable _Theatre de la Foire_, which, though a mere collection of the lightest Harlequinades, has more readable matter of literature in it than the whole English comic drama since Sheridan, with the exception of the productions of the late Sir William Gilbert.

Nor must much be said even of his minor novel work. The later translations and adaptations from the Spanish need hardly any notice for obvious reasons; whatever is good in them being either not his, or better exemplified in the _Devil_ and in _Gil_. The extremely curious and very Defoe-like book--almost if not quite his last--_Vie et Aventures de M. de Beauchesne, Capitaine de Flibustiers_, is rather a subject for a separate essay than for even a paragraph here. But Lesage, from our point of view, is _Le Diable Boiteux_ and _Gil Blas_, and to the _Diable Boiteux_ and _Gil Blas_ let us accordingly turn.

[Sidenote: _Le Diable Boiteux._]

The relations of the earlier and shorter book to the _Diablo Cojuelo_ of Luis Velez de Guevara are among the most open secrets of literature. The Frenchman, in a sort of prefatory address to his Spanish parent and original, has put the matter fairly enough;

anybody who will take the trouble can "control" or check the statement, by comparing the two books themselves. The idea--the rescuing of an obliging demon from the grasp of an enchanter, and his unroofing the houses of Madrid to amuse his liberator--is entirely Guevara's, and for a not inconsiderable space of time the French follows the Spanish closely. But then it breaks off, and the remainder of the book is, except for the carrying out of the general idea, practically original. The unroofing and revealing of secrets, from being merely casual and confined to a particular neighbourhood, becomes systematised: a lunatic asylum and a prison are subjected to the process; a set of dreamers are obliged to deliver up what Queen Mab is doing with them; and, as an incident, the student Don Cleofas, who has freed Asmodeus,[314] gains through the friendly spirit's means a rich and pretty bride whom the demon--naturally immune from fire--has rescued in Cleofas's likeness from a burning house.

[Sidenote: Lesage and Boileau.]

The thing therefore neither has, nor could possibly pretend to have, any merit as a plotted and constructed whole in fiction. It is merely a variety of the old "framed" tale-collection, except that the frame is of the thinnest; and the individual stories, with a few exceptions, are extremely short, in fact little more than anecdotes. The power and attraction of the book lie simply in the crispness of the style, the ease and flow of the narrative, and the unfailing satiric knowledge of human nature which animates the whole. As it stands, it is double its original length; for Lesage, finding it popular, and never being under the trammels of a fixed design, very wisely, and for a wonder not unsuccessfully, gave it a continuation. And, except the equally obvious and arbitrary one of the recapture of the spirit by the magician, it has and could have no end. The most famous of the anecdotes about it is that Boileau--in 1707 a very old man--found his page reading it, and declared that such a book and such a critic as he should never pass a night under the same roof. Boileau, though he often said rude, unjust, and uncritical things, did not often say merely silly ones; and it has been questioned what was his reason for objecting to a book by no means shocking to anybody but Mrs. Grundy Grundified to the very _n_th, excellently written, and quite free from the bombast and the whimsicality which he loathed. Jealousy for Moliere,[315] to whom, in virtue of _Turcaret_, Lesage had been set up as a sort of rival; mere senile ill-temper, and other things have been suggested; but the matter is of no real importance even if it is true. Boileau was one of the least catholic and the most arbitrary critics who ever lived; he had long made up and colophoned the catalogue of his approved library; he did not see his son's coat on the new-comer, and so he cursed him. It is not the only occasion on which we may bless what Boileau cursed.


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