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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Lesage is a citizen not of Brittany


[Sidenote:

_Gil Blas_--its peculiar cosmopolitanism.]

_Gil Blas_, of course, is in every sense a "bigger" book of literature. That it has, from the point of view of the straitest sect of the Unitarians--and not of that sect only--much more unity than the _Diable_, would require mere cheap paradox to contend. It has neither the higher unity, say, of _Hamlet_, where every smallest scene and almost personage is connected with the general theme; nor the lower unity of such a thing as _Phedre_, where everything is pared down, or, as Landor put it in his own case, "boiled off" to a meagre residuum of theme special. It has, at the very most, that species of unity which Aristotle did not like even in epic, that of a succession of events happening to an individual; and while most of these might be omitted, or others substituted for them, without much or any loss, they exist without prejudice to mere additions to themselves. As the excellent Mr. Wall, sometime Professor of Logic at Oxford, and now with God, used to say, "Gentlemen, I can conceive an elephant," so one may conceive a _Gil Blas_, not merely in five instead of four, but in fifty or five hundred volumes. But, on the other hand, it has that still different unity (of which Aristotle does not seem to have thought highly, even if he thought of it at all), that all these miscellaneous experiences do not merely happen to a person with the same name--they happen to the same person.[316] And they have themselves

yet another unity, which I hardly remember any critic duly insisting on and discussing, in the fact that they all are possibly human accidents or incidents. Though he was a native of one of the most idiosyncratic provinces of not the least idiosyncratic country in Europe, Lesage is a citizen not of Brittany, not of France, not of Europe even, but of the world itself, in far more than the usual sense of cosmopolitanism. He has indeed coloured background and costume, incident and even personage itself so deeply with essence of "things of Spain," that, as has been said, the Spaniards, the most jealous of all nationalities except the smaller Celtic tribes, have claimed his work for themselves. Yet though Spain has one of the noblest languages, one of the greatest literatures in quality if not in bulk, one of the most striking histories, and one of the most intensely national characters in the world, it is--perhaps for the very reason last mentioned--as little cosmopolitan as any country, and Lesage, as has been said, is inwardly and utterly cosmopolitan or nothing.

At Paris, at Rome, at the Hague he's at home;

and though he seems to have known little of England, and, as most Frenchmen of his time had reason to do, to have disliked us, he has certainly never been anywhere more at home than in London. In fact--and it bears out what has been said--there is perhaps no capital in Europe where, in the two hundred years he has had to nationalise himself, Lesage has been less at home than at Paris itself. The French are of course proud of him in a way, but there is hardly one of their great writers about whom they have been less enthusiastic. The technical, and especially the neo-classically technical, shortcomings which have been pointed out may have had something to do with this; but the cosmopolitanism has perhaps more.

[Sidenote: And its adoption of the _homme sensuel moyen_ fashion.]

For us Lesage occupies a position of immense importance in the history of the French novel; but if we were writing


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