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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Let him remember that Gil Blas


a history of the novel at large

it would scarcely be lessened, and might even be relatively larger. He had come to it perhaps by rather strange ways; but it is no novelty to find that conjunction of road and goal. The Spanish picaresque romance was not in itself a very great literary kind; but it had in it a great faculty of _emancipation_. Outside the drama[317] it was about the first division of literature to proclaim boldly the refusal to consider anything human as alien from human literary interest. But, as nearly always happens, it had exaggerated its protests, and become sordid, merely in revolt from the high-flown non-sordidness of previous romance. Lesage took the principle and rejected the application. He dared, practically for the first time, to take the average man of unheroic stamp, the _homme sensuel moyen_ of a later French phrase, for his subject. _Gil Blas_ is not a virtuous person,[318] but he is not very often an actual scoundrel.[319] (Is there any of us who has never been a scoundrel at all at all?) He is clever after his fashion, but he is not a genius; he is a little bit of a coward, but can face it out fairly at a pinch; he has some luck and ill-luck; but he does not come in for _montes et maria_, either of gold or of misery. I have no doubt that the comparison of _Gil Blas_ and _Don Quixote_ has often been made, and it would be rather an _excursus_ here. But inferior as Lesage's work is in not a few ways, it has, like other non-quintessential things, much more virtue as model and pattern.
Imitations of _Don Quixote_ (except Graves's capital book, where the following is of the freest character) have usually been failures. It is hardly an extravagance to say that every novel of miscellaneous adventure since its date owes something, directly or indirectly, to _Gil Blas_.

One of the "faults"--it must be understood that between "faults" with inverted commas and faults without them there is a wide and sometimes an unbridgeable gulf--lies in the fact that the book is after all not much more of a whole, in any sense but that noted above, than _Le Diable Boiteux_ itself. The innumerable incidents are to a very large extent episodes merely, and episodes in the loose, not the precise, sense of the term. That is to say, they are not merely detachable; they might be reattached to almost any number of other stories. But the redeeming feature--which is very much more than a _mere_ redeeming feature--is the personality of the hero which has been already referred to. Lesage's scrip and staff, to apply the old images exactly enough, are his inexhaustible fertility in well-told stories and his faculty of delineating a possible and interesting human character.

[Sidenote: Its inequality--in the Second and Fourth Books especially.]

The characteristics of the successive parts of _Gil Blas_ are distinct and interesting, the distinctions themselves being also rather curious. The anecdote cited above as to the Fourth and last volume is certainly confirmed by, and does not seem, as so many anecdotes of the kind do, to have been even possibly drawn from, the volume itself. Although the old power is by no means gone, the marks of its failing are pretty obvious. A glance has been given already to the unnecessary and disgusting repetition of the Pandar business--made, as it is, more disgusting by the distinctly tragic touch infused into it. The actual _finale_ is, on the other hand, a good comedy ending of a commonplace kind, except that a comic author, such as Lesage once had been on and off the stage, would certainly have made _Gil Blas_ suffer in his second marriage for his misdeeds of various kinds earlier, instead of leaving him in the not too clean cotton or clover of an old rip with a good young wife. If he had wanted a happy ending of a still conventional but satisfactory kind, he should have married Gil to Laure or Estelle (they were, in modern slang, sufficiently "shop-worn goods" not to be ill-mated, and Laure is perhaps the most attractive character in the whole book); have legitimated Lucrece, as by some odd crotchet he definitely refuses to do;[320] have dropped the later Leporello business, in which his old love and her daughter are concerned, altogether, and have left us in a mild sunset of "reconciliation." If anybody scorns this suggestion as evidence of a futile liking for "rose-pink," let him remember that Gil Blas, _ci-devant picaro_ and other ugly things, is actually left lapped in an Elysium not less improbable and much more undeserved than this. But it is disagreeable to dwell on the shortcomings of age, and it has only been done to show that this is a criticism and not a mere panegyric.


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