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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Albeit monkey tricks of immense talent


if the models had not been

ready for him, may be roundly denied. There are in literature some things which must have existed, and of which it is not frivolous to say that if their actual authors had not been there, or had declined to write them, they would have found somebody else to do it. Of these, _Candide_ is evidently one, and more than one of _Candide's_ smaller companions have at least something of the same characteristic. Yet one may also say that if Voltaire himself had not written these, he must have written other things of the kind. The mordant wit, the easy, fluent, rippling style, so entirely free from boisterousness yet with constant "wap" of wavelet and bursting of foam-bubble; above all, the pure unadulterated faculty of tale-telling, must have found vent and play somehow. It had been well if the playfulness had not been, as playfulness too often is, of what contemporary English called an "unlucky" (that is, a "mischievous") kind; and if the author had not been constantly longing to make somebody or many bodies uncomfortable,[352] to damage and defile shrines, to exhibit a misanthropy more really misanthropic, because less passionate and tragical, than Swift's, and, in fact, as his patron, persecutor, and counterpart, Frederick the Jonathan-Wildly Great, most justly observed of him, to "play monkey-tricks," albeit monkey-tricks of immense talent, if not actually of genius. If the recent attempts to interpret monkey-speech were to come to something, and if, as a consequence, monkeys were
taught to write, one may be sure that prose fiction would be their favourite department, and that their productions would be, though almost certainly disreputable, quite certainly amusing. In fact there would probably be some among these which would be claimed, by critics of a certain type, as hitherto unknown works of Voltaire himself.

Yet if the straightforward tale had not, owing to the influences discussed in the foregoing chapters, acquired a firm hold, it is at least possible that he would not have adopted it (for originality of form was not Voltaire's _forte_), but would have taken the dialogue, or something else capable of serving his purpose. As it was, the particular field or garden had already been marked out and hedged after a fashion; tools and methods of cultivation had been prepared; and he set to work to cultivate it with the application and intelligence recommended in the famous moral of his most famous tale--a moral which, it is only fair to say, he did carry out almost invariably. A garden of very questionable plants was his, it may be; but that is another matter. The fact and the success of the cultivation are both undeniable.

[Sidenote: General characteristics of his tales.]

At the same time, Voltaire--if indeed, as was doubted just now, he be a genius at all--is not a genius, or even a djinn, of the kind that creates and leaves something Melchisedec-like; alone and isolated from what comes before and what comes after. He is an immense talent--perhaps the greatest talent-but-not-genius ever known--who utilises and improves and develops rather than invents. It is from this that his faculty of never boring, except when he has got upon the Scriptures, comes; it is because of this also that he never conceives anything really, simply, absolutely _great_. His land is never exactly weary, but there is no imposing and sheltering and refreshing rock in it. These _romans_ and _contes_ and _nouvelles_ of his stimulate, but they do not either rest or refresh. They have what is, to some persons at any rate, the theatrical quality, not the poetical or best-prosaic. But as nearly consummate works of art, or at least craft, they stand almost alone.


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