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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Zadig and its satellites


As

a piece (_v. sup._) of art or craft, the thing is beyond praise or pay. It could not be improved, on its own specification, except that perhaps the author might have told us how Mademoiselle Cunegonde, who had kept her beauty through some very severe experiences, suddenly lost it. It is idle as literary, though not as historical, criticism to say, as has been often said about the Byng passage, that Voltaire's smartness rather "goes off through the touch-hole," seeing that the admiral's execution did very considerably "encourage the others." It is superfluous to urge the unnecessary "smuts," which are sometimes not in the least amusing. All these and other sought-for knots are lost in the admirable smoothness of this reed, which waves in the winds of time with unwitherable greenness, and slips through the hand, as you stroke it, with a coaxing tickle. To praise its detail would again be idle--nobody ought to read such praise who can read itself; and if anybody, having read its first page, fails to see that it is, and how it is, praiseworthy, he never will or would be converted if all the eulogies of the most golden-mouthed critics of the world were poured upon him in a steady shower. As a whole it is undoubtedly the best, and (except part of _Zadig_) it is nowhere else matched in the book of the romances of Voltaire, while for those who demand "purposes" and "morals," it stands almost alone. It is the comic "Vanity of Human Wishes" in prose, as _Rasselas_ is the tragic or, at least,
serious version: and, as has been said, the two make an unsurpassable sandwich, or, at least, _tartine_. Nor could it have been told, in any other way than by prose fiction, with anything like the same effect, either as regards critical judgment or popular acceptance.

[Sidenote: _Zadig_ and its satellites.]

_Zadig_, as has been indicated already, probably ranks in point of merit next to _Candide_. If it had stopped about half-way, there could be no doubt about the matter. The reader is caught at once by one of the most famous and one of the most Voltairian of phrases, "Il savait de la metaphysique ce qu'on a su dans tous les ages, c'est-a-dire fort peu de chose," a little more discussion of which saying, and of others like it, may perhaps be given later. The successive disappointments of the almost too perfect[356] hero are given with the simplicity just edged with irony which is Voltaire's when he is at his best, though he undoubtedly learnt it from the masters already assigned, and--the suggestion would have made him very angry, and would probably have attracted one of his most Yahoo-like descents on this humble and devoted head--from Lesage. But though the said head has no objection--much the reverse--to "happy endings," the romance-finish of _Zadig_ has always seemed to it a mistake. Still, how many mistakes would one pardon if they came after such a success? _Babouc_, the first of those miniature _contes_ (they are hardly "tales" in one sense), which Voltaire managed so admirably, has the part-advantage part-disadvantage of being likewise the first of a series of satires on French society, which, piquant as they are, would certainly have been both more piquant and more weighty if there had been fewer of them. It is full of the perfect, if not great, Voltairian phrases,--the involuntary _Mene Tekel_, "Babouc conclut qu'une telle societe ne pouvait subsister"; the palinode after a fashion, "Il s'affectionnait a la ville, dont le peuple etait doux [oh! Nemesis!] poli et bien-faisant, quoique leger, medisant et plein de vanite"; and the characteristic collection of parallel between Babouc and Jonah, surely not objectionable even to the most orthodox, "Mais quand on a ete trois jours dans le corps d'une baleine on n'est pas de si bonne humeur que quand on a ete a l'opera, a la comedie et qu'on a soupe en bonne compagnie."


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