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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

But the desire to annoy Fontenelle



_Memnon, ou La Sagesse Humaine_ is still less of a tale, only a lively sarcastic apologue; but he would be a strange person who would quarrel with its half-dozen pages, and much the same may be said of the _Voyages de Scarmentado_. Still, one feels in both of them, and in many of the others, that they are after all not much more than chips of an inferior rehandling of _Gulliver_. _Micromegas_, as has been said, does not disguise its composition as something of the kind; but the desire to annoy Fontenelle, while complimenting him after a fashion as the "dwarf of Saturn," and perhaps other strokes of personal scratching, have put Voltaire on his mettle. You will not easily find a better Voltairism of its particular class than, "Il faut bien citer ce qu'on ne comprend point du tout, dans la langue qu'on entend le moins." But, as so often happens, the cracker in the tail is here the principal point. Micromegas, the native of Sirius, who may be Voltaire himself, or anybody else--after his joint tour through the universes (much more amusing than that of the late Mr. Bailey's Festus), with the smaller but still gigantic Saturnian--writes a philosophical treatise to instruct us poor microbes of the earth, and it is taken to Paris, to the secretary of the Academy of Science (Fontenelle himself). "Quand le secretaire l'eut ouvert il ne vit rien qu'un livre tout blanc. 'Ah!' dit-il, 'je m'en etais bien doute.'" Voltaire did a great deal of

harm in the world, and perhaps no solid good;[357] but it is things like this which make one feel that it would have been, a loss had there been no Voltaire.

[Sidenote: _L'Ingenu._]

_L'Ingenu_, which follows _Candide_ in the regular editions, falls perhaps as a whole below all these, and _L'Homme aux Quarante Ecus_, which follows it, hardly concerns us at all, being mere political economy of a sort in dialogue. _L'Ingenu_ is a story, and has many amusing things in it. But it is open to the poser that if Voltaire really accepted the noble savage business he was rather silly, and that if he did not, the piece is a stale and not very biting satire. It is, moreover, somewhat exceptionally full (there is only one to beat it) of the vulgar little sniggers which suggest the eunuch even more than the schoolboy, and the conclusion is abominable. The seducer and, indirectly, murderer Saint-Pouange may only have done after his kind in regard to Mlle. de Saint-Yves; but the Ingenu himself neither acted up to his Huron education, nor to his extraction as a French gentleman, in forgiving the man and taking service under him.

[Sidenote: _La Princesse de Babylone._]

_La Princesse de Babylone_ is more like Hamilton than almost any other of the tales, and this, it need hardly be said here, is high praise, even for a work of Voltaire. For it means that it has what we commonly find in that work, and also something that we do not. But it has that defect which has been noticed already in _Zadig_, and which, by its absence, constitutes the supremacy of _Candide_. There is in it a sort of "break in the middle." The earlier stages of the courtship of Formosante are quite interesting; but when she and her lover begin separately to wander over the world, in order that their chronicler may make satiric observations on the nations thereof, one feels inclined to say, as Mr. Mowbray Morris said to Mr. Matthew Arnold (who thought it was Mr. Traill):

Can't you give us something new?

[Sidenote: Some minors.]

_Le Blanc et le Noir_ rises yet again, and though it has perhaps not many of Voltaire's _mots de flamme_, it is more of a fairy moral tale--neither a merely fantastic mow, nor sicklied over with its morality--than almost any other. It is noteworthy, too, that the author has hardly any recourse to his usual clove of garlic to give seasoning. _Jeannot et Colin_ might have been Marmontel's or Miss Edgeworth's, being merely the usual story of two rustic lads, one of whom becomes rich and corrupt till, later, he is succoured by the other. Now Marmontel and Miss Edgeworth are excellent persons and writers; but their work is not work for Voltaire.

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