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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Which Manon Lescaut holds in that of passion


Nevertheless, though you may answer a fool according to his folly, you should not, especially when he is not a fool absolute, judge him solely thereby. When Voltaire was making himself gay with Plato, with the Bible, and with some other things, he was talking, not merely of something which he did not completely understand, but of something altogether outside the range of his comprehension. But in the judgment of literature the process of "cancelling" does not exist. A quality is not destroyed or neutralised by a defect, and, properly speaking (though it is hard for the critic to observe this), to strike a balance between the two is impossible. It is right to enter the non-values; but the values remain and require chief attention.

[Sidenote: An attempt at different evaluation of himself.]

From what has been already said, it will be clear that there is no disposition here to give Voltaire anything short of the fullest credit, both as an individual writer of prose fiction and as a link in the chain of its French producers. He worked for the most part in miniature, and even _Candide_ runs but to its bare hundred pages. But these are of the first quality in their own way, and give the book the same position for the century, in satiric and comic fiction, which _Manon Lescaut_ holds in that of passion. That both should have taken this form, while, earlier, _Manon_, if written at all, would probably have been a poem, and _Candide_ would have been a treatise, shows on the one side the importance of the position which the novel had assumed, and on the other the immense advantages which it gave, as a kind, to the artist in literature. I like poetry better than anything, but though the subject could have been, and often has been, treated satirically in verse, a verse _narrative_ could hardly have avoided inferiority, while even Berkeley (who himself borrowed a little of novel-form for _Alciphron_) could not have made _Candide_ more effective than it is. It is of course true that Voltaire's powers as a "fictionist" were probably limited in fact, to the departments, or the department, which he actually occupied, and out of which he wisely did not go. He must have a satiric purpose, and he must be allowed a very free choice of subject and seasoning. In particular, it may be noted that he has no grasp whatever of individual character. Even Candide is but a "humour," and Pangloss a very decided one; as are Martin, Gordon in _L'Ingenu_, and others. His women are all slightly varied outline-sketches of what he thought women in general were, not persons. Plot he never attempted; and racy as his dialogue often is, it is on the whole merely a setting for these very sparkles of wit some of which have been quoted.

It is in these scintillations, after all, that the chief delight of his tales consists; and though, as has been honestly confessed and shown, he learnt this to some extent from others, he made the thing definitely his own. When the Babylonian public has been slightly "elevated" by the refreshments distributed at the great tournament for the hand of the Princess Formosante, it decides that war, etc., is folly, and that the essence of human nature is to enjoy itself, "Cette excellente morale," says Voltaire gravely, "n'a jamais ete dementie" (the words really should be made to come at the foot of a page so that you might have to turn over before coming to the conclusion of the sentence) "que par les faits." Again, in the description of the Utopia of the Gangarides (same story), where not only men but beasts and birds are all perfectly wise, well conducted, and happy, a paragraph of quite sober description, without any flinging up of heels or thrusting of tongue in cheek, ends, "Nous avons surtout des perroquets qui prechent a merveille," and for once Voltaire exercises on himself the Swiftian control, which he too often neglected, and drops his beloved satire of clerics after this gentle touch at it.[361]


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