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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Does redeem this reportage to some extent


He

is of course not constantly at his best; but he is so often enough to make him, as was said at the beginning, very delectable reading, especially for the second time and later, which will be admitted to be no common praise. When you read him for the first time his bad taste, his obsession with certain subjects, his repetition of the same gibes, and other things which have been duly mentioned, strike and may disgust--will certainly more or less displease anybody but a partisan on the same side. On a second or later reading you are prepared for them, and either skip them altogether or pass them by without special notice, repeating the enjoyment of what is better in an unalloyed fashion. And so doth the excellent old chestnut-myth, which probably most of us have heard told with all innocence as an original witticism, justify itself, and one should "prefer the second hour" of the reading to the first. But if there is a first there will almost certainly be a second, and it will be a very great pity if there is no reading at all.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Rousseau--the novel-character of the _Confessions_.]

According to the estimate of the common or vulgate (I do not say "vulgar," though in the best English there is little or no difference) literary history, Rousseau[362] ranks far higher in the scale of novel-writing than Voltaire, having left long and

ambitious books of the kind against Voltaire's handful of short, shorter, and shortest stories. It might be possible to accept this in one sense, but in one which would utterly disconcert the usual valuers. The _Confessions_, if it were not an autobiography, would be one of the great novels of the world. A large part of it is probably or certainly "fictionised"; if the whole were fictitious, it would lose much of its repulsiveness, retain (except for a few very matter-of-fact judges) all its interest, and gain the enormous advantage of art over mere _reportage_ of fact. Of course Rousseau's art of another kind, his mere mastery of style and presentation, does redeem this _reportage_ to some extent; but this would remain if the thing were wholly fiction, and the other art of invention, divination, _mimesis_--call it what you will--would come in. Yet it is not worth while to be idly unlike other people and claim it as an actual novel. It may be worth while to point out how it displays some of the great gifts of the novel-writer. The first of these--the greatest and, in fact, the mother of all the rest--is the sheer faculty, so often mentioned but not, alas! so invariably found, of telling the tale and holding the reader, not with any glittering eye or any enchantment, white or black, but with the pure grasping--or, as French admirably has it, "enfisting"--power of the tale itself. Round this there cluster--or, rather, in this necessarily abide--the subsidiary arts of managing the various parts of the story, of constructing characters sufficient to carry it on, of varnishing it with description, and to some extent, though naturally to a lesser one than if it had been fiction pure and simple, "lacing" it, in both senses of the word, with dialogue. Commonplace (but not the best commonplace) taste often cries "Oh! if this were only true!" The wiser mind is fain sometimes--not often, for things are not often good enough--to say, "Oh! if this were only _false_!"


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