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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

The framework is a flat imitation of Crebillon


[Sidenote: The various display of them.]

The reader, even of this selection, will see how, in quite miscellaneous or heterogeneous writing, Diderot bubbles out into a perfectly told tale or anecdote, no matter what the envelope (as we may call it) of this tale or anecdote may be. All his work is more or less like conversation: and these excursus are like the stories which, if good, are among the best, just as, if bad, they are the worst, sets-off to conversation itself. Next to these come the longer _histoires_--as one would call them in the Heroic novel and its successors--things sometimes found by themselves, sometimes ensconced in larger work[374]--the story of Desroches and Mme. de la Carliere, _Les Deux Amis de Bourbonne_, the almost famous _Le Marquis des Arcis et Mme. de la Pommeraye_, of which more may be said presently; and things which are not exactly tales, but which have the tale-quality in part, like the charming _Regrets sur ma Vieille Robe de Chambre, Ceci n'est pas un conte_, etc. Thirdly, and to be spoken of in more detail, come the things that are nearest actual novels, and in some cases are called so, _Le Neveu de Rameau_, the "unspeakable" _Bijoux Indiscrets_, _Jacques le Fataliste_ (the matrix of _Le Marquis des Arcis_) and _La Religieuse_.

The "unspeakable" one does not need much speaking from any point of view. If it is not positively what Carlyle called it, "the beastliest of all dull novels, past, present, or to come," it really would require a most unpleasant apprenticeship to scavenging in order to discover a dirtier and duller. The framework is a flat imitation of Crebillon, the "insets" are sometimes mere pornography, and the whole thing is evidently scribbled at a gallop--it was actually a few days' work, to get money, from some French Curll or Drybutter, to give (the appropriateness of the thing at least is humorous) to the mistress of the moment, a Madame de Puisieux,[375] who, if she was like Crebillon's heroines in morals, cannot have been like the best of them in manners. Its existence shows, of course, Diderot's worst side, that is to say, the combination of want of breeding with readiness to get money anyhow. If it is worth reading at all, which may be doubted, it is to show the real, if equivocal, value of Crebillon himself. For it is vulgar, which he never is.

[Sidenote: _Le Neveu de Rameau._]

_Le Neveu de Rameau_, has only touches of obscenity, and it has been enormously praised by great persons. It is very clever, but it seems to me that, as a notable critic is said to have observed of something else, "it has been praised quite enough." It is a sketch, worked out in a sort of monologue,[376] of something like Diderot's own character without his genius and without his good fellowship--a gutter-snipe of art and letters possessed of some talent and of infinite impudence. It shows Diderot's own power of observation and easy fluid representation of character and manners, but not, as I venture to think, much more.


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