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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Jacques le Fataliste


[Sidenote:

_Jacques le Fataliste._]

_Jacques le Fataliste_ is what may be called, without pedantry or preciousness, eminently a "document." It is a document of Diderot's genius only indirectly (save in part), and to those who can read not only in the lines but between them: it is a document, directly, of the insatiable and restless energy of the man, and of the damage which this restlessness, with its accompanying and inevitable want of self-criticism, imposed upon that genius. Diderot, though he did not rhapsodise about Sterne as he rhapsodised about Richardson, was, like most of his countrymen then, a great admirer of "Tristram," and in an evil hour he took it into his head to Shandyise. The book starts with an actual adaptation of Sterne,[377] which is more than once repeated; its scheme--of a master (who is as different as possible from my Uncle Toby, except that when not in a passion he is rather good-natured, and at almost all times very easily humbugged) and a man (who is what Trim never is, both insolent and indecent)--is at least partially the same. But the most constant and the most unfortunate imitation is of Sterne's literally eccentric, or rather zigzag and pillar-to-post, fashion of narration. In the Englishman's own hands, by some prestidigitation of genius, this never becomes boring, though it probably would have become so if either book had been finished; for which reason we may be quite certain that it was not only his death which left

both in fragments. In the hands of his imitators the boredom--simple or in the form of irritation--has been almost invariable;[378] and with all his great intellectual power, his tale-telling faculty, his _bonhomie_, and other good qualities, Diderot has not escaped it--has, in fact, rushed upon it and compelled it to come in. It is comparatively of little moment that the main ostensible theme--the very unedifying account of the loves, or at least the erotic exercises, of Jacques and his master--is deliberately, tediously, inartistically interrupted and "put off." The great feature of the book, which has redeemed it with some who would otherwise condemn it entirely, the Arcis and La Pommeraye episode (_v. inf._), is handled after a fashion which suggests Mr. Ruskin's famous denunciation in another art. The _ink_pot is "flung in the face of the public" by a purely farcical series of interruptions, occasioned by the affairs of the inn-landlady, who tells the story, by her servants, dog, customers, and Heaven only knows what else; while the minor incidents and accidents of the book are treated in the same way, in and out of proportion to their own importance; the author's "simple plan," though by no means "good old rule," being that _everything_ shall be interrupted. Although, in the erotic part, the author never returns quite to his worst _Bijoux Indiscrets_ style, he once or twice goes very near it, except that he is not quite so dull; and when the book comes to an end in a very lame and impotent fashion (the farce being kept up to the last, and even this end being "recounted" and not made part of the mainly dialogic action), one is rather relieved at there being no more. One has seen talent; one has almost glimpsed genius; but what one has been most impressed with is the glaring fashion in which both the certainty and the possibility have been thrown away.


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