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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Alcibiade ou le Moi


[Sidenote:

The best of his _Contes Moraux_ worth a good deal.]

The something else is not to be found in the "Sensibility" parts,[389] and could not be expected to be. They do, indeed, contain perhaps the most absolutely ludicrous instance of the absurdest side of that remarkable thing, except Mackenzie's great _trouvaille_ of the press-gang who unanimously melted into tears[390] at the plea of an affectionate father. Marmontel's masterpiece is not so very far removed in subject from this. It represents a good young man, who stirs up the timorous captain and crew of a ship against an Algerine pirate, and in the ensuing engagement, sabre in hand, makes a terrible carnage: "As soon as he sees an African coming on board, he runs to him and cuts him in half, crying, 'My poor mother!'" The filial hero varies this a little, when "disembowelling" the Algerine commander, by requesting the Deity to "have pity on" his parent--a proceeding faintly suggestive of a survival in his mind of the human-sacrifice period.

Fortunately, as has been said, it is not always thus: and some of the tales are amusing in almost the highest degree, being nearly as witty as Voltaire's, and entirely free from ill-nature and sculduddery. Not that Marmontel--though a great advocate for marriage, and even (for a Frenchman of his time) wonderfully favourable to falling in love _before_ marriage--pretends to be altogether superior to the customs of his own

day. We still sometimes have the "Prendre-Avoir-Quitter" series of Crebillon,[391] though with fewer details; and Mrs. Newcome would have been almost more horrified than she was at _Joseph Andrews_ by the perusal of one of Marmontel's most well-intentioned things, _Annette et Lubin_. But he never lays himself out for attractions of a doubtful kind, and none of his best stories, even when they may sometimes involve bowing in the house of Ashtoreth as well as that of Rimmon, derive their bait from this kind. Indeed they rather "assume and pass it by" as a fashion of the time.

[Sidenote: _Alcibiade ou le Moi._]

We may take three or four of them as examples. One is the very first of the collection, _Alcibiade ou le Moi_. Hardly anybody need be told that the Alcibiades of the tale, though nominally, is not in the least really the Alcibiades of history, or that his Athens is altogether Paris; while his Socrates is a kind of _philosophe_, the good points of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot being combined with the faults of none of them, and his ladies are persons who--with one exception--simply could not have existed in Greece. This Alcibiades wishes to be loved "for himself," and is (not without reason) very doubtful whether he ever has been, though he is the most popular and "successful" man in Athens. His _avoir_, for the moment, is concerned with a "Prude." (Were there prudes in Greece? I think Diogenes would have gladly lent his lantern for the search.) He is desperately afraid that she only loves him for _her_self. He determines to try her; takes her, not at her deeds, but at her words, which are, of course, such as would have made the Greeks laugh as inextinguishably as their gods once did. She expresses gratitude for his unselfishness, but is anything but pleased. Divers experiments are tried by her, and when at last he hopes she will not tempt him any more, exclaiming that he is really "l'amant le plus fidele, le plus tendre et le plus respectueux" ... "et le plus sot," adds she, sharply, concluding the conversation and shutting her, let us say, doors[392] on him.


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