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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

For the student of the novel in Pigault Lebrun


All

this, however, strictly speaking, is outside our present subject, and is merely intended as a sort of excuse for the introduction of a writer who has been unfairly ostracised, not as a passport for Restif to the young person. But his actual qualities as tale-teller are very remarkable. The second title of _Monsieur Nicolas_--_Le Coeur Humain Devoile_--ambitious as it is, is not fatuous. It is a human heart in a singularly morbid condition which is unveiled: but as, if I remember rightly, either Goethe or Schiller, or both, saw and said near the time, there is no charlatanery about the unveiling, and no bungling about the autopsy. Restif has been compared, and not unfairly, to Defoe, as well as to Rousseau; in a certain way he may be likened to Pepys; and all four share an intense and unaffected reality, combined, however, in the Frenchman's case with a sort of exaggeration of a dreamy kind, and with other dream-character, which reminds one of Borrow, and even of De Quincey. His absolute shamelessness is less unconnected with this dream-quality than may at first appear, and, as in all such cases, is made much less offensive by it. Could he ever have taken holiday from his day-long and night-long devotion to

Cotytto or Venus Astarte or Ashtoreth,

he might have been a most remarkable novelist, and as it is his _mere_ narrative faculty is such as by no means every novelist possesses. Moreover, he counts,

once more, in the advance towards real things in fiction. "A pretty kind of reality!" cries Mrs. Grundy. But the real is not always the pretty, and the pretty is not always the real.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Pigault-Lebrun--the difference of his positive and relative importance.]

There is also a good deal that is curious, as well as many things that are disgusting, for the student of the novel in Pigault-Lebrun.[424] In the first place, one is constantly reminded of that redeeming point which the benevolent Joe Gargery found in Mr. Pumblechook--

And, wotsume'er the failings on his part, He were a corn-and-seedsman in his hart.

If Pigault cannot exactly be said to have been a good novelist, he "were" a novelist "in his hart." Beside his _polissonneries_, his frequent dulness, his singular gropings and failures at anything like good novelist _faire_, one constantly finds what might be pedantically and barbarously called a "novelistic velleity." His much too ambitiously titled _Melanges Litteraires_ turn to stories, though stories touched with the _polisson_ brush. His _Nouvelles_ testify at least to his ambition and his industry in the craft of fiction. "Je ne suis pas Voltaire," he says somewhere, in reference, I think, to his plays, not his tales. He most certainly is not; neither is he Marmontel, as far as the tale is concerned. But as for the longer novel, in a blind and blundering way, constantly trapped and hindered by his want of genius and his want of taste, by his literary ill-breeding and other faults, he seems to have more of a "glimmering" of the real business than they have, or than any other Frenchman had before him.

[Sidenote: His general characteristics.]

Pigault-Lebrun[425] spent nearly half of


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