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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

De Valmont is almost inexpressible


P.

267. Pajon. I ought not to have forgotten to mention that he bears the medal of Sir Walter Scott (Introduction to _The Abbot_) as "a pleasing writer of French Fairy Tales."

Page 453.--Choderlos de Laclos. Some surprise has been expressed by a friend of great competence at my leaving out _Les Liaisons Dangereuses_. I am, of course, aware that "persons of distinction" have taken an interest in it; and I understand that, not many years ago, the unfortunate author of the beautiful lines _To Cynara_ wasted his time and talent on translating the thing. To make sure that my former rejection was not unjustified, I have accordingly read it with care since the greater part of this book was passed for press; and it shall have a judgment here, if not in the text. I am unable to find any redeeming point in it, except that some ingenuity is shown in bringing about the _denouement_ by a rupture between the villain-hero and the villainess-heroine, M. le Vicomte de Valmont and Mme. la Marquise de Merteuil. Even this, though fairly craftsmanlike in treatment, is banal enough in idea--that idea being merely that jealousy, in both sexes, survives love, shame, and everything else, even community in scoundrelism--in other words, that the green-eyed monster (like "Vernon" and unlike "Ver") _semper viret_. But it is scarcely worth one's while to read six hundred pages of very small print in order to learn this. Of amusement, as apart from this very elementary instruction,

I at least can find nothing. The pair above mentioned, on whom practically hangs the whole appeal, are merely disgusting. Their very voluptuousness is accidental: the sum and substance, the property and business of their lives and natures, are compact of mischief, malice, treachery, and the desire of "getting the better of somebody." Nor has this diabolism anything grand or impressive about it--anything that "intends greatly" and glows, as has been said, with a black splendour, in Marlowesque or Websterian fashion. Nor, again, is it a "Fleur du Mal" of the Baudelairian kind, but only an ugly as well as noxious weed. It is prosaic and suburban. There is neither tragedy nor comedy, neither passion nor humour, nor even wit, except a little horse-play. Congreve and Crebillon are as far off as Marlowe and Webster; in fact, the descent from Crebillon's M. de Clerval to Laclos' M. de Valmont is almost inexpressible. And, once more, there is nothing to console one but the dull and obvious moral that to adopt love-making as an "occupation" (_vide_ text, p. 367) is only too likely to result in the [Greek: techne] becoming, in vulgar hands, very [Greek: banausos] indeed.

The victims and _comparses_ of the story do nothing to atone for the principals. The lacrimose stoop-to-folly-and-wring-his-bosom Mme. de Tourvel is merely a bore; the _ingenue_ Cecile de Volanges is, as Mme. de Merteuil says, a _petite imbecile_ throughout, and becomes no better than she should be with the facility


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