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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles


[Sidenote:

The rise of the _nouvelle_ itself.]

It was not, however, merely the intense conservatism of the Middle Ages as to literary form which kept back the prose _nouvelle_ to such an extent that, as we have seen, only a few examples survive from the two whole centuries between 1200 and 1400, while not one of these is of the kind most characteristic ever since, or at least until quite recent days, of French tale-telling. The French octosyllabic couplet, in which the _fabliaux_ were without exception or with hardly an exception composed, can, in a long story, become very tiresome because of its want of weight and grasp, and the temptations it offers to a weak rhymester to stuff it with endless tags. But for a short tale in deft hands it can apply its lightness in the best fashion, and put its points with no lack of sting. The _fabliau_-writer or reciter was not required--one imagines that he would have found scant audiences if he had tried it--to spin a long yarn; he had got to come to his jokes and his business pretty rapidly; and, as La Fontaine has shown to thousands who have never known--perhaps have never heard of--his early masters, he had an instrument which would answer to his desires perfectly if only he knew how to finger it.

At the same time, both the lover of poetry and the lover of tale must acknowledge that, though alliance between them is not in the least an unholy one, and has produced great and charming

children, the best of the poetry is always a sort of extra bonus or solace to the tale, and the tale not unfrequently seems as if it could get on better without the poetry. The one can only aspire somewhat irrelevantly; the other can never attain quite its full development. So it was no ill day when the prose _nouvelle_ came to its own in France.

[Sidenote: _Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles._]

The first remarkable collection was the famous _Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles_, traditionally attributed to Louis XI. when Dauphin and an exile in Brabant, with the assistance of friends and courtiers, but more recently selected by critics that way minded as part of the baggage they have "commandeered" for Antoine de la Salle. The question of authorship is of scarcely the slightest importance to us; though the point last mentioned is worth mentioning, because we shall have to notice the favoured candidate in this history again. There are certainly some of the hundred that he might have written.

In the careless way in which literary history used to be dealt with, the _Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles_ were held to be mere imitation of the _Decameron_ and other Italian things. It is, of course, much more than probable that the Italian _novella_ had not a little to do with the precipitation of the French _nouvelle_ from its state of solution in the _fabliau_. But the person or persons who, in imitating the _Decameron_, produced the _Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles_ had a great deal more to do--and did a great deal less--than this mere imitation of their original. As for a group of included tales, the already-mentioned _Seven Wise Masters_[80] was known in France much before Boccaccio's time. The title was indeed admittedly Italian, but such an obvious one as to require no positive borrowing, and there is in the French book no story-framework like that of the plague and the country-house visit; no cheerful personalities like Fiammetta or Dioneo make not merely the intervals but the stories themselves alive with a special interest. Above all, there is nothing like the extraordinary mixture of unity and variety--a pure gift of genius--which succeeds in making the _Decameron_ a real book as well as a bundle of narratives. Nor is there anything like the literary brilliancy of the actual style and handling.


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