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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

The readableness of Rabelais is extraordinary


_Roman de la Rose_, beautiful as is its earlier part and ingenious as is (sometimes) its later, is, as a _story_, of the thinnest kind. The _Roman de Renart_ is a vast collection of small stories of a special class, and the _Fabliaux_ are almost a vaster collection (if you do not exclude the "waterings out" of _Renart_) of kinds more general. There is abundance of amusement and some charm; but nowhere are we much beyond very simple forms of fiction itself. None of the writers of _nouvelles_, except Antoine de la Salle, can be said to be a known personality.

[Sidenote: Rabelais unquestionably the first very great known writer.]

There has always been a good deal of controversy about Rabelais, not all of which perhaps can we escape, though it certainly will not be invited, and we have no very extensive knowledge of his life. But we have some: and that, as a man of genius, he is superior to any single person named and known in earlier French literature, can hardly be contested by any one who is neither a silly paradoxer nor a mere dullard, nor affected by some extra-literary prejudice--religious, moral, or whatever it may be. But perhaps not every one who would admit the greatness of Master Francis as a man of letters, his possession not merely of consummate wit, but of that precious thing, so much rarer in French, actual humour; his wonderful influence on the future word-book and phrase-book of his own language,

nay, not every one who would go almost the whole length of the most uncompromising Pantagruelist, and would allow him profound wisdom, high aspirations for humanity, something of a complete world-philosophy--would at once admit him as a very great novelist. For my own part I have no hesitation in doing so, and to make the admission good must be the object of this chapter.

[Sidenote: But the first great novelist?]

It may almost be said that his very excellence in this way has "stood in its own light." The readableness of Rabelais is extraordinary. The present writer, after for years making of him almost an Addison according to Johnson's prescription, fell, by mere accident and occupation with other matters, into a way of _not_ reading him, except for purposes of mere literary reference, during a long time. On three different occasions more recently, one ten or a dozen years ago, one six or seven, and the third for the purposes of this very book, he put himself again under the Master, and read him right through. It is difficult to imagine a severer test, and I am bound to confess (though I am not bound to specify) that in some, though not many, instances I have found famous and once favourite classics fail to stand it. Not so Master Francis. I do not think that I ever read him with greater interest than at this last time. Indeed I doubt whether I have ever felt the _catholicon_--the pervading virtue of his book--quite so strongly as I have in the days preceding that on which I write these words.

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