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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Contes et Joyeux Devis


[Sidenote:

Desperiers.]

With the _Cymbalum Mundi_ of this rather mysterious person we need have little to do. It is, down to the dialogue-form, an obvious imitation of Lucian--a story about the ancient divinities (especially Mercury) and a certain "Book of Destiny" and talking animals, and a good deal of often rather too transparent allegory. It has had, both in its own day and since, a very bad reputation as being atheistical or at least anti-Christian, and seems really to have had something to do with the author's death, by suicide or otherwise. There need, however, be very little harm in it; and there is not very much good as a story, nor, therefore, much for us. It does not carry the art of its particular kind of fiction any further than Lucian himself, who is, being much more of a genius, on the whole a much better model, even taking him at that rather inferior rate. The _Contes et Joyeux Devis_, on the other hand, though the extreme brevity of some has perhaps sometimes prejudiced readers against them, have always seemed to the present writer to form the most remarkable book, as literature, of all the department at the time except _Gargantua_ and _Pantagruel_ and the _Heptameron_, and to supply a strong presumption that their author had more than a minor hand in the _Heptameron_ itself. It must, of course, be admitted that the fashion in which they are delivered may not only offend in one direction, but may possibly mislead in another. One may read

too much into the brevity, and so fall into the error of that other Englishman who was beguiled by the mysterious signs of Desperiers' greatest contemporary's most original creation. But a very large and long experience of literary weighing and measuring ought to be some safeguard against the mistake of Thaumast.

[Sidenote: _Contes et Joyeux Devis._]

One remarkable difference which may seem, at first sight, to be against the theory of Desperiers having had a large share in the _Heptameron_ is the contrasted and, as it may seem again at first sight, antagonistic tone of the two. There are purely comic and even farcical passages in Marguerite's book, but the general colour, as has been said, is religious-sentimental or courtly-amatory, with by no means infrequent excursions into the purely tragical. The _Contes et Joyeux Devis_, on the other hand, in the main continue the wholly jocular tone of the old _fabliaux_. But Desperiers must have been, not only _not_ the great man of letters which the somewhat exaggerated zeal of his editor, M. Louis Lacour, ranked him as being, but a very weak and feeble writer, if he could not in this way write comedy in one book and tragedy in another. In fact Rabelais gives us (as the greatest writers so often do) what is in more senses than one a master-key to the contrast. Desperiers has in the _Contes_ constant ironic qualifications and asides which may even have been directly imitated from his elder and greater contemporary; Marguerite has others which pair off in the same way with the most serious Rabelaisian "intervals," to which attention has been drawn in the last chapter. One point, however, does seem, at least to me, to emerge from the critical consideration of these two books with the other works of the Queen on the one hand and the other works of Desperiers[116] on the other. It is that the latter had a much crisper and stronger style than Marguerite's own, and that he had a faculty of grave ironic satire, going deeper and ranging wider than her "sensibility" would allow. There is one on the fatal and irremediable effects of disappointing ladies in their expectations, wherein there is something more than the mere _grivoiserie_, which in other hands it might easily have remained. The very curious Novel XIII.--on King Solomon and the philosopher's stone and the reason of the failure of alchemy--is of quite a different type from most things in these story-collections, and makes one regret that there is not more of it, and others of the same kind. For sheer amusement, which need not be shocking to any but the straitest-laced of persons, the story (XXXIV.) of a curate completely "scoring off" his bishop (who did not observe the caution given by Ophelia to Laertes) has not many superiors in its particular kind.


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