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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote The Contes Drolatiques

[Sidenote: The _Contes Drolatiques_.]

Of his one considerable collection of such stories--the _Contes Drolatiques_--it is not possible to speak quite so favourably as a whole; yet the reduction of favour need not be much. Of its greatest thing, _La Succube_, there have hardly been two opinions among competent and unprejudiced judges. "Pity and terror" are there well justified of their manipulator. The sham Old French, if not absolutely "according to Cocker" (or such substitute for Cocker as may be made and provided by scholarly authority), is very much more effective than most such things. Not a few of the stories are good and amusing in themselves, though of course the votaries of prunes and prism should keep clear of them. The book has perhaps only one serious fault, that of the inevitable and no doubt invited suggestion of, and comparison with, Rabelais. In some points this will hold not so badly, for Balzac had narrative power of the first order when he gave it scope; the deficiencies of mere style which sometimes affect his modern French do not appear so much in this _pastiche_, and he could make broad jokes well enough. But--and this "but" is rather a terrible one--the saving and crowning grace of Pantagruelist humour is not in him, except now and then in its grimmer and less catholic variety or manifestation. And this absence haunts one in these _Contes Drolatiques_, though it is to some extent compensated by the presence of a "sentiment" rare elsewhere in Balzac.

[Sidenote: Notes on select larger books: _Eugenie Grandet_.]

Turning to the longer books, the old double difficulty of selection and omission comes on one in full force. There are, I suppose, few Balzacians who have not special favourites, but probably _Eugenie Grandet_, _Le Pere Goriot_, and the two divisions of _Les Parents Pauvres_ would unite most suffrages. If I myself--who am not exactly a Balzacian, though few can admire him more, and not very many, I think, have had occasion for knowing his work better--put _Eugenie Grandet_ at the head of all the "scenes" of ordinary life, it is most certainly not because of its inoffensiveness. It _is_ perhaps partly because, in spite of that inoffensiveness, it fixes on one a grasp superior to anything of Beyle's and equal to anything of Flaubert's or Maupassant's. But the real cause of admiration is the nature of the grasp itself. Here, and perhaps here only--certainly here in transcendence--Balzac grapples with, and vanquishes, the bare, stern, unadorned, unbaited, ironic facts of life. It is not an intensely interesting book; it is certainly not a delightful one; you do not want to read it very often. Still, when you have read it you have come to one of the ultimate things: the _flammantia moenia_ of the world of fiction forbid any one to go further at this particular point. And when this has been said of a novel, all has been said of the quality of the novelist's genius, though not of its quantity or variety.

[Sidenote: _Le Pere Goriot_ and _Les Parents Pauvres_.]

The other three books selected have greater "interest" and, in the case of the _Parents Pauvres_ at least, much greater variety; but they do not seem to me to possess equal consummateness. _Le Pere Goriot_ is in its own way as pathetic as _Eugenie Grandet_, and Balzac has saved its pathos from being as irritating as that of the all but idiotic grandfather in _The Old Curiosity Shop_. But the situation still has a share of that fatal helpless ineffectiveness which Mr. Arnold so justly denounced. Of

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