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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

167 Sidenote Its effect on successors


Nevertheless

it would be of course highly improper, and in fact absurd, to deny the "observation"--at least in detail of all kinds. Although--as we have seen and may see again when we come to Naturalism and look back--M. Brunetiere was quite wrong in thinking that Balzac _introduced_ "interiors" to French, and still more wrong in thinking that he introduced them to European, novel-writing, they undoubtedly make a great show in his work--are, indeed, one of its chief characteristics. He actually overdoes them sometimes; the "dragging" of _Les Chouans_ is at least partly due to this, and he never got complete mastery of his tendency that way. But undoubtedly this tendency was also a source of power.

Yet, while this observation of _things_ is not to be denied, Balzac's observation of _persons_ is a matter much more debatable. To listen to some of the more uncritical--especially among the older and now almost traditional--estimates of him, an unwary reader who did not correct these, judging for himself, might think that Balzac was as much of an "observational" realist in character as Fielding, as Scott when it served his turn, as Miss Austen, or as Thackeray. Longer study and further perspective seem recently to have put more people in the position which only a few held some years ago. The astonishing force, completeness, _relative_ reality of his creations is more and more admitted, but it is seen (M. Le Breton, for instance, admits it in almost the very words)

that the reality is often not _positive_. In fact the _Comedie_ may remind some of the old nautical laudation of a ship which cannot only sail close to the wind, but even a point or two on the other side of it. If even Frenchmen now confess that Balzac's characters are very often not _des etres reels_, no Englishman need be ashamed of having always thought so.

The fact is that this giant in novel-writing did actually succeed in doing what some of his brethren in _Hyperion_ would have liked to do--in setting up a new world for himself and getting out of the existing universe. His characters are never _in_human; they never fail to be human; they are of the same flesh and blood, the same soul and spirit, as ourselves. But they have, as it were, colonised the fresh planet--the Balzacium Sidus--and taken new colour and form from its idiosyncrasies.[167]

[Sidenote: Its effect on successors.]

It is for this reason that one hesitates to endorse the opinions quoted above as to the filiation of all or most subsequent French fiction upon Balzac. Of course he had a great influence on it; such a genius, in such circumstances, could not but have. The "interior" business was largely followed and elaborated; it might be argued--though the contention would have to be strictly limited and freely provisoed--that Naturalism in general--as the "Rougon-Macquart" scheme certainly was in particular--was a sort of bastard of the _Comedie_. Other points of relationship might be urged. But all this would leave the most characteristic Balzacities untouched. In the most obvious and superficial quality--pessimistic psychology--the other novelist dealt with in this chapter--Beyle--is far more of a real origin than Balzac is. If one takes the most brilliant of his successors outside the Naturalist school--Flaubert and Feuillet--very little that is really Balzacian will be found in either. At least _Madame Bovary_ and _M. de Camors_--which, I suppose, most people would choose to represent the greatest genius and the most flexible talent of the Second Empire in novel-writing--seem to me to show hardly anything that is like Balzac. The Goncourts have something of degraded Balzacianism on its lower side in them, and Zola approaches, at least in his "apocalyptic" period, something like a similar though less offensive degradation of the higher. But I can hardly conceive anything less like Balzac's work than Maupassant's.


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