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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Which Balzac makes of that great weapon of the novelist

[Sidenote: Peculiarity of the conversation.]

On[170] one remarkable characteristic of the _Comedie_ very little has usually been said. It has been neglected wholly by most critics, though it is of the very first importance. And that is the astonishingly small use, _in proportion_, which Balzac makes of that great weapon of the novelist, dialogue, and the almost smaller effect which it accordingly has in producing his results (whatever they are) on his readers. With some novelists dialogue is almost all-powerful. Dumas, for instance (as is pointed out elsewhere), does almost everything by it. In his best books especially you may run the eye over dozens, scores, almost hundreds of pages without finding a single one printed "solid." The author seldom makes any reflections at all; and his descriptions, with, of course, some famous exceptions, are little more than longish stage directions. Nor is this by any means merely due to early practice in the drama itself; for something like it is to be found in writers who have had no such practice. In Balzac, after making every allowance for the fact that he often prints his actual conversations without typographical separation of the speeches, the case is just the other way. Moreover, and this is still more noteworthy, it is not by what his characters do say that we remember them. The situation perhaps most of all; the character itself very often; the story sometimes (but of that more presently)--these are the things for and by which we remember Balzac and the vast army of his creations; while sometimes it is not even for any of these things, but for "interiors," "business," and the like. When one thinks of single points in him, it is scarcely ever of such things as the "He has got his discharge, by----!" of Dickens; as the "Adsum" of Thackeray; as the "Trop lourd!" of Porthos' last agony; as the longer but hardly less quintessenced malediction of Habakkuk Mucklewrath on Claverhouse. It is of Eugenie Grandet shrinking in automatic repulsion from the little bench as she reads her cousin's letter; of Henri de Marsay's cigar (his enjoyment of it, that is to say, for his words are quite commonplace) as he leaves "la Fille aux Yeux d'Or"; of the lover allowing himself to be built up in "La Grande Breteche." Observe that there is not the slightest necessity to apportion the excellence implied in these different kinds of reminiscence; as a matter of fact, each way of fastening the interest and the appreciation of the reader is indifferently good.[171] But the distinction remains.

[Sidenote: And of the "story" interest.]

There is another point on which, though no good critic can miss it, some critics seem to dislike dwelling; and this is that, though Balzac's separate situations, as has just been said, are arresting in the highest degree, it is often distinctly difficult to read him "for the story." Even M. Brunetiere lets slip an admission that "interest" of the ordinary kind is not exactly Balzac's forte; while another admirer of his grants freely that his _affabulation_ is weak. Once more, we need not and must not make too much of this; but it is important that it should not be forgotten, and the extreme Balzacian is sometimes apt to forget it. That it comes sometimes from Balzac's mania for rehandling and reshaping--that he has actually, like the hero of what is to some his most unforgettable short story, daubed the masterpiece into a blur--is certain. But it probably comes more often, and is much more interesting as coming, from want of co-ordination between the observing and the imagining faculties which are (as Hugo meant) the yoked coursers of Balzac's car.

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