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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Gautier his burden of style


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[Sidenote: Gautier--his burden of "style."]

Some readers may know (for I, and the others, which I shall probably quote again, have quoted it before now) a remark of Emile de Girardin when Theophile Gautier asked him how people liked a story which "Theo" had prevailed on that experienced editor to insert as a _feuilleton_ in the _Presse_: "Mon ami, l'abonne ne s'amuse pas _franchement_. Il est gene par le style." Girardin, though not exactly a genius, was an exceedingly clever man, and knew the foot of his public--perhaps of "_the_ public"--to a hundredth of an inch. But he could hardly have anticipated the extent to which his criticism would reflect the attitude of persons who would have been, and would be, not a little offended at being classed with _l'abonne_. The reproach of "over-styling" has been cast at Gautier by critics of the most different types, and--more curiously at first sight than after a moment's reflection--by some who are themselves style-mad, but whose favourite vanities in that matter are different from his. I can hardly think of any writer--Herrick as treated by Hazlitt is the chief exception that occurs to me at the moment--against whom this cheap and obvious, though, alas! not very frequently possible, charge of "bright far-shining emptiness," of glittering frigidity, of colour without flesh and blood, of art without matter, etc., etc., has been

cast so violently--or so unjustly. In literature, as in law and war, the favourite method of offensive defence is to reserve your _triarii_, your "colophon" of arms or arguement, to the last; but there are cases in all three where it is best to carry an important point at once and hold it. I think that this is one of these cases; and I do not think that the operation can be conducted with better chance of success than by inserting here that outline,[198] with specimens, of _La Morte Amoureuse_ which has been already promised--or threatened--in the Preface. For here the glamour--if it be only glamour--of the style will have disappeared; the matter will remain.

[Sidenote: Abstract (with translations) of _La Morte Amoureuse_.]

You ask me, my brother, if I have ever loved. I answer "Yes." But it is a wild and terrible story, a memory whose ashes, with all my sixty-six years, I hardly dare to disturb. To you I can refuse nothing, but I would not tell the tale to a less experienced soul. The facts are so strange that I myself cannot believe in their actual occurrence. For three years I was the victim of a diabolical delusion, and every night--God grant it was a dream--I, a poor country priest, led the life of the lost, the life of the worldling and the debauchee. A single chance of too great complacency went near to destroy my soul; but at last, with God's aid and my patron saint's, I exorcised the evil spirit which had gained possession of me. Till then my life was double, and the counterpart by night was utterly different from the life by day. By day I was a priest of the Lord, pure, and busied with holy things. By night, no sooner had I closed my eyes than I became a youthful gallant, critical in women, dogs, and horses, prompt with dice and bottle, free of hand and tongue; and when waking-time came at dawn of day, it seemed to me as if I then fell asleep and was a priest only in dreams. From this sleep-life I have kept the memory of words and things, which recur to me against my will; and though I have never quitted the walls of my parsonage, those who hear me talk would rather think me a man of the world and of many experiences, who has entered the religious life hoping to finish in God's bosom the evening of his stormy day, than a humble seminarist, whose life has been spent in an obscure parish, buried deep in woods, and far removed from the course of the world.


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