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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

But Merimee did not choose to have so many things


Sometimes,

however, I have thought that just as _La Morte Amoureuse_ is almost or quite sufficient text for vindicating the greatness or greaterness of "Theo," so his earliest book of prose fiction, _Les Jeune-France_, will serve the same purpose for another side of him, lesser if anybody likes, but exceptionally "complementary." In particular it possesses a quality which up to his time was very rare in France, has not been extraordinarily common there even since, and is still, even in its ancestral home with ourselves, sometimes inconceivably blundered about--the quality of Humour.[203]

[Sidenote: Gautier's humour--_Les Jeune-France_.]

For wit, France can, of course, challenge the world; nay, she can do more, she can say to the world, "I have taught you this; and you are no match for your teacher." But in Humour the case is notoriously altered. None of the Latin nations, except Spain, the least purely Latin of them, has ever achieved it, as the original or unoriginal Latins themselves never did, with the exception of the lighter forms of it in Catullus, of the grimmer in Lucretius--those greatest and most un-Roman of Roman poets.[204] In all the wide and splendid literature of French before the nineteenth century only Rabelais and Moliere[205] can lay claim to it. Romanticism brings humour in its train, as Classicism brings wit; but it is curious how slow was the Romanticisation of French in this respect, with one exception.

There is no real humour in Hugo, Vigny, George Sand, Balzac, scarcely even in Musset. Dumas, though showing decidedly good gifts of possibility in his novels, does not usually require it there; the absence of it in his dramas need hardly be dwelt on. Merimee, one cannot but think, might have had it if he had chosen; but Merimee did not choose to have so many things! If Gerard de Nerval's failure of a great genius had failed in the comic instead of the romantic-tragical direction, he would have had some too--in fact he had it in the embryonic and unachieved fashion in which the author of _Gaspard de la Nuit_, and Baudelaire, and Paul Verlaine have had it since in verse and prose. But Gautier has it plump and plain, and without any help from the strange counterfeiting fantasy of verse which sometimes confers it. He has it always; at all times of his life; in the hackwork which made abortion of so much greater literature, and in his actually great literature, poems, novels, travels--what not. But he never has it more strongly, vividly, and originally than in _Les Jeune-France_, a coming-of-age book almost as old as _mil-huit-cent-trente_, written in part no doubt in the immortal _gilet rouge_ itself, if only as kept for study wear like Diderot's old dressing-gown.

There are two dangers lying in wait for the reader of the book. One is the ordinary and quite respectable putting-out-of-the-lip at its juvenile improprieties; the other, a little more subtle, is the notion that the things, improper or not (and some of them are quite _not_), are mere _juvenilia_--clever undergraduate work. The first requires no special counterblast; the old monition, "Don't like it for its impropriety, but also don't let its impropriety hide its merits from you if it has any," will suffice. The other is, as has been said, more insidious. I can only say that I have read much undergraduate or but slightly post-graduate literature of many generations--before the day of _Les Jeune-France_, about its date, between that day and my own season of passing through those "sweet hours and the fleetest of time," and since that season till the present moment. But many equals of this book I have not read.


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