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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

But Arsene Guillot and L'Abbe Aubain


[Sidenote:

Its smaller companions--_Mateo Falcone_, etc.]

But of the smaller tales which usually accompany her, who shall exaggerate the praise? _Mateo Falcone_, that modern Roman father (by the way, there is said to be more Roman blood in Corsica than in any part of the mainland of Italy, and the portrait above mentioned is almost pure Faustina), is another of those things which are _a prendre ou a laisser_. It could not, again, be better done; and if any one will compare it with the somewhat similar anecdote of lynch-law in Balzac's _Les Chouans_, he ought to recognise the fact--good as that also is. _Les Ames du Purgatoire_ is also "first choice." Of what may be called the satellites of the great _Don Juan_ story--satellites with a nebula instead of a planet for their centre--it is quite the greatest. But of this group _La Venus d'Ille_ is my favourite, perhaps for a rather illegitimate reason. That reason is the possibility of comparing it with Mr. Morris's _Ring given to Venus_--a handling of the same subject in poetry instead of in prose, with a happy ending instead of an unhappy one, and pure Romantic in every respect instead of, as _La Venus d'Ille_ is, late classical, with a strong Romantic _nisus_.[224]

For, though it might be improper here to argue out the matter, these last words can be fitted to Merimee's _ethos_ from the days of "Clara Gazul" and "Hyacinthe Maglanovich" to those when he wrote _Lokis_ and

_La Chambre Bleue_. A deserter from Romanticism he was never; a Romantic free-lance (after being an actual Romantic pioneer) with a strong Classical element in him he was always.

[Sidenote: Those of _Carmen_; _Arsene Guillot_.]

The almost unavoidable temptation of taking _Colomba_ and _Carmen_ together has drawn us away from the companions, as they are usually given, of the Spanish story among Merimee's earlier works. More than two-thirds of the volume, as most people have seen it, consist of translations from the Russian of Poushkin and Gogol, which need no notice here. But _Arsene Guillot_ and _L'Abbe Aubain_, the two pieces which immediately follow _Carmen_, can by no means be passed over. If (as one may fairly suppose, without being quite certain) the selection of these for juxtaposition was authentic and deliberate, it was certainly judicious. They might have been written as a trilogy, not of sequence, but of contrast--a demonstration of power in essentially different forms of subject. _Arsene Guillot_, like _Carmen_, is tragedy; but it is _tragedie bourgeoise_ or _sentimentale_. There are no daggers or musquetoons, and though (since the heroine throws herself out of a window) there is some blood, she dies of consumption, not of her wounds. She is only a _grisette_ who has lost her looks, the one lover she ever cared for, and her health; while the other characters of importance (Merimee has taken from the stock-cupboard one of the cynical, rough-mannered, but really good-natured doctors common in French and not unknown in English literature) are the lover or gallant himself, Max de Saligny (quite a good fellow and perfectly willing, though he had tired of Arsene, to have succoured her had he known her distress), and the Lady Bountiful, Madame de Piennes. How a "triangle" is established nobody versed in novels needs to be told, though everybody, however well versed, should be glad to read. Arsene of course must die; what the others who lived did with their lives is left untold. The thing is quite unexciting, but is done with the author's miraculous skill; nor perhaps is there any piece that better shows his faculty of writing like the "gentleman,"[225] which, according to a famous contrast, he was, on a subject almost equally liable to more or less vulgar Paul-de-Kockery, to sloppy sentimentalism, and to cheap cynical journalese.


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