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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote La Prise de la Redoute


And _L'Abbe Aubain_.]

As for _L'Abbe Aubain_, it is slight but purely comic, of the very best comedy, telling how a great lady, obliged by pecuniary misfortunes to retire with her husband to a remote country house, takes a fancy to, and imagines she has possibly excited fatal passion in, the local priest; attributes to him a sentimental past; but half good-naturedly, half virtuously obtains for him a comfortable town-cure in order to remove him, and perhaps herself, from temptation. This moving tale of self-denial and of averted sorrow, sin, and perhaps tragedy, is told in letters to another lady. Then follows a single epistle from the Abbe himself to his old Professor of Theology, telling, with the utmost brevity and matter-of-factness, how glad he is to make the exchange, what a benevolent nuisance the patroness has been, and how he looks forward to meeting the Professor in his new parsonage, with a plump chicken and a bottle of old bordeaux between them. There is hardly anywhere a better bit of irony of the lighter kind. It is rather like Charles de Bernard, with the higher temper and brighter flash of Merimee's style.

[Sidenote: _La Prise de la Redoute._]

All the stories just noticed, except _Carmen_ itself (which is of 1847), appeared originally in the decade 1830-40, as well as others of less note, and one wonderful little masterpiece, which deserves notice by itself.

This is _La Prise de la Redoute_, a very short thing--little more than an anecdote--of one of the "furious five minutes," or hours, not unknown in all great wars, and seldom better known than in that of these recent years, despite the changes of armament and tactics. It is almost sufficient to say of it that no one who has the slightest critical faculty can fail to see its consummateness, and that any one who does not see or will not acknowledge that consummateness may make up his mind to one thing--that he is not, and--but by some marvellous exertion of the grace of God--never will be, a critic. He may have in him the elements of a capital convict or a faithful father of a family; he may be a poet--poets, though sometimes very good, have sometimes been very bad critics--or a painter, or a philosopher, as distinguished as any of those whose names the Bertram girls learnt; or an elect candlestick-maker, fit to be an elder of any Little Bethel. But of criticism he can have no jot or tittle, no trace or germ. The question is, for once, not one of anything that can be called merely or mainly "taste." A man who is not a hopelessly bad critic, though he may not have in him the _catholicon_ of critical goodness, may fail to appreciate _La Morte Amoureuse_ because of its dreaminess and supernaturality and all-for-loveness; _Carmen_ because Carmen shocks him; _La Venus d'Ille_ because of its _macabre_ tone; _Les Jeune-France_ because of their _goguenarderie_ or _goguenardise_. But the case of the _Redoute_ is one of those rare instances where the intellect and the aesthetic sense approach closest--almost merge into each other,--as, indeed, they did in Merimee himself. The principles as well as the practice of narrative are here at once reduced to their lowest and exalted to their highest terms. The thing is not merely fermented but distilled; not so much a fact as a formula, with a formula's precision but without its dryness. If we take the familiar trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit and apply it to subject, style, and narrative power in a story, we shall find them all perfectly achieved and perfectly wedded here.[226]

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