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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Frederic et Bernerette


At

the same time, this hybrid form between _nouvelle_ and _drame_ has some illegitimate advantages. You can, some one has said, "insinuate character," whereas in a regular story you have to delineate it; and though in some modern instances critics have seemed disposed to put a higher price on the insinuation than on the delineation, not merely in this particular form, I cannot quite agree with them. All the same, Merimee's accomplishments in this mixed kind are a great addition to his achievements in the story proper, and, as has been confessed before, I should be slow to deny him the place of the greatest "little master" in fiction all round, though I may like some little masterpieces of others better than any of his.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Musset: charm of his dramatised stories; his pure narration unsuccessful.]

By an interesting but not at all inexplicable contrast the only writer of prose fiction (except those to whom separate chapters have been allotted and one other who follows him here) to be in any way classed with Merimee and Gautier as a man of letters generally--Alfred de Musset--displays the contrast of values in his work of narrative and dramatic form in exactly the opposite way to (at least) Merimee's. Musset's _Proverbes_, though, I believe, not quite successful at first, have ever since been the delight of all but vulgar stage-goers:

they have, from the very first, been the delight of all but vulgar readers for their pure story interest. Even some poems, not given as intended dramas at all, possess the most admirable narrative quality and story-turn.

As for the _Comedies-Proverbes_, it is impossible for the abandoned reader of plays who reads them either as poems or as stories, or as both, to go wrong there, whichever of the delightful bunch he takes up. To play upon some of their own titles--you are never so safe in swearing as when you swear that they are charming; when the door of the library that contains them is opened you may think yourself happy, and when it is shut upon you reading them you may know yourself to be happier. But in pure prose narratives this exquisite poet, delightful playwright, and unquestionable though too much wasted genius, never seems quite at home. For though they sometimes have a poignant appeal, it is almost always the illegitimate or at any rate extrinsic one of revelation of the author's personal feeling; or else that of formulation of the general effects of passion, not that of embodiment of its working.

[Sidenote: _Frederic et Bernerette._]

Thus, for instance, there are few more pathetic stories in substance, or in occasional expression of a half-aphoristic kind, than _Frederic et Bernerette_. The grisette heroine has shed all the vulgarity of Paul de Kock's at his worst, and has in part acquired more poignancy than that of Murger at his best. Her final letter to her lover, just before her second and successful attempt at suicide, is almost consummate. But, somehow or other, it strikes one rather as a marvellous single study--a sort of modernised and transcended _Spectator_ paper--a "Farewell of a Deserted Damsel"--than as part, or even as _denouement_, of a story. When the author says, "Je ne sais pas lequel est le plus cruel, de perdre tout a coup la femme qu'on aime par son inconstance, ou par sa mort," he says one of the final things finally. But it would be as final and as impressive if it were an isolated _pensee_. The whole story is not well told; Frederic, though not at all a bad fellow, and an only too natural one, is a thing of shreds and patches, not gathered together and grasped as they should be in the hand of the tale-teller; the narrative "backs and fills" instead of sweeping straight onwards.


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