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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Gerard de Nerval his peculiar position


[Sidenote:

Gerard de Nerval--his peculiar position.]

I have been accused (quite good-naturedly) of putting Rabelais in this history because I liked him, though he was not a novelist. My conscience is easy there; and I think I have refuted the peculiar charge beforehand. But I might have a little more difficulty (though I should still lose neither heart nor hope) in the case of the ill-fated but well-beloved writer whom gods and men call Gerard de Nerval, or simply Gerard, though librarians and bibliographers sometimes insist on his legal surname, Labrunie. It certainly would be difficult, from the same point of view of strict legality, to call anything of his exactly a novel. He was a poet, a dramatist, a voyage-and-travel writer, a bibliographer (strange trade, which associates the driest with the most "necta_w_eous" of men!) even sometimes a tale-teller by name, but even then hardly a novelist. Yet he managed to throw over the most unlikely material a novelish or at least a romantic character, which is sometimes--nay, very often--utterly wanting in professed and admitted masters of the business; and he combines with this faculty--or rather he exalts and transports it into--a strange and exquisite charm, which nobody else in French, except Nodier[237] (who very possibly taught Gerard something), possesses, and which, though it is rather commoner in English and in the best and now almost prehistoric German, is rare anywhere, and, in Gerard's peculiar brand

of it, almost entirely unknown.

For this "Anodos"--the most unquestionably entitled to that title of all men in letters; this wayless wanderer on the earth and above the earth; this inhabitant of mad-houses; this victim, finally, either of his own despair and sorrow or of some devilry on the part of others,[238] unites, in the strange spell which he casts over all fit readers, what, but for him, one might have called the idiosyncrasies in strangeness of authors quite different from each other and--except at the special points of contact--from him. He is like Borrow or De Quincey (though he goes even beyond both) in the singular knack of endowing or investing known places and commonplace actions with a weird second essence and second intention. He is like Charles Lamb in his power of dropping from quaintness and almost burlesque into the most touching sentiment and emotion. Mr. Lang, in his Introduction to Poe, has noticed how Gerard resembles America's one "poet of the first order" in fashioning lines "on the further side of the border between verse and music"--a remark which applies to his prose as well.[239] He has himself admitted a kind of _sorites_ of indebtedness to Diderot, Sterne, Swift, Rabelais, Folengo, Lucian, and Petronius. But this is merely on the comic and purely intellectual side of him, while it is further confined, or nearly so, to the trick of deliberate "promiscuousness." On the emotional-romantic if not even tragic score he may write off all imputed indebtedness--save once more in some degree, to Nodier. And the consequence is that those who delight in him derive their delight from sources of the most extraordinarily various character, probably never represented by an exactly similar group in the case of any two individual lovers, but quite inexhaustible. To represent him to those who do not know him is not easy; to represent him to those who do is sure, for this very reason, to arouse mild or not mild complaints of inadequacy. And it must be clear, from what has been already said, that some critic may very likely exclaim, in reference to any selected piece, "Why, this is neither a novel nor a romance, nor even in any legitimate sense a tale!" The inestimable rejoinder already quoted,[240]--episcopal, and dignifying even that order though it was made only by a bishop _in partibus_--is the only one here.


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