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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Les Buveurs d'Eau and the Miscellanies


[Sidenote:

The _Vie de Boheme_.]

The case _for_ I have put in the essay referred to with the full, though, I think, not more than the fair emphasis allowed to even a critical advocate when he has to demolish charges. The historian passes from bar to bench; and neither ought to speak, nor in this instance is inclined to speak, quite so enthusiastically. I admitted there that I did not think Murger's comparatively early death lost us much; and I admit even more frankly here, that in what he has left there is no great variety of excellence, and that while there are numerous good things in the work, there is little that can be called actually great. But after these admissions no small amount remains to his credit as a writer who can manage both comedy and pathos; who, if he has no wide range or variety of subject, can vary his treatment quite efficiently, and who has a certain freshness rarely surviving the first years of journalism of all work. His faintly but truly charming verse is outside our bounds, and even prose poetry like "The Loves of a Cricket and a Spark of Flame"[286] are on the line, though this particular thing is not far below Gerard himself. The longer novels, _Adeline Protat_ and _Le Sabot Rouge_, are competent in execution and pleasant enough to read; yet they are not above good circulating-library strength. But the _Vie de Boheme_, in its various sections, and a great number of shorter tales and sketches, are thoroughly agreeable if not

even delightful. Murger has completely shaken off the vulgarity which almost spoilt Pigault, and damaged Paul de Kock not a little. If any one who has not yet reached age, or has not let it make him "crabbed," cannot enjoy Schaunard and the tame lobster; the philosophic humours of Gustave (afterwards His Excellency Gustave) Colline; the great journal _Le Castor_,[287] which combined the service of the hat-trade with the promotion of high thinking and great writing; and the rest of the comedy of _La Vie de Boheme_ proper, I am sorry for him. He must have been, somehow, born wrong.

[Sidenote: _Les Buveurs d'Eau_ and the Miscellanies.]

The serious Bohemia of the _Buveurs d'Eau_ (the devotees of High Art who carry their devotion to the point of contemning all "commission" work whatsoever) may require more effort, or more special predestination, to get into full sympathy with it. The thing is noble; but it is nobility _party per_ a very thin _pale_ with and from silliness; and the Devil's Advocate has no very hard task in suggesting that it is not even nobility at all, but a compound of idleness and affectation.[288] With rare exceptions, the greatest men of art and letters have never disdained, though they might not love, what one of them called "honest journey-work in default of better"; and when those exceptions come to be examined--as in the leading English cases of Milton[289] and Wordsworth--you generally find that the persons concerned never really felt the pinch of necessity. However, Murger makes the best of his Lazare and the rest of them; and his power over pathos, which is certainly not small, assists him as much here as it does _more_ than assist him--as it practically carries him through--in other stories such as _Le Manchon de Francine_ and _La Biographie d'un Inconnu_. And, moreover, he can use all these means and more in handfuls of little things--some mere _bleuettes_ (as the French call them)--_Comment on Devient Coloriste_, _Le Victime du Bonheur_, _La Fleur Bretonne_, _Le Fauteuil Enchante_, _Les Premieres Amours du Jeune Bleuet_.

With such high praise still allotted to an author, it may seem unfair not to give him more room; and I should certainly have done so if I had not had the other treatment to refer to. Since that existed, as in the similar cases of Sandeau, Bernard, and perhaps one or two more, it seemed to me that space, becoming more and more valuable, might be economised, especially as, in his case and theirs, there is nothing extraordinary to interest, nothing difficult to discuss. _Tolle_, _lege_ is the suitable word for all three, and no fit person who obeys will regret his obedience.


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