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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

But Ponson du Terrail bores me


worst of it is (to play cards on table with the strictness which is the only virtue of this book, save perhaps an occasional absence of ignorance) that neither of them appeals to me. I have no doubt that this recalcitrance to the crime-novel is a _culpa_, if not a _culpa maxima_. I suppose it was born in me. It is certainly not merely due to the fact that, in my journalist days, perhaps because I was a kind of abortion of a barrister, I had to write endless articles on crimes.

Penge murders knew The pencil blue

as regards my "copy," and a colleague once upbraided me for arguing in favour of Mrs. Maybrick. But I had read crime-novels before those days, and they never amused me. Yet perhaps it may be possible to show cause--other than my personal likings--for not ranking these high.

[Sidenote: The first--his general character.]

I have somewhere seen it said that Ponson du Terrail, before he took to driving _feuilletons_ five-in-hand, showed some power of less coarse fiction-writing on a smaller scale. But I have not seen any of these essays, and real success in them on his part would surprise me. For it is exactly in the qualities necessary to such a success that he seems to me to come short. He _did_ possess what, though it may seem almost profane to call it imagination, is really a cheap and drossy lower kind thereof. He could frame

and accumulate, even to some extent connect, melodramatic situations, not so very badly, and not in very glaring imitation of anybody else. But, perhaps for that very reason, the difference between him and the others strikes one all the more painfully. _Les Orphelins de la Saint-Barthelemy_ awakes the saddest sighs for Dumas or Merimee. _La Femme Immortelle_, with its _diablerie_ explained and then _dis_-explained and then clumsily solved with a laugh, makes one wish for an hour or two even of Soulie. And when one comes to the nineteenth century and _Les Gandins_ and a fiendish _docteur rouge_[430] (who is in every conceivable way inferior to Vigny's _docteur noir_), and a wicked count who undergoes a spotty transcorporation, it is worse. If any one says, "This is possible, but you yourself have said that excellence in some one else ought not to affect the estimate of the actual subject," I reply, "Granted; but Ponson du Terrail bores me." I have dropped every book of his that I have taken up, and only at a second--even a third--struggle have been able to get knowledge enough of it to speak without critical treason. Moreover, his style (always under caution given) seems to me flat, savourless, and commonplace; his thought childish, his etceteras (if I may so say) absurd. The very printing is an irritation. Who can read such stuff as this?

Tout a coup une sonnette se fit entendre.

Nana se leva.

Cette sonnette etat celle qui avertissait la soubrette que sa maitresse reclamait son office.

La jolie fille prit un flambeau et quitta la cuisine.

Here you have four separate paragraphs, five lines, and thirty-five words to express, in almost idiotic verbiage, the following:

"Here her mistress's bell rang, and she left the kitchen."

One might conduct not merely five, but five and twenty novels abreast at this rate.

[Sidenote: The second.]

Not thus would it be proper to write of Gaboriau. With him, except incidentally, and when he is diverging from his proper line,[431] one finds no mere "piffle." He has a business and he does that. Moreover, it is a business which, if not intrinsically, is historically important. Of course there had been crime-novels and crime-tales before: there always has been everything before. But Gaboriau undoubtedly refashioned and restarted them, and has been ever since the parent or master of a family, or whole school, of novelists and tale-tellers who have sometimes seemed, at any rate to themselves, to be pillars, and to be entitled to talk about politics and religion and morals, and the other things which, as Chesterfield so delightfully remarked, need no troublesome preparation in the talker. His place here, therefore, is secured. If it is not a large place, that is not entirely due to the mere fact that, as has been frankly acknowledged, the present writer takes little pleasure in the crime-novel. It is because the kind, plentiful for those who like it to read, can be conveniently knocked off in specimen for others. For the latter purpose it would not matter very much whether _L'Affaire Lerouge_, or _Le Crime d'Orcival_, or _M. Lecoq_ itself, or perhaps even others, were taken. The first named, which was, I think, one of the first, if not the actual overture of the series, and which happens to be best known to the historian, will perhaps suffice.

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