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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

432 Sidenote Feydeau Sylvie


[Sidenote:

_L'Affaire Lerouge._]

No one who takes it up, having some little critical aptitude and experience, will fail to see, very shortly, that it does mean business and does do it. The murder of Claudine Lerouge is well plunged into; the arrangements for its detection--professional and amateur--are "gnostically" laid out; and the plot thickens and presents various sides of itself, like a craftsmanly made and tossed pancake. If you read it at all, you will not skip much; first, because the interest, such as it is, is continuous; and, secondly, for one of those reasons which keep would-be sinners in other paths of rectitude--that, _if_ you skip, you will almost certainly find you have lost your way when you come down from skipping. Some oddities--partly, but not entirely, connected with the strange and well-known differences between French and English criminal procedure--will, of course, strike an Englishman--the collaboration of professional _juge d'instruction_ and amateur detective being perhaps the most remarkable. The love-affair, in which the Judge himself and the plotted-against Albert de Commarin are rivals, though a useful poker to stir the fire, is not quite a well-managed one: and the long harangue of Madame Gerdy, between her resurrection from brain-fever and her death, seems a little to strain probability. But no one of these things, nor all together, need be fatal to the enjoyment of the book on the part of, as was once said, "them as likes"

the kind.[432]

[Sidenote: Feydeau--_Sylvie_.]

Short notice may again serve for another novelist enormously popular in his day; very characteristic of the Second Empire; a favourite[433] for a time (rather inexplicably) of Sainte-Beuve; but not much of a rose, and very much of many days before yesterday--Ernest Feydeau. He did one thing, _Sylvie_, as different as possible from Gerard's book of the same name, but still, as it seems to me, good enough, though it never enjoyed a tenth part of the popularity of his more "scabrous" things, though itself is very far from prudish, and though it makes no appearance in some lists and collections of his work. Feydeau (it is a redeeming point) was one of "those about" Gautier, and _Sylvie_ is by no means unlike a pretty free and fairly original transfer from _Les Jeune-France_. The hero is a gentleman, decadent by anticipation and romantic by survival to the very _n_th. He abides in a vast chamber, divanned, and hung with Oriental curtains: he smokes endless tchibouks, and lives chiefly upon preserved ginger. To him enters Sylvie, a sort of guardian angel, with a rather Mahometan angelism, who devotes herself to him, and succeeds, by this means and that, in converting him to a somewhat more rational system of life and "tonvelsasens," as Swift would say. It is slight enough, but very far from contemptible.

[Sidenote: _Fanny._]

As has been said or hinted, however, this was not at all the sort of thing that brought or, so long as he did keep it, kept Feydeau's vogue. _Fanny_, with which he "broke out" considerably more than "ten thousand strong," as far as sale of copies went, is certainly not a book of the "first-you-meet" kind. There is some real passion in its handling of the everlasting triangle. But it is passion of the most morbid and least "infinite" kind possible. Whenever Feydeau's heroes are sincere they have a peculiar kind of sentimental immorality--a sort of greasy gush--which is curiously nauseous. His Aphrodite, if the goddess will pardon the profanation of her name, is neither laughter-loving, nor tragic (as Aphrodite can be), nor Uranian in the sense, not of being superior to physical passion, but of transcending it. She is not exactly Pandemic, for Feydeau, like Malvolio, does talk, or tries to talk, of ladies; but she is something like the patroness of the old Sensibility novel "gone to the bad."


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