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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

For this is what it really comes to in the Goncourts


this is what it really comes to in the Goncourts, in Zola, and in the rest, till Guy de Maupassant, not seldom dealing with the same material, sublimes it, and so robs it of its repulsiveness, by the force of true comic, tragic, or romantic art. Or course it is open to any one to say, "It may repel _you_, but it does not repel _me_." But this is very cheap sophistry. We do not require to be told, in the words which shocked Lord Chesterfield but do not annoy a humble admirer of his, that "One man's meat is another man's poison." Carrion is not repulsive to a vulture. Immediately before writing these words I was reading the confession of an unfortunate American that he or she found _The Roundabout Papers_ "depressing." For my part, I have never given up the doctrine that _any_ subject _may_ be deprived of its repulsiveness by the treatment of it. But when you find a writer, or a set of writers, deliberately and habitually selecting subjects which are generally held to be repellent, and deliberately and habitually refusing or failing to pass them through the alembic in the manner suggested--then I think you are justified, not merely in condemning their taste, but in thinking not at all highly of their art. A cook who cannot make his meat savoury unless it is "high" is not a good cook, and if he cannot do without pepper and garlic[464] he is not much better.

[Sidenote: The rottenness of their theory.]


however, for a moment the question of mere taste, it should be evident that the doctrine of rigid "observation," "document," "experience," and the like is bad in art. Like so many--some optimists would say like all--bad things, it is, of course, a corruption, by excess and defect both, of something good or at least true. It cannot be necessary here, after scores of expressions of opinion on the subject throughout this book, to admit or urge the importance of observation of actual life to the novelist. The most ethereal of fairy-tales and the wildest of extravaganzas would be flimsy rubbish if not corroborated by and contrasted with it: it can be strengthened, increased, varied almost at discretion in the novel proper. I hold it, as may be argued perhaps in the Conclusion, to be the principle and the justification of Romance itself. But, independently of the law just mentioned, that you must not confine your observation to Ugliness and exclude Beauty--it will not do to pull out the pin of your cart, and tilt a collection of observed facts on the hapless pavement of the reader's mind. You are not a reporter; not a compiler of _dossiers_; not a photographer. You are an artist, and you must do something with your materials, add something of yourself to them, present something not vamped from parts of actual life itself, but reinforcing those parts with aesthetic re-creation and with the sense of "the whole." I find this--to confine ourselves strictly to the famous society so often mentioned in the _Journal_--eminently in Flaubert, and as far as one can judge from translations, in Tourguenieff; I find it, to a less extent, in Daudet; I find it sometimes even in Zola, especially, but not merely, in his shorter stories; I find it again, and abundantly, in Maupassant. But I never find it in the Goncourts: and when I find it in the others it is because they have either never bowed the knee to, or have for the nonce discarded, the cult of the Naturalist, experimental, documentary idol, in itself and for itself.

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