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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Even beyond L'Assommoir and Nana


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a curious taste to which (borrowing

the other) the books were "a cause of pleasure." _La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret_ rose to a much higher level. To regard it as merely an attack on clerical celibacy is to take a very obvious and limited view of it. It is so, of course, but it is much more. The picture of the struggle between conscience and passion is, for once, absolutely true and human. There is no mistake in the psychology; there is no resort to "sculduddery"; there is no exaggeration of any kind, or, if there is any, it is in a horticultural extravagance--a piece of fairy Bower-of-Bliss scene-painting, in part of the book, which is in itself almost if not quite beautiful--a Garden of Eden provided for a different form of temptation.[472] There is no poetry in _La Conquete de Plassans_ or in _Le Ventre de Paris_; but the one is a digression, not yet scavenging, into country life, and the other empties one of M. Zola's note-books on a theme devoted to the Paris Markets--the famous "Halles" which Gerard had done so lightly and differently long before.[473] The key of this latter is pretty well kept in one of the most famous books of the whole series, _L'Assommoir_, where the beastlier side of pot-house sotting receives hundreds of pages to do what William Langland had done better five centuries earlier in a few score lines. _Pot-Bouille_--ascending a little in the social but not in the spiritual scale--deals with lower middle-class life, and _Au Bonheur des Dames_ with the enormous "stores" which, beginning in America,
had already spread through Paris to London. _Une Page d'Amour_ recovers something of the nobler tone of _L'Abbe Mouret_; and _La Joie de Vivre_--a title, as will readily be guessed, ironical in intention--still keeps out of the gutter. _Nana_ may be said, combining decency with exactitude, to stand in the same relation to the service of Venus as _L'Assommoir_ does to that of Bacchus, though one apologises to both divinities for so using their names. It was supposed, like other books of the kind, to be founded on fact--the history of a certain young person known as Blanche d'Antigny--and charitable critics have pleaded for it as a healthy corrective or corrosive to the morbid tone of sentimentality-books like _La Dame aux Camelias_. I never could find much amusement in the book, except when Nana, provoked at the tedious prolongation of a professional engagement, exclaims, "Ca ne finissait pas!" or "Ca ne voulait pas finir."[474] The strange up-and-down of the whole scheme reappears in _L'Oeuvre_--chiefly devoted to art, but partly to literature--where the opening is extraordinarily good, and there are fine passages later, interspersed with tedious grime of the commoner kind. _La Terre_ and _Germinal_ are, I suppose, generally regarded as, even beyond _L'Assommoir_ and _Nana_, the "farthest" of this griminess. Whether the filth-stored broom of the former really does blot out George Sand's and other pictures of a modified Arcadia in the French provinces, nothing but experience, which I cannot boast, could tell us; and the same may be said of _Germinal_, as to the mining districts which have since received so awful a purification by fire. That more and more important person the railway-man takes his turn in _La Bete Humaine_, and the book supplies perhaps the most striking instance of the radically inartistic character of the plan of flooding fiction with technical details. But there is, in the vision of the driver and his engine as it were going mad together, one of the earliest and not the least effective of those nightmare-pieces in which Zola, evidently inspired by Hugo, indulged more and more latterly. Then came what was intended, apparently, for the light star of this dark group, _Le Reve_. Although always strongly anti-clerical, and at the last, as we shall see, a "Deicide" of the most uncompromising fanaticism, M. Zola here devoted himself to cathedral services and church ritual generally, and, as a climax, the administration of extreme unction to his innocent heroine. But, as too often happens in such cases, the saints were not grateful and the sinners were bored. _L'Argent_ was at least in concatenation accordingly, seeing that the great financial swindle and "crash"[475] it took for subject had had strong clerical support; but purely financial matters, stock-exchange dealings, and some exceedingly scabrous "trimmings" occupied the greater part of it. Of the penultimate novel, _La Debacle_, a history of the terrible birth-year of the series itself, few fair critics, I think, could speak other than highly; of the actual ultimatum, _Le Docteur Pascal_, opinions have varied much. It is very unequal, but I thought when it came out that it contained some of its author's very best things, and I am not disposed to change my opinion.


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