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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

And so marks an essential differentia


Little

more need be said about the disastrous _ugliness_ which, with still rarer exception, pervades the whole work. There are those who like the ugly, and those--perhaps more numerous--who think they _ought_ to like it. With neither is it worth while to argue. As for me and my house, we will serve Beauty, giving that blessed word the widest possible extension, of course, but never going beyond or against it.

[Sidenote: Especially in regard to character.]

A point where there is no such precedent inaccessibility of common ground concerns Zola's grasp of character. It seems to me to have been, if not exactly weak, curiously limited. I do not know that his people are ever unhuman; in fact, by his time the merely wooden character had ceased to be "stocked" (as an unpleasant modern phrase has it) by the novelist. The "divers and disgusting things" that they do are never incredible. The unspeakable villain-hero of _Verite_ itself is a not impossible person. But the defect, again as it seems to me, of all the personages may best be illustrated by quoting one of those strange flashes of consummate critical acuteness which diversify the frequent critical lapses of Thackeray. As early as _The Paris Sketch-book_, in the article entitled "Caricatures and Lithography," Mr. Titmarsh wrote, in respect of Fielding's people, "Is not every one of them a real substantial _have been_ personage now?... We will not take upon ourselves to

say that they do not exist somewhere else, that the actions attributed to them have not really taken place."

There, put by a rather raw critic of some seven and twenty, who was not himself to give a perfect creative exemplification of what he wrote for nearly a decade, is the crux of the matter. Observe, not "_might_ have been" merely, but "have been now." The phrase might have holes picked in it by a composition-master or -monger.[480] Thackeray is often liable to this process. But it states an eternal verity, and so marks an essential differentia.

This differentia is what the present writer has, in many various forms, endeavoured to make good in respect of the novels and the novelists with which and whom he has dealt in this book, and in many books and articles for the last forty years and more. There are the characters who never might or could have been--the characters who, by limp and flaccid drawing; by the lumping together of "incompossibilities"; by slavish following of popular models; by equally slavish, though rather less ignoble, carrying out of supposed rules; by this, that, and the other want or fault, have deprived themselves of the fictitious right to live, or to have lived, though they occupy the most ghastly of all limbos and the most crowded shelves of all circulating libraries. At the other end of the scale are the real men and women of fiction--those whom more or less (for there are degrees here as everywhere) you _know_, whose life is as your life, except that you live by the grace of God and they by that of God's artists. These exist in all great drama, poetry, fiction; and it never would cause you the least surprise or feeling of unfamiliarity if they passed from one sphere to the other, and you met them--to live with, to love or to hate, to dance or to dine with, to murder (for you would occasionally like to kill them) or to marry.[481] But between the two--and perhaps the largest crowd of the three, at least since novel-writing came to be a business--is a vast multitude of figures occupying a middle position, sometimes with little real vitality but with a certain stage-competence; sometimes quite reaching the "might-have-been," but never the full substance of "has been" for us. To these last, I think, though to a high division of them, do Zola's characters belong.


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