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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

It is as round and smooth as Boule de Suif herself


Of

plot I never care to say very much, because it is not with me a wedding-garment, though I know an ugly or ill-fitting one when I see it, and can say, "Well tailored or dress-made!" in the more satisfactory circumstances. Moreover, Zola hardly enters himself for much competition here. There is none in the first two Apocalypses; _Verite_ has what it has, supplied by the "case" and merely adjusted with fair skill; the _Trois Villes_ lie quite outside plot; and the huge synoptic scheme of the Rougon-Macquart series deals little with it in individual books. Of conversation one might say very much what has been said of character. The books have the conversation which they require, and sometimes (in examples generally even more difficult to quote than that of Nana's given above) a little more. But in Description, the Naturalist leader rises when he does not fall. It is obviously here that the boredom and the beastliness of the details offend most. But it is also by means of description that almost all the books well spoken of before, from the too earthly Paradise of _L'Abbe Mouret_ to the Inferno of _Travail_, produce some of their greatest effects.

So let this suffice as banning for what is bad in him, and as blessing for what is good, in regard to Emile Zola: a great talent--at least a failure of a genius--in literature; a marvellous worker in literary craft. As for his life, it can be honestly avowed that the close of it, in something like martyrdom,

had little or nothing to do with the fact that the writer's estimate of his work changed, from very unfavourable, to the parti-coloured one given above. Until about 1880 I did not read his books regularly as they came out, and the first "nervous impression" of what I did read required time and elaboration to check and correct, to fill in and to balance it. I have never varied my opinion that his methods and principles--with everything of that sort--were wrong. But I have been more and more convinced that his practice sometimes came astonishingly near being right.

* * * * *

My introduction to the greatest of M. Zola's associates was more fortunate, for it was impossible to mistake the quality of the new planet.[482] One day in 1880 the editor of a London paper put into my hands a copy of a just-issued volume of French verse, which had been specially sent to him by his Paris correspondent in a fit of moral indignation. It was entitled _Des Vers_, and the author of it was a certain Guy de Maupassant, of whom I then knew nothing. The correspondent had seen in it a good opportunity for a denunciation of French wickedness; and my editor handed it over to me to see what was to be done with it. I saw no exceptional wickedness, and a very great deal of power; indeed, though I was tolerably familiar with French verse and prose of the day, it seemed to me that I had not seen so much promise in any new writer since Baudelaire's death;[483] and I informed my editor that, though I had not the slightest objection to blessing Maupassant, I certainly would not curse him. He thought the blessing not likely to please his public, while it would annoy his correspondent, and on my representation declined to have anything to do with the cursing. So _nous passasmes oultre_, except that, like Mr. Bludyer, I "impounded" the book; but, unlike him, did not either sell it, dine off it, or abuse the author.

Shortly afterwards, I think, the _Soirees de Medan_ reached me, and this very remarkable person appeared likewise, but in a new character. Certainly no one can ever have shown to better advantage in company than M. de Maupassant did on this occasion. _L'Attaque du Moulin_, which opened the volume, has already been spoken of as part of the best of all M. Zola's voluminous work. But as for the works of the young men, other than M. de Maupassant, they had the Naturalist faults in fullest measure, unredeemed by their master's massive vigour and his desperate intensity. The contribution of M. Huysmans, in particular (_v. inf._) has always appeared to me one of those voluntary or involuntary caricatures, of the writer's own style and school, which are well known at all times, and have never been more frequent than recently. But _Boule de Suif_? Among the others that pleasant and pathetic person was not a _boule_; she was a pyramid, a Colossus, a spire of Cologne Cathedral. Putting the unconventionality of its subject aside, there is absolutely no fault to be found with the story. It is as round and smooth as "Boule de Suif" herself.


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