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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

To these persons Bel Ami was a sweet content


Maupassant's work is of very substantial bulk. Of the verse enough for our purpose has been or will be said, though I should like to repeat that I put it much higher than do most of Maupassant's admirers. The volumes of travel-sketches do not appear to me particularly successful, despite the almost unsurpassed faculty of their writer for sober yet vivid description. They have the air of being written to order, and they do not seem, as a rule, to arrive at artistic completeness either objectively or subjectively. Of the criticism, which concerns us more nearly, by far the most remarkable piece is the famous Preface to _Pierre et Jean_ (to be mentioned again below), which contains the author's literary creed, refined and castigated by years of practice from the cruder form which he had already promulgated in the Preface to Flaubert's _Correspondence with George Sand_. It extols the "objective" as against the psychological method of novel-writing, but directs itself most strongly against the older romance of plot, and places the excellence of the novelist in the complete and vivid projection of that novelist's own particular "illusion" of the world, yet so as to present events and characters in the most actual manner. But, as promised, we shall return to it.

[Sidenote: _Bel-Ami._]

To run through the actual "turn-out" in novel[484] and tale as far as is possible here, _Bel-Ami_ started, in England at least, with the most favouring gales possible. It was just when the decree had gone forth, issued by the younger Later Victorians, that all the world should be made naughty; that the insipid whiteness of their Early and Middle elders should be washed black and scarlet, and especially "blue"; and that if possible, by this and other processes, something like real literature might be made to take the place of the drivellings and botcheries of Tennyson and Browning; of Dickens and Thackeray; of Ruskin and Carlyle. To these persons _Bel-Ami_ was a sweet content, a really "_shady_ boon." The hero never does a decent thing and never says a good one; but he has good looks and insinuating manners of the kind that please some women, whence his name, originally given to him by an innocent little girl, and taken up by her by no means innocent mamma and other quasi-ladies.[485] He starts as a soldier who has served his time in Algeria, but has found nothing better to do than a subordinate post in a railway office. He meets a former comrade who is high up in Paris journalism, and who very amiably introduces Georges Duroy to that bad resting-place but promising passageway. Duroy succeeds, not so much (though he is not a fool) by any brains as by impudence; by a faculty of making use of others; by one of the farce-duels in which combatants are put half a mile off each other to fire _once_, etc.; but most of all by his belamyship (for the word is good old English in a better sense). The women of the book are what is familiarly called "a caution." They revive the old Helisenne de Crenne[486] "sensual appetite" for the handsome bounder; and though of course jealous of his infidelities, are quite ready to welcome the truant when he returns. They also get drunk at restaurant dinners, and then call their lovers--quite correctly, but not agreeably--"Cochon!" "Sale bete," etc. This of course is what our _fin-de-siecle_ critics _could_ "recommend to a friend."


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