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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

The line of ascent was continued in Pierre et Jean


story, though perhaps, as has been said, too much concentrated as a whole, is brilliantly illuminated by sketches of society on the greater and smaller scale: of Parisian club-life; of picture-shows; of the diversions of the country, etc.: but its effect, though certainly helped by, is not derived from, these. As always with Maupassant, it is out of the bitter that comes the sweet. Hardly anywhere outside of _Ecclesiastes_, Thackeray,[492] and Flaubert is the irony of life more consummately handled in one peculiar fashion; while the actual _passion_ of love is nowhere better treated by this author,[493] or perhaps by any other French novelist of the later century, except Fromentin.

[Sidenote: _Pierre et Jean._]

The line of ascent was continued in _Pierre et Jean_. It is not a long book--a fact which perhaps has some significance--and no small part of it is taken up by a Preface on "Le Roman" generally (_v. sup._), which is the author's most remarkable piece of criticism; one of the most noteworthy from a man who was not specially a critic; and one of the few but precious examples of an artist dealing, at once judicially and masterfully, with his own art.[494] In fact, recognising the truth of the "poetic moment," he would extend it to the moments of all literature; and lays it down that the business of the novelist is, first to realise his own illusion of the world and then to make others realise it too.

style="text-align: justify;">_Pierre et Jean_ itself has no weakness except that _narrowing_ of interest which has been already noted in Maupassant, and which is rather a limitation than a positive fault. There is practically one situation throughout; and though there are several characters, their interest depends almost wholly on their relations with the central personage. This is Pierre Roland, a full-fledged physician of thirty, but not yet successful, and still living with, and on, his parents. His father is a retired Paris tradesman, who has come to live at Havre to indulge a mania for sea-fishing; he has a mother who is rather above her husband in some ways; and a brother, Jean, who, though considerably younger, is also ready to start in his own profession--that of the law. A "friend of the family," Mme. Rosemilly--a young, pretty, and rather well-to-do widow--completes the company, with one or two "supers." Just as the story opens, a large legacy to Jean by an older friend of the family--this time a man--is announced, to the surprise of almost everybody, but at first only causing a little natural jealousy in Pierre. Charitable remarks of outsiders, however, suggest to him the truth--that Jean is the fruit of his mother's adultery with the testator--and this "works like poison in his brain," till--Jean, having gained another piece of luck in Mme. Rosemilly's hand, and having, though enlightened by Pierre and by his mother's confession, very common-sensibly decided that he will not resign the legacy, smirched as it is--Pierre accepts a surgeon-ship on a Transatlantic steamer, and the story ends.

On its own scheme and showing there is scarcely a fault in it. The mere settings--the fishing and prawn-catching; the scenery of port and cliff; the "interiors"; the final sailing of the great ship--are perfect. The minor characters--the good-tempered, thick-headed _bourgeois_ husband and father; the wife and mother, with her bland acceptance of the transferred wages of shame, and (after discovery only) her breaking down with the banal blasphemy of "marriage before God" and the rest of it; the younger brother--not exactly a bad fellow, but thoroughly convinced of the truth of _non olet_; the widow playing her part and no more,--all are artistically just what they should be. And so, always remembering scale and scheme, is Pierre. One neither likes him (for he is not exactly a likeable person) nor dislikes him (for he is quite excusable) very much; one is only partially sorry for him. But one knows that he _is_--he has that actual and indubitable existence which is the test and quality alike of creator and creation. His first vague envy of his brother's positive luck in money and probable luck in love--for both have had floating fancies for the pretty widow; the again perfectly natural spleen when this lucky brother, by an accident, secures the particular set of rooms in which Pierre had hoped to improve his position as a doctor; the crushing blow of finding out his mother's shame; the process (the truest thing in the whole book, though it is all true) by which he tortures both her and himself in constant oblique references to her fault; the explosion when he directly informs his brother; and all the rest, could hardly be improved. It is not a novel on the great scale, but rather what may be called a long short story. It does not quite attain to the position of some books on a small scale in different kinds--_Manon Lescaut_ itself, _Adolphe_, _La Tentation de Saint-Antoine_. But the author has done what he meant to do, and has done it in such a fashion that it could not, on its own lines, be done better.

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