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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Falls short in the latter respect of Boule de Suif


[Sidenote:

General considerations.]

The vividness and actuality of his power of presentation are unquestioned, and there has been complaint rather of the character of his "illusions" (_v. sup._) than of his failure to convey them to others. It is not merely that nature, helped by the discipline of practice under the severest of masters, had endowed him with a style of the most extraordinary sobriety and accuracy--the style of a more scholarly, reticent, and tightly-girt Defoe. It is not merely that his vision, and his capacity of reproducing that vision, were unsurpassed and rarely equalled for sharpness of outline and perfection of disengagement. He had something else which it is much less easy to put into words--the power of treating an incident or a character (character, it is true, less often and less fully than incident) as if it were a phrase or a landscape, of separating it, carving it out (so to speak), and presenting it isolated and framed for survey. His performances in these tracks are so numerous that it is difficult to single out any. But I do not know that finer examples (besides those noticed above in _Une Vie_) of his power of thus isolating and projecting a scene are to be found than two of the passages in _Pierre et Jean_, the prawn-catching party and Pierre's meditation at the jetty-head. Of his similar but greater faculty of treating incident _and_ character _Monsieur Parent_ is perhaps the very finest example (for _Boule de Suif_ is

something greater than a mere slice), though _Promenade_, _Les Soeurs Rondoli_, _Boitelle_, _Deux Amis_, and others are almost as good. But this very excellence of our author's carries with it a danger which most of his readers must have recognised. His definition and vignetting of separate scenes, incidents, and characters is so sharp and complete that he finds a difficulty in combining them. The attempt to disdain and depreciate plot which the above-mentioned Preface contains is, I suspect (though I am, as often confessed, no plot-worshipper), as our disdains and depreciations so often are, itself a confession. At any rate, it is allowed that the longer books, with the exception of _Pierre et Jean_ (which was for that very reason, and perhaps for others, disdained by the youngest and most impressionist school of critics), are deficient in beginning, middle, and end. _Une Vie_ and _Bel-Ami_ are surveys or chronicles, not dramas or histories. _Mont-Oriol_, open enough to objection in some ways, is rather better in this point. _Fort Comme la Mort_ relapses under the old curse of the situation of teasing unhappiness from which there is no outlet, and in which there is little action. _Notre Coeur_ should perhaps escape criticism on this head, as the shadow of the author's fate was already heavy on him. In fact, as observed above, it is little more than a torso. Even _Pierre et Jean_, by far the greatest of all, if scale and artistic perfection be taken together, falls short in the latter respect of _Boule de Suif_, which, small as it is, is a complete tragi-comedy in little, furnished with beginning, middle, and end, complying fully with those older exigences which its author affected to despise, and really as great as anything of Merimee's--greater it could not be.

There is no doubt that the theory which Maupassant says he learnt from Flaubert (in whose own hands it was always subordinated to an effort at larger completeness) does lead to the composition of a series or flock of isolated vignettes or scenes rather than to that of a great picture or drama. For it comes perilously close--though perhaps in Maupassant's own case it never actually reached--the barest and boldest (or baldest) individualising of impressions, and leaving them as they are, without an attempt at architectonic. For instance, once upon a time[512] I was walking down the Euston Road. There passed me a fellow dragging a truck, on which truck there were three barrels with the heads knocked out, so that each barrel ensheathed, to a certain extent, the one in front of it. Astride of the centre barrel, his arms folded and a pipe in his mouth, there sat a man in a sort of sailor-costume--trousers, guernsey, and night-cap--surveying the world, and his fellow who dragged him, with an air of placid _goguenarderie_. It was really a striking impression, and absorbed me, I should think, for five or six seconds. I can conceive its coming into a story very well. But Maupassant's theories would have led to his making a whole story out of it, and his followers have already done things quite as bad, while he has himself come near to it more than once.[513] In other words, the method tends to the presentations of scraps, orts, fragments, instead of complete wholes. And Art should always seek the whole.


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