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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Et vient mourir au bord de notre eternite


Yet

in recompense--a recompense largely if not wholly due to the strong Romantic[516] element which countervails the Naturalist--he was certainly the greatest novelist who was specially of the last quarter of the nineteenth century in France. In verse he showed the dawn, and in prose the noon-day, of a combination of veracity and vigour, of succinctness and strength, which no Frenchman who made his _debut_ since 1870 could surpass. The limitations of his art have been sufficiently dealt with; the excellences of it within those limitations are unmistakable. He had no tricks--the worst curse of art at all times, and the commonest in these days of what pretends to be art. He had no splash of so-called "style"; no acrobatic contortions of thought or what does duty for thought; no pottering and peddling of the psychological kind, which would fain make up for a faulty product by ostentatiously parading the processes of production. Had he once got free--as more than once it seemed that he might--from the fatal conventionalities of his unconventionalism, from the trammels of his obtrusive negations, there is hardly a height in prose fiction which he might not have attained. As it is, he gave us in verse _Au bord de l'eau_, which is nearly the "farthest possible" in a certain expression, of a certain mood of youth, and not of youth only; in prose _Boule de Suif_, _Monsieur Parent_, _Pierre et Jean_, which are all in their way masterpieces, and a hundred things hardly inferior. And so he put
himself in the company of "Les Phares"--a light-giver at once and a warner of danger, as well as a part of

cet ardent sanglot qui roule d'age en age, Et vient mourir au bord de _notre_ eternite.[517]

[Sidenote: Huysmans.]

The Naturalist rank and file are so far below Zola and Maupassant that they cannot now, whatever they might have done twenty years ago, claim much notice in such a history as this. The most remarkable of them was probably J. K. Huysmans. It has been charitably suggested or admitted above that his contribution to the _Soirees de Medan_--a deeply felt story, showing the extreme disadvantage, when, as Mr. De la Pluche delicately put it, "your midlands are out of order," of wandering quarters and vicissitudes in the country, and the intense relief experienced on return to your own comfortable chambers in town,--that this _may_ have been written in the spirit of a _farceur_, reducing the Goncourtian and Zolaesque principle to the lowest terms of the absurd. But I am by no means sure that it was so, though this suspicion of parody pursues the earlier work of Huysmans to such an extent that a certain class of critic might take his later developments as evidence of design in it. _Les Soeurs Vatard_ is a sort of _apodiabolosis_ of the Goncourts and Zola--a history of entirely uninteresting persons (the "sisters" are work-girls in a printing-house, and their companions suit them) doing entirely uninteresting things, in an atmosphere of foul smells, on a scene littered with garbage, cheered by wine which is red ink, and brandy which is vitriol. _A Rebours_, not really a novel at all, is the history of a certain M. Des Esseintes, who is a sort of transposed "Bouvard et Pecuchet" in one--trying all arts and sensations; his experiences being made by his historian a vehicle of mostly virulent and almost always worthless criticism on contemporaries. Perhaps the most intolerable thing is the _affiche_ of idolatry for Baudelaire. One remembers the glorious lines:

Et Charles Baudelaire Dedaigneux du salaire.

He certainly might have been disdainful of the salary of the admiration of one of the _farceurs_ of his own "Coucher du Soleil Romantique." But on the whole there is a better way of taking leave of this first Naturalist, and then mystic, and always _blagueur_. "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Philistine." Which perhaps was his cryptic and circuitous intention. Later M. Huysmans took to Black Arts; and at the last he turned devout--a sort of sequence not by any means uncommon, and one of the innumerable illustrations of the irony of things. Gautier and others had anticipated and satirised all these stages in the Romantic dawn; they reappeared, serious and dreary, in the twilight of the dusk.


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