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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Scenes de la Vie Cosmopolite


The

summing up need probably not be long. That M. Rod was no mere stuffer of the shelves of circulating libraries must have been made clear; that he could write excellently has been (with all due modesty) confessed; that he could sometimes be poignant, often vivid, even occasionally humorous, is true. He has given us a fresh illustration of that tendency of the later novel, to "fill all numbers" of ordinary life, which has been insisted upon. But that he is too much of a "dismal Jemmy" of novel-writing is certainly true also. The House of Mourning is one of the Houses of Life, and therefore open to the novelist. But it is not the _only_ house. It would sometimes seem as if M. Rod were (as usual without his being able to help it) a sort of _jettatore_,--as if there were no times or places for him except that

When all the world is old, And all the trees are brown, And all the sport is cold, And all the wheels run down.

[Sidenote: _Scenes de la Vie Cosmopolite._]

But there is something to add, and even one book not yet noticed to comment on, which may serve as a real light on this remarkable novelist. The way in which I have already spoken of _La Course a la Mort,_ which was a very early book, may be referred to. Even earlier, or at least as early, M. Rod wrote some short stories, which were published as _Scenes de la Vie Cosmopolite_. They include "Lilith" (the

author, though far from an Anglophile, had a creditable liking for Rossetti), which is a story of the rejection of a French suitor by an English governess; the ending of a liaison between a coxcomb and a lady much older than himself ("Le Feu et l'Eau"); "L'Ideal de M. Gindre," with a doubtful marriage-close; a discovery of falseness ("Le Pardon"); "La Derniere Idylle" (which may be judged from some of its last words: "I have made a spectacle of myself long enough, and now the play is over"), and "Noces d'Or," the shortest and bitterest of all, in which the wife, who has felt herself tyrannised over for the fifty years, mildly retaliates by providing for dinner _nearly_ all the things that she likes and her husband does not, though she effects a reconciliation with _pate de canard d'Amiens_. I wonder if they ate duck-pies at Amiens in the spring of 1918?

The purpose of this postscript-account, and of the reference to _La Course_, should not be very obscure. It is clear that, at first and from the first, M. Rod's vocation was to be a prophet of discouragement and disappointment. You may be this and be quite a major prophet; but if you are not a major prophet your minority will become somewhat painfully apparent, and it will often, if not always, go near to failure. I think this was rather the case with M. Rod.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Catulle Mendes.]

It is with reluctance that I find myself unable to give more than praise for admirable French, and "form" in the strict sense, to the work in prose fiction of M. Catulle Mendes, sometime Gautier's son-in-law[556] and always, I think, his disciple. His early verse-work in the _Parnasse Contemporain_ fifty years ago, was attractive and promising, though perhaps open to the exception which some took to the _Parnasse_ generally, and which may be echoed here, _not_ with that general concernment, but as to his own novel and tale-work. His late critical survey of modern French poetry was a really difficult thing admirably done. But his fiction leaves me cold, as Parnassian poetry did others, but not me. A friend of mine, whom I should have thought quite unshockable, either by principles or practice, once professed himself to me aghast at _Mephistophela_. But M. Mendes's improprieties neither shock nor excite nor amuse me, because they have a certain air of being "machined." If anybody wishes to sample them at their very best, the half-score loosely and largely printed pages of "Tourterelle" in the volume entitled _Lesbia_ will be no severe experiment. He may then take his choice of not going further at all, or of going further at the hazard of faring worse, or as well now and then, but hardly, I think, better.


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