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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

By enumerating the absurdities of L'Homme Qui Rit


The book is therefore a success; but that success is an evident _tour de force_, and it is nearly as evident to any student of the subject that such a _tour de force_ was not likely to be repeated, and that the thing owed its actual salvage to a rather strict limitation of subject and treatment--a limitation hitherto unknown in the writer and itself unlikely to recur. Also that there were certain things in it--especially the travesties of names and subjects of which the author practically knew nothing--the repetition and extension of which _was_ likely to be damaging, if not fatal. In two or three years the "fatality" of which Victor Hugo himself was dangerously fond of talking (the warning of Herodotus in the dawn about things which it is not lawful to mention has been too often neglected) had its revenge.

[Sidenote: _L'Homme Qui Rit._]

_L'Homme Qui Rit_ is probably the maddest book in recognised literature; certainly the maddest written by an author of supreme genius without the faintest notion that he was making himself ridiculous. The genius is still there, and passage on passage shows us the real "prose-poetry," that is to say, the prose which ought to have been written in verse. The scheme of the quartette--Ursus, the misanthrope-Good-Samaritan; Homo, the amiable wolf; Gwynplaine, the tortured and guiltless child and youth; Dea, the adorable maiden--is unexceptionable _per se_, and it could have been worked out in verse or drama perfectly, though the actual termination--Gwynplaine's suicide in the sea after Dea's death--is perhaps too close and too easy a "variation of the same thing" on Gilliatt's parallel self-immolation after Deruchette's marriage.[112] Not a few opening or episodic parts--the picture of the caravan; the struggle of the child Gwynplaine with the elements to save not so much himself as the baby Dea; the revulsions of his temptations and persecutions later; and yet others[113]--show the poet and the master.

But the way in which these things are merged in and spoilt by a torrent of silliness, sciolism, and sheer nonsense is, even after one has known the book for forty years and more, still astounding.

One could laugh almost indulgently over the "bug-pipe" and the "First of the Fourth"; one could, being of those who win, laugh quite indulgently over the little outbursts of spite in _Les Travailleurs_ at the institutions and ways of the country which had, despite some rather unpardonable liberties, given its regular and royal asylum to the exiled republican and almost anarchist author. Certainly, also, one can laugh over _L'Homme Qui Rit_ and its picture of the English aristocracy. But of such laughter, as of all carnal pleasures (to steal from Kingsley), cometh satiety, and the satiety is rather early reached in this same book. One of the chief "persons of distinction" in many ways whom I have ever come across, the late Mr. G. S. Venables--a lawyer of no mean expertness; one of the earliest and one of the greatest of those "gentlemen of the Press" who at the middle of the nineteenth century lifted journalism out of the gutter; a familiar of every kind of the best society, and a person of infinite though somewhat saturnine wit--had a phrase of contempt for absurd utterances by persons who ought to have known better. "It was," he said, "like a drunk child." The major part of _L'Homme Qui Rit_ is like the utterance of a drunk child who had something of the pseudo-Homeric Margites in him, who "knew a great many things and knew them all badly." I could fill fifty pages here easily enough, and with a kind of low amusement to myself and perhaps others, by enumerating the absurdities of _L'Homme Qui Rit_. As far as I remember, when the book appeared, divers good people (the bad people merely sneered) took immense pains to discover how and why this great man of letters made so much greater a fool of himself. This was quite lost labour; and without attempting the explanation at all, a very small selection of the facts, being in a manner indispensable, may be given.


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