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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

The intense absurdity of his personified wapentakes


I am not of those unhappy ones who cannot away with the mixture of tragedy and farce. I have not only read too much, but lived too long for that. But then the farce must be in life conceivable and in literature conscious. Shakespeare, and even men much inferior to Shakespeare, have been able to provide for this stipulation munificently.

With Victor Hugo, generally more or less and intensively here, it was unfortunately different. His irony was almost always his weakest point; or rather it was a kind of hit-or-miss weapon, with which he cut himself as often as he cut his inimical objects or persons. The intense absurdity of his personified wapentakes, of his Tom-Jim-Jacks, of his courtesy-title bastards, he deliberately declined (as in the anecdote above given) to see. But these things, done and evidently thought fine by the doer, almost put to rout the most determined and expert sifter of the faults and merits of genius. You cannot enjoy a Garden of Eden when at every other step you plunge into a morass of mire. You cannot drink a draught of nectar, arranged on the plan of certain glasses of liqueur, in superimposed layers of different savour and colour, when every other layer is "stummed" folly or nauseous bad taste. A novel is not like a book of poems, where, as you see that you have hit on a failure, you turn the page and find a success. To which it may be added finally that while erudition of _any_ kind is a doubtful set-off to fiction, the

presentation of ragbag erudition of this kind is, to speak moderately and in his own words of something else, "a rather hideous thing."[118]

Still, with readers of a certain quality, the good omens may to some extent shame the ill even here. The death of Dea, with its sequel, is very nearly perfect; it only wants the verse of which its author was such an absolute master, instead of the prose, where he alternately triumphed and bungled, to make it so. And one need not be a common paradoxer to take either side on the question whether on the whole the omen, if not the actuality, of _L'Homme Qui Rit_ or that of _Les Travailleurs de la Mer_ was the happier. For, while the earlier and better book showed how faults were hardening and might grow worse still, the later showed how these very faults, attaining their utmost possible development, could not entirely stifle the rarer gifts. I do not remember that anybody in 1869 took this apparently aleatory side of the argument. If he did he was justified in 1874.

[Sidenote: _Quatre-Vingt-Treize._]

One enormous advantage of _Quatre-Vingt-Treize_ over its immediate predecessor lay on the surface--an advantage enormous in all cases, but almost incalculable in this particular one. In _L'Homme Qui Rit_ Victor Hugo had been dealing with a subject about which he knew practically nothing, and about which he was prepared to believe, or even practise, anything. Here, though he was still prepared to believe a great deal, he yet knew a very great deal more. A little room for his eccentricities remained, and long after the truth had become a matter of registered history, he could accept the legendary lies about the _Vengeur_; but there was no danger of his giving us French wapentakes brandishing iron-weapons, or calling a French noble by any appellation comparable to Lord Linnaeus[119] Clancharlie.

But, it may be said, is not the removal of these annoyances more than compensated, in the bad sense, by things inseparable from such a subject, as treated by such an author?--the glorification of "Quatre-Vingt-Treize" itself, and, in particular, of the Convention--that remarkable assembly which seems to have made up its mind to prove for all time that, in democracies, the scum comes to the top?--that assembly in which Fabre d'Eglantine stood for poetry, Marat for humanitarianism, Robespierre for justice, Hebert and Chaumette for decency, Sieyes and Chabot for different forms of religion, the composers of the Republican Calendar[120] for common sense? where the only suggestion of a great man was Danton, and the only substitutes for an honest one were the prigs and pedants of the Gironde? To which the only critical answer must be, even when the critic does not contest the correctness of this description--"Why, no!"

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