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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Beyle his peculiarity


[Sidenote:

Beyle--his peculiarity.]

Of the books of Henri Beyle, otherwise Stendhal,[125] to say that they are not like anything else will only seem banal to those who bring the banality with them. To annoy these further by opposing pedantry to banality, one might say that the aseity is quintessential. There never--to be a man of great power, almost genius, a commanding influence, and something like the founder of a characteristic school of literature--was such a _habitans in sicco_ as Beyle; indeed his substance and his atmosphere are not so much dry as _desiccated_. The dryness is not like that which was attributed in the last volume to Hamilton, which is the dryness of wine: it is almost the dryness of ashes. By bringing some humour of your own[126] you may confection a sort of grim comedy out of parts of his work, but that is all. At the same time, he has an astonishing command of such reality, and even vitality, as will (one cannot say survive but) remain over the process of desiccation.

That Beyle was not such a passionless person as he gave himself out to be in his published works was of course always suspected, and more than suspected, by readers with any knowledge of human nature. It was finally proved by the autobiographic _Vie de Henri Brulard_, and the other remains which were at last given to the world, nearly half a century after the author's death, by M. Casimir Stryienski. But the great part which he played

in producing a new kind of novel is properly concerned with the earlier and larger division of the work, though the posthumous stuff reinforces this.

[Sidenote: _Armance._]

Some one, I believe, has said--many people may have said--that you never get a much truer notion, though you may afterwards get a clearer and fuller, of a writer than from his earliest work.[127] _Armance_, Beyle's first published novel,[128] though by no means the one which has received most attention, is certainly illuminating. Or rather, perhaps one should say that it poses the puzzle which Beyle himself put briefly in the words quoted by his editor and biographer: "Qu'ai-j'ete? que suis-je? En verite je serais bien embarrasse de le dire." To tell equal truth, it is but a dull book in itself, surcharged with a vague political spite, containing no personage whom we are permitted to like (it would be quite possible to like Armance de Zohiloff if we were only told less _about_ her and allowed to see and hear more _of_ her), and possessing, for a hero, one of the most obnoxious and foolish prigs that I can remember in any novel. Octave de Malivert unites varieties of detestableness in a way which might be interesting if (to speak with only apparent flippancy) it were made so. He is commonplace in his adoration of his mother and his neglect (though his historian calls it "respect") of his father; he is constantly a prig, as when he is shocked at people for paying more attention to him when they hear that his parents are going to be indemnified to a large extent for the thefts of their property at the Revolution; he is such a sneak and such a snob that he is always eavesdropping to hear what people say about him; such a bounder that he disturbs his neighbours by talking loud at the play; such a brute that he deliberately kills a rather harmless coxcomb


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