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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

An incarnation of the bad Beyle


of a marquis who rebukes him for making this _tapage_; and such a still greater brute (for in the duel he had himself been wounded) that he throws out of the window an unfortunate lackey who gets in his way at a party where Octave has, as usual, lost his temper. Finally, he is a combination of prig, sneak, cad, brute, and fool when (having picked up and read a forged letter which is not addressed to him, though it has been put by enemies in his way) he believes, without any enquiry, that his unlucky cousin Armance, to whom he is at last engaged, is deceiving him, but marries her all the same, lives with her (she loves him frantically) for a few days, and then, pretending to go to the succour of the Greeks, poisons himself on board ship--rather more, as far as one can make out, in order to annoy her than for any other reason. That there are the elements, and something more than the elements, of a powerful story in this is of course evident; there nearly always are such elements in Beyle, and that is why he has his place here. But, as has been said, the story is almost as dull as it is disagreeable. Unluckily, too, it is, like most of his other books, pervaded by an unpleasant suggestion that the disagreeableness is intimately connected with the author's own nature. As with Julien Sorel (_v. inf._) so with Octave de Malivert, one feels that, though Beyle would never have behaved exactly like his book-child, that book-child has a great deal too much of the uncanny and semi-diabolical doubles of some occult stories in it--is, in fact, an incarnation of the bad Beyle, the seamy side of Beyle, the creature that Beyle might have been but for the grace of that God in whom he did not believe. Which things, however one may have schooled oneself not to let book and author interfere with each other, are not comfortable.

It ought, however, to be said that _Armance_ is an early and remarkable Romantic experiment in several ways, not least in the foreign mottoes, English, Portuguese, Spanish, and German, which are prefixed to the chapters. Unluckily some of them[129] are obviously retranslated from French versions unverified by the originals, and once there is a most curious blunder. Pope's description of Belinda's neck and cross, not quite in the original words but otherwise exact, is attributed to--Schiller!

[Sidenote: _La Chartreuse de Parme._]

I have read, I believe, as much criticism as most men, possibly, indeed, a little more than most, and I ought long ago to have been beyond the reach of shocking, startling, or any other movement of surprise at any critical utterance whatsoever. But I own that an access of _fou rire_ once came upon me when I was told in a printed page that _La Chartreuse de Parme_ was a "very lively and very amusing book." A book of great and peculiar power it most undoubtedly is, a book standing out in the formidable genealogy of "psychological" novels as (_salva reverentia_) certain names stand out from the others in the greater list that opens the first chapter of St. Matthew. But "lively"? and "amusing"? Wondrous hot indeed is this snow, and more lustrous than any ebony are the clerestories towards the south-north of this structure.


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