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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote The Waterloo episode


The Waterloo episode.]

[Sidenote: The subject and general colour.]

To begin with, there rests on the whole book that oppression of _recit_ which has been not unfrequently dwelt upon in the last volume, and sometimes this. Of the 440 pages, tightly printed, of the usual reprint, I should say that two-thirds at least are solid, or merely broken by one or two paragraphs, which are seldom conversational. This, it may be said, is a purely mechanical objection. But it is not so. Although the action is laid in the time contemporary with the writer and writing, from the fall of Napoleon onwards, and in the country (Italy) that he knew best, the whole cast and scheme are historical, the method is that of a lecturer at a panorama, who describes and points while the panorama itself passes a long way off behind a screen of clear but thick glass. In two or perhaps three mostly minute parts or scenes this description may seem unjust. One, the first, the longest, and the best, is perhaps also the best-known of all Beyle's work: it is the sketch of the _debacle_ after Waterloo. (It is not wonderful that Beyle should know something about retreats, for, though he was not at Waterloo, he had come through the Moscow trial.) This is a really marvellous thing and intensely interesting, though, as is almost always the case with the author, strangely unexciting. The interest is purely intellectual, and is actually increased by comparison

with Hugo's imaginative account of the battle itself; but you do not care the snap of a finger whether the hero, Fabrice, gets off or not. Another patch later, where this same Fabrice is attacked by, and after a rough-and-tumble struggle kills, his saltimbanque rival in the affections of a low-class actress, and then has a series of escapes from the Austrian police on the banks of the Po, has a little more of the exciting about it. So perhaps for some--I am not sure that it has for me--may have the final, or provisionally final, escape from the Farnese Tower. And there is, even outside of these passages, a good deal of scattered incident.

But these interesting plums, such as even they are, are stuck in an enormous pudding of presentation of the intrigues and vicissitudes of a petty Italian court,[130] in which, and in the persons who take part in them, I at least find it difficult to take the very slightest interest. Fabrice del Dongo himself,[131] with whom every woman falls in love, and who candidly confesses that he does not know whether he has ever been really in love with any woman--though there is one possible exception precedent, his aunt, the Duchess of Sanseverina, and one subsequent, Clelia Conti, who saves him from prison, as above--is depicted with extraordinary science of human nature. But it is a science which, once more, excludes passion, humour, gusto--all the _fluids_ of real or fictitious life. Fabrice is like (only "much more also") the simulacra of humanity that were popular in music-halls a few years ago. He walks, talks, fights, eats, drinks, _thinks_ even, and makes love if he does not feel it, exactly like a human being. Except the "fluids" just mentioned, it is impossible to mention anything human that he lacks. But he lacks these, and by not having them lacks everything that moves the reader.

And so it is more or less with all of them: with the Duchess and Clelia least perhaps, but even with them to some extent; with the Duchess's first _cicisbeo_ and then husband, Count Mosca, prime minister of the Duke of Parma; with his master, the feebly cruel and feebly tyrannical Ranuce-Ernest IV.; with the opposition intriguers at court; with the Archbishop, to whom Fabrice is made, by the influence of Count and Duchess, coadjutor and actual successor; with Clelia's father and her very much belated husband--with all of them in short. You cannot say they are "out"; on the contrary they do and say exactly what in the circumstances they would do and say. Their creator's remarks about them are sometimes of a marvellous subtlety, expressed in a laconism which seems to regard Marivaudage or Meredithese with an aristocratic disdain. But at other times this laconic letter literally killeth. Perhaps two examples of the two effects should be given:

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