Still, as has been said, the book might have been made still better by being cut down a little; not, indeed, to the dimensions of a very short story, but to something like those of Fortunio or of Jettatura. For undoubtedly, while Gautier had an all but unsurpassed command of the short story proper, a really long one was apt to develop some things in him which, if they were not essentially faults, were not likely to improve a full-sized novel. He would too much abound in description; the want of evolution of character—his character is not bad in itself, but it is, to use modern slang, rather static than dynamic—naturally shows itself more; and readers who want an elaborate plot look for it longer and are more angry at not being fed. But for the short, shorter, and shortest kind—the story which may run from ten to a hundred pages with no meticulous limitations on either side—it seems to me that in the French nineteenth century there are only three other persons who can be in any way classed with him. One of these, his early contemporary, Charles de Bernard, and another, who only became known after his death, Guy de Maupassant, are to be treated in other chapters here. Moreover, Bernard was slighter, though not so slight as he has sometimes been thought; and Maupassant, though very far from slight, had a lesion (as his own school would say) which interfered with universality. The third competitor, not yet named, who was Gautier's almost exact contemporary, though he began a very little earlier and left off a little earlier too, carried metal infinitely heavier than the pleasant author of Le Paratonnerre, and though not free from partly disabling prejudices, had more balance than Maupassant. He had more head and less heart, more prose logic and less poetical fancy, more actuality and less dream than "Theo." But I at least can find no critical abacus on which, by totting up the values of both, I can make one greatly outvalue the other. And to the understanding I must have already spoken the name of Prosper Merimee.
* * * * *
All the world knows Carmen, though it may be feared that the knowledge has been conveyed to more people by the mixed and inferior medium of the stage and music than by the pure literature of the original tale. Yet it may be generously granted that the lower introduction may have induced some to go on, or back, to the higher. Of the unfaulty faultlessness of that original there has never been any denial worth listening to; the gainsayers having been persons who succumbed either to non-literary prejudice of one kind or another or to the peculiarly childish habit of going against established opinion. For combined interest of matter and perfection of form I should put it among the dozen best short stories of the world so far as I am acquainted with them. The appendix about the gipsies is indeed a superfluity, induced, it would seem, partly by Merimee's wish to have a gibe at Borrow for being a missionary, and partly by a touch of inspectorial-professorial habit in him which is frequently apparent and decidedly curious. But it is an appendix of the most appendicious, and can be cut away without the slightest Manx-cat effect. From the story itself not a word could be abstracted without loss nor one added to it without danger. The way in which the narrator—it is impossible to tell the number of the authors who have wrecked themselves over the narrator when he has to take part in the action—and the guide are put and kept in their places, as well as the whole part of Jose Navarro, are impayables. If the Hispanolatry of French Romanticism had nothing but Gastibelza and L'Andalouse in verse and Jose Navarro in prose to show, it would stand justified and crowned among all the literary manias in history.
About Carmen herself there has been more—and may justly be a little more—question. Is her diablura slightly exaggerated? Or, to put the complaint in a more accurately critical form, has Merimee attended a little too much to the task of throwing on the canvas a typical Rommany chi or callee, and a little too little to that of bodying forth a probable and individual human girl? As an advocate I think I could take a brief on either side of the question without scandalising the, on this point, almost neurotic conscience of the late Mr. Anthony Trollope. But, as a juryman, my verdict on either indictment would be "Not guilty, and please do it again."
But I had much rather decline both functions and all litigious proceedings, and go from the courts of law to the cathedral of literature and thank the Lord thereof for this wonderful triumph of letters. And, in the same way, if any quarrelsome person says, "But only a few pages back you were in parallel ecstasies about La Morte Amoureuse," I decline the daggers. Each is supreme in its kind, though the kinds are different. Of each it may be said, "It cannot be better done," but there may be—in fact there is nearly sure to be—something in the individual taste of each reader which will make the appeal of one to his heart, if not to his head, more intimate and welcome. That has nothing to do with their general literary value, which in each case is consummate. And happy are those who can appreciate both.
Consummateness, in the various kinds, is, indeed, the mark of Merimee's stories. The variety is greater than in those of Gautier, because, just as "Theo" had the advantage of Prosper in point of poetry, he had a certain disadvantage in point of range of intellect, or, to prevent mistake, let us say interest—which perhaps is only another tropos (as the Greeks would have said and as the chemists in a very limited sense do say after them) of the same thing. Beauty was Gautier's only idol; Merimee had more of a pantheon.
As to Colomba compared with Carmen, there is, I believe, a sort of sectarianism among Prosperites. I hope I am, as always, catholic. I do not know that, in the terms of classical scholarship, it is "castigated" to the same extent as its rival in point of superfluities. Not that I wish anything away from it; but I think a few things might be away without loss—which is not the case with Carmen. Yet, on the other hand, the danger of the type seems to me more completely avoided. At any rate, my admiration for the book is not in any way bribed by that Rossetti portrait of a Corsican lady to which I have referred above. For though she certainly is Colomba, I never saw the face till years—almost decades—after I knew the story.
[Sidenote: Its smaller companions—Mateo Falcone, etc.]
But of the smaller tales which usually accompany her, who shall exaggerate the praise? Mateo Falcone, that modern Roman father (by the way, there is said to be more Roman blood in Corsica than in any part of the mainland of Italy, and the portrait above mentioned is almost pure Faustina), is another of those things which are a prendre ou a laisser. It could not, again, be better done; and if any one will compare it with the somewhat similar anecdote of lynch-law in Balzac's Les Chouans, he ought to recognise the fact—good as that also is. Les Ames du Purgatoire is also "first choice." Of what may be called the satellites of the great Don Juan story—satellites with a nebula instead of a planet for their centre—it is quite the greatest. But of this group La Venus d'Ille is my favourite, perhaps for a rather illegitimate reason. That reason is the possibility of comparing it with Mr. Morris's Ring given to Venus—a handling of the same subject in poetry instead of in prose, with a happy ending instead of an unhappy one, and pure Romantic in every respect instead of, as La Venus d'Ille is, late classical, with a strong Romantic nisus.
For, though it might be improper here to argue out the matter, these last words can be fitted to Merimee's ethos from the days of "Clara Gazul" and "Hyacinthe Maglanovich" to those when he wrote Lokis and La Chambre Bleue. A deserter from Romanticism he was never; a Romantic free-lance (after being an actual Romantic pioneer) with a strong Classical element in him he was always.
[Sidenote: Those of Carmen; Arsene Guillot.]
The almost unavoidable temptation of taking Colomba and Carmen together has drawn us away from the companions, as they are usually given, of the Spanish story among Merimee's earlier works. More than two-thirds of the volume, as most people have seen it, consist of translations from the Russian of Poushkin and Gogol, which need no notice here. But Arsene Guillot and L'Abbe Aubain, the two pieces which immediately follow Carmen, can by no means be passed over. If (as one may fairly suppose, without being quite certain) the selection of these for juxtaposition was authentic and deliberate, it was certainly judicious. They might have been written as a trilogy, not of sequence, but of contrast—a demonstration of power in essentially different forms of subject. Arsene Guillot, like Carmen, is tragedy; but it is tragedie bourgeoise or sentimentale. There are no daggers or musquetoons, and though (since the heroine throws herself out of a window) there is some blood, she dies of consumption, not of her wounds. She is only a grisette who has lost her looks, the one lover she ever cared for, and her health; while the other characters of importance (Merimee has taken from the stock-cupboard one of the cynical, rough-mannered, but really good-natured doctors common in French and not unknown in English literature) are the lover or gallant himself, Max de Saligny (quite a good fellow and perfectly willing, though he had tired of Arsene, to have succoured her had he known her distress), and the Lady Bountiful, Madame de Piennes. How a "triangle" is established nobody versed in novels needs to be told, though everybody, however well versed, should be glad to read. Arsene of course must die; what the others who lived did with their lives is left untold. The thing is quite unexciting, but is done with the author's miraculous skill; nor perhaps is there any piece that better shows his faculty of writing like the "gentleman," which, according to a famous contrast, he was, on a subject almost equally liable to more or less vulgar Paul-de-Kockery, to sloppy sentimentalism, and to cheap cynical journalese.
[Sidenote: And L'Abbe Aubain.]
As for L'Abbe Aubain, it is slight but purely comic, of the very best comedy, telling how a great lady, obliged by pecuniary misfortunes to retire with her husband to a remote country house, takes a fancy to, and imagines she has possibly excited fatal passion in, the local priest; attributes to him a sentimental past; but half good-naturedly, half virtuously obtains for him a comfortable town-cure in order to remove him, and perhaps herself, from temptation. This moving tale of self-denial and of averted sorrow, sin, and perhaps tragedy, is told in letters to another lady. Then follows a single epistle from the Abbe himself to his old Professor of Theology, telling, with the utmost brevity and matter-of-factness, how glad he is to make the exchange, what a benevolent nuisance the patroness has been, and how he looks forward to meeting the Professor in his new parsonage, with a plump chicken and a bottle of old bordeaux between them. There is hardly anywhere a better bit of irony of the lighter kind. It is rather like Charles de Bernard, with the higher temper and brighter flash of Merimee's style.
[Sidenote: La Prise de la Redoute.]
All the stories just noticed, except Carmen itself (which is of 1847), appeared originally in the decade 1830-40, as well as others of less note, and one wonderful little masterpiece, which deserves notice by itself. This is La Prise de la Redoute, a very short thing—little more than an anecdote—of one of the "furious five minutes," or hours, not unknown in all great wars, and seldom better known than in that of these recent years, despite the changes of armament and tactics. It is almost sufficient to say of it that no one who has the slightest critical faculty can fail to see its consummateness, and that any one who does not see or will not acknowledge that consummateness may make up his mind to one thing—that he is not, and—but by some marvellous exertion of the grace of God—never will be, a critic. He may have in him the elements of a capital convict or a faithful father of a family; he may be a poet—poets, though sometimes very good, have sometimes been very bad critics—or a painter, or a philosopher, as distinguished as any of those whose names the Bertram girls learnt; or an elect candlestick-maker, fit to be an elder of any Little Bethel. But of criticism he can have no jot or tittle, no trace or germ. The question is, for once, not one of anything that can be called merely or mainly "taste." A man who is not a hopelessly bad critic, though he may not have in him the catholicon of critical goodness, may fail to appreciate La Morte Amoureuse because of its dreaminess and supernaturality and all-for-loveness; Carmen because Carmen shocks him; La Venus d'Ille because of its macabre tone; Les Jeune-France because of their goguenarderie or goguenardise. But the case of the Redoute is one of those rare instances where the intellect and the aesthetic sense approach closest—almost merge into each other,—as, indeed, they did in Merimee himself. The principles as well as the practice of narrative are here at once reduced to their lowest and exalted to their highest terms. The thing is not merely fermented but distilled; not so much a fact as a formula, with a formula's precision but without its dryness. If we take the familiar trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit and apply it to subject, style, and narrative power in a story, we shall find them all perfectly achieved and perfectly wedded here.
[Sidenote: The Dernieres Nouvelles; Il Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia.]
About the same time as that at which Carmen was published (indeed a year earlier) Merimee wrote a shorter, but not very short story, Il Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia, which for some reason only appeared, at least in book form, long after, with the Dernieres Nouvelles and posthumously. It is, I think, his one attempt in the explained supernatural—a kind for which I have myself no very great affection. But it is extremely well done, and if there are some suggestions of impropriety in it, Hymen, to use Paul de Kock's phrase (it is really pleasant to think of Paul and Prosper—the farthest opposites of French contemporary novel-craft—together), covers up the more recent of them with his mantle.
But some at least of the other contents of the same volume are worthy of greater praise. One, Le Coup de Pistolet, is a translation from Poushkin; another, Federigo, an agreeable version of an Italian folk-tale—one of the numerous legends in which a 'cute' and not unkindly sinner escapes not only perdition, but Purgatory, and takes Paradise by storm of wit. A third piece, Les Sorcieres Espagnoles, is folklorish in a way likewise, but inferior.
Yet another trio remains, and its constituents, Lokis, La Chambre Bleue, and Djoumane, are among Merimee's greatest triumphs. Djoumane is not dated; the other two date from the very last years of his life and of the Second Empire; and, unless I mistake, were written directly to amuse that Imperial Majesty who lives yet, and who, as all good men must hope, may live to see the revanche, if not of the dynasty, at any rate of the country, which she did so much to adorn.
Of the three, Djoumane—the account of a riding dream during a campaign in Algeria—is the slightest, no doubt, and to a certain extent a "trick" story. But it has the usual Merimean consummateness in its own way; and I can give it one testimonial which, like all testimonials, no doubt depends on the importance of the giver, but which, to that extent, is solid. I have read dozens, scores, almost hundreds of dream-stories. I cannot remember a single one, except this, which "took me in" almost to the very awaking.
There is no trick in either of the others, though in one of them there is the supernatural—not explained. But they are examples—closely and no doubt intentionally juxtaposed—in two different kinds, both of them exceptionally difficult and dangerous: the story of more or less ordinary life, with only a few suggestions of anything else, which resolves itself into horrible tragedy; and the story, again of ordinary life, with a tragic suggestion in the middle, which unknits itself into pure comedy at the end.
Lokis is a story of lycanthropy, or rather arctanthropy. A Lithuanian Count's mother has been carried off, soon after her marriage, by a bear, and just rescued with a lucky shot at the monster. She goes, as is not very wonderful, quite mad, does not recover when her child is born, and is under restraint in her own house, as wife and widow, for the term of her life. Her son, however, shows no overt symptoms of anything wrong except fits of melancholy and seclusion, being in other respects a gentleman of most excellent "havings"—handsome, brave, sportsmanlike, familiar with the best European society, and even something of a scholar. He entertains a German minister and professor, whose special forte is Lithuanian, in order that the pundit may study some rare books and MSS. in his library; and his guest, being a great traveller, a good rider, and, though simple in his ways, not at all unlike a man of this world, makes a friend of him. It so happens, too, that they have a common acquaintance—a neighbour, and, as is soon seen, an idol of the Count's, Mademoiselle Julie Ivinska, very pretty, very merry, and, if not very wise, clever enough to take in the scholar, on his own ground, with a vernacular ("jmoude") version of one of Mickiewitz's poems. All goes well in a way, except for occasional apparitions of the poor mad Countess; but there is a rather threatening episode of a ride into a great forest, which is popularly supposed to contain a "sanctuary of the beasts," impenetrable by any hunter, and in which they actually meet a local sorceress, with a basket of poisonous mushrooms and a tame snake in it. Another episode gives us odd comments, and a sort of nightmare afterwards, of the Count, when his guest happens to mention the blood-drinking habits of the South American gauchos, in which the professor himself has been forced to take part.
But these things and other "lights" of the catastrophe are very artistically kept down, and you are never nudged or winked at in the offensive "please note" manner. The guest goes away, but, not much to anybody's surprise, is very soon asked to return and celebrate the wedding of the Count and Mlle. Ivinska, who are both Lutherans. He goes, and finds a great semi-pagan feast of the local peasantry (which does not much please him) and one or two bad omens, including an appearance of the mad old Countess with evil words, which please him still less. But the feast ends at last and the newly married couple retire, there being, of course, no "going away." Early in the morning the pastor is waked by the sound of a heavy body (a sound which he had noticed before but never interpreted) clambering down a tree just outside his window. A little later, as the bridal pair do not appear, their door is broken open, and the new Countess is found alone, dead, drenched in blood, and her throat, not cut, but bitten through.
The whole story is told by the minister himself to an otherwise unidentified Theodore and Adelaide (who may be anybody, but who adroitly soften the conclusion), and with that consummate management of the difficult part of actor-narrator which has been noted. In every respect but the purely sentimental one it seems to me beyond reproach and almost beyond praise.
[Sidenote: La Chambre Bleue.]
There could not, as has been said, be a greater contrast than La Chambre Bleue in everything but craftsmanship. Two lovers (being French they have to be unlawful lovers, but the story would be neither injured nor improved, as a story, if the relation were taken quite out of the reach of the Divorce and Admiralty division, as it could be by a very little ingenuity) meet, in slight disguise, at a railway station to spend "a day and a night and a morrow" together at a country hotel—not a great way from Paris, but outside the widest banlieue. They meet and start all right; but Fortune begins, almost at once, to play them tricks. They are not, as of course they wish to be, alone in the carriage. A third traveller (one knows the wretch) gets in at the last moment, and when, not to waste too much time, they begin to make love in English, he very properly tells them that he is an Englishman, assuring them, however, that he is probably going to sleep, and in any case will not attend to anything they say. Then he takes a Greek book from his bag, and devotes himself first to it and then to slumber. When their journey comes to an end, so does his, and he goes to the same hotel, but not before he has had an angry interview on the platform with some one who calls him "uncle." However, at the moment this does not matter much. Still, the guignon is on them; their chambre bleue is between two other rooms, and—as is the common habit of French hotels and the not uncommon one of English—has doors to both, which, though they can be fastened, by no means exclude sound. One of the next rooms is the Englishman's; the other, unfortunately, is a large upper chamber, in which the officers of a departing regiment are entertaining their successors. They are very noisy, very late, and somewhat impertinent when asked not to disturb their neighbours; but they break up at last, and the lovers have, as the poet says, "moonlight [actually] and sleep [possibly] for repayment." But with the morning a worse thing happens. The lover, waking, sees at the foot of the bed, flowing sluggishly from the crack under the Englishman's door, a dark brownish-red fluid. It is blood, certainly blood! and what on earth is to be done? Apparently the Englishman (they have heard a heavy bump in the night) has either committed suicide or been murdered, perhaps by the nephew; the matter will be enquired into; in the circumstances they themselves cannot escape examination, and the escapade will come out (blue spectacles and black veils being alike useless against Commissaries of Police and Judges of Instruction). The only hope is an early Paris train, if they can get their bill, obtain some sort of breakfast, and catch it. But, just as they have determined to do so, the facts next door are discovered. The Englishman, who has ordered two bottles of porto, has fallen asleep over the second, knocked it down while still half-full, followed it himself to the floor, and reclined there peacefully, while the fluid from the broken bottle trickled over the boards, under the door, and into the agapemone beyond. Once more (but for one horrible piece of libel), the thing could hardly be better.
[Sidenote: The Chronique de Charles IX.]
Merimee's largest and most ambitious attempt at pure prose fiction—the Chronique de Charles IX—has been rather variously judged. That the present writer once translated the whole of it may, from different points of view, be regarded as a qualification and a disqualification for judging it afresh. For a mere amateur (and there are unfortunately only too many amateur translators) it might be one or the other, according as the executant had been pleased or bored by his occupation. But to a person used to the manner, something of an expert in literary criticism, and brought by the writing of many books to an even keel between engouement and disgust, it certainly should not be a disqualification. I do not think that the Chronique, as a romance of the Dumas kind, though written long before Dumas so fortunately deserted the drama for the kind itself, is entirely a success. It has excellent characters, if not in the actual hero, in his two Dalilahs—the camp-follower girl, who is a sort of earlier Carmen, and the great lady—and in his fear-neither-God-nor-Devil brother; good scenes in the massacre and in other passages also. But as a whole—as a modernised roman d'adventures—it does not exactly run: the reader does not devour the story as he should. He may be—I am—delighted with the way in which the teller tells; but the things which he tells are of much less interest. One cannot exactly say with that acute critic (if rather uncritical acceptor of the accomplished facts of life and death and matrimony), Queen Gertrude of Denmark, "More matter with less art," for there is plenty of matter as well as amply sufficient and yet not over-lavish art. But one is not made to take sufficient interest in the particular matter supplied.
[Sidenote: The semi-dramatic stories. La Jacquerie.]
The other considerable and early attempt in historical romance, La Jacquerie, is not in pure novel form, but it may fitly introduce some notice of its actual method, in which Merimee frequently, Gautier more than once, and a third eminent man of letters to be noticed presently most of all, distinguished themselves. This was what, in Old French, would have been called the story par personnages—the manner in which the whole matter is conveyed, not by recit, not by the usual form of mixed narrative and conversation, but by dramatic or semi-dramatic dialogue only, with action and stage direction, but no connecting language of the author to the reader. The early French mysteries and miracles—still more the farces—were not altogether unlike this; we saw that some of the curious intermediate work of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries took it, and that both of Crebillon's most felicitous, if not most edifying exercises are in dialogue form. The admiration of the French Romantics for the "accidented" and "matterful" English, Spanish, and German drama naturally encouraged experiment in this kind. Gautier has not very much of it, though there is some in Les Jeune-France, and his charming ballets might be counted in. But Merimee was particularly addicted thereto. La Jacquerie is injured to some tastes by excessive indulgence in the grime and horror which the subject no doubt invited. We do not all rejoice in the notion of a Good Friday service, "extra-illustrated" by a real crucifixion alive of a generous Jacques who has surrendered himself; or in violence offered (it is true, with the object of securing marriage) to a French heiress by an English captain of Free Companions. Even some of those who may not dislike these touches of haut gout, may, from the coolest point of view of strict criticism, say that the composition is too decousu, and that, as in the Chronique, there is little actual interest of story. But the phantasmagoria of gloom and blood and fire is powerfully presented. The earlier Theatre de Clara Gazul, one of the boldest and most successful of all literary mystifications, belongs more or less to the same class, which Merimee never entirely deserted.
[Sidenote: Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement, etc.]
The best of all these is, to my thinking, undoubtedly the Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement. It is also, I believe, the only one that ever was tried on the actual stage—it is said without success—though surely this cannot have been the form that it took in La Perichole, not the least amusing of those levities of Offenbach's which did so disgust the Pharisees of academic music and so arride the guileless public. Le Carrosse itself is a charming thing—very, very merry and by no means unwise—without a drop of bad blood in it, and, if no better than, very nearly as good as it should be from the moral point of view. La Famille Carvajal has the same fault of gruesomeness as La Jacquerie, with less variety, and Une Femme est un Diable, a fresh handling of something like the theme of Le Diable Amoureux and The Monk, if better than Lewis, is not so good as Cazotte. But L'Occasion is almost great, and I think Le Ciel et l'Enfer absolutely deserves that too much lavished ticket. Indeed Dona Urraca in this, like La Perichole in Le Carrosse, seems to me to put Merimee among the greatest masters of feminine character in the nineteenth century, and far above some others who have been held to have reached that perilous position.
At the same time, this hybrid form between nouvelle and drame has some illegitimate advantages. You can, some one has said, "insinuate character," whereas in a regular story you have to delineate it; and though in some modern instances critics have seemed disposed to put a higher price on the insinuation than on the delineation, not merely in this particular form, I cannot quite agree with them. All the same, Merimee's accomplishments in this mixed kind are a great addition to his achievements in the story proper, and, as has been confessed before, I should be slow to deny him the place of the greatest "little master" in fiction all round, though I may like some little masterpieces of others better than any of his.
* * * * *
[Sidenote: Musset: charm of his dramatised stories; his pure narration unsuccessful.]
By an interesting but not at all inexplicable contrast the only writer of prose fiction (except those to whom separate chapters have been allotted and one other who follows him here) to be in any way classed with Merimee and Gautier as a man of letters generally—Alfred de Musset—displays the contrast of values in his work of narrative and dramatic form in exactly the opposite way to (at least) Merimee's. Musset's Proverbes, though, I believe, not quite successful at first, have ever since been the delight of all but vulgar stage-goers: they have, from the very first, been the delight of all but vulgar readers for their pure story interest. Even some poems, not given as intended dramas at all, possess the most admirable narrative quality and story-turn.
As for the Comedies-Proverbes, it is impossible for the abandoned reader of plays who reads them either as poems or as stories, or as both, to go wrong there, whichever of the delightful bunch he takes up. To play upon some of their own titles—you are never so safe in swearing as when you swear that they are charming; when the door of the library that contains them is opened you may think yourself happy, and when it is shut upon you reading them you may know yourself to be happier. But in pure prose narratives this exquisite poet, delightful playwright, and unquestionable though too much wasted genius, never seems quite at home. For though they sometimes have a poignant appeal, it is almost always the illegitimate or at any rate extrinsic one of revelation of the author's personal feeling; or else that of formulation of the general effects of passion, not that of embodiment of its working.
[Sidenote: Frederic et Bernerette.]
Thus, for instance, there are few more pathetic stories in substance, or in occasional expression of a half-aphoristic kind, than Frederic et Bernerette. The grisette heroine has shed all the vulgarity of Paul de Kock's at his worst, and has in part acquired more poignancy than that of Murger at his best. Her final letter to her lover, just before her second and successful attempt at suicide, is almost consummate. But, somehow or other, it strikes one rather as a marvellous single study—a sort of modernised and transcended Spectator paper—a "Farewell of a Deserted Damsel"—than as part, or even as denouement, of a story. When the author says, "Je ne sais pas lequel est le plus cruel, de perdre tout a coup la femme qu'on aime par son inconstance, ou par sa mort," he says one of the final things finally. But it would be as final and as impressive if it were an isolated pensee. The whole story is not well told; Frederic, though not at all a bad fellow, and an only too natural one, is a thing of shreds and patches, not gathered together and grasped as they should be in the hand of the tale-teller; the narrative "backs and fills" instead of sweeping straight onwards.
[Sidenote: Les Deux Maitresses, Le Fils du Titien, etc.]
So, again, the first story, Les Deux Maitresses, with its inspiring challenge-overture, "Croyez-vous, madame, qu'il soit possible d'etre amoureux de deux personnes a la fois?" is in parts interesting. But one reader at least cannot help being haunted as he reads by the notion how much better Merimee would have told it. Le Fils du Titien—the story of the great master's lazy son, on whom even love and entire self-sacrifice—lifelong too—on the part of a great lady, cannot prevail to do more in his father's craft than one exquisite picture of herself, inscribed with a sonnet renouncing the pencil thenceforth—is the best told story in the book. But Gautier would certainly have done it even better. Margot, in the same fatal way and, I fear, in the same degree, suggests the country tales of Musset's own faithless love.
But the most crucial example of the "something wrong" which pursues Musset in pure prose narrative is Emmeline. It is quite free from those unlucky, and possibly unfair, comparisons with contemporaries which have been affixed to its companions. A maniac of parallels might indeed call it something of a modernised Princesse de Cleves; but this would be quite idle. The resemblance is simply in situation; that is to say, in the publica materies which every artist has a right to make his own by private treatment. Emmeline Duval is a girl of great wealth and rather eccentric character, who chooses to marry (he has saved her life, or at any rate saved her from possible death and certain damage) a person of rank but no means, M. de Marsan. There is real love between the two, and it continues on his side altogether unimpaired, on hers untroubled, for years. A conventional lady-killer tries her virtue, but is sent about his business. But then there turns up one Gilbert, to whom she yields—exactly how far is not clearly indicated. M. de Marsan finds it out and takes an unusual line. He will not make any scandal, and will not even call the lover out. He will simply separate and leave her whole fortune to his wife. She throws her marriage contract into the fire (one does not presume to enquire how far this would be effective), dismisses Gilbert through the medium of her sister, and—we don't know what happened afterwards.
Now the absence of finale may bribe critics of the present day; for my part, as I have ventured to say more than once before, it seems that if you accept this principle you had much better carry it through, have no middle or beginning, and even no title, but issue, in as many copies as you please, a nice quire or ream of blank paper with your name on it. The purchasers could cut the name out, and use it for original composition in a hundred forms, from washing bills to tragedies.
But I take what Musset has given me, and, having an intense admiration for the author of A Saint Blaise and L'Andalouse and the Chanson de Fortunio, a lively gratitude to the author of Il ne faut jurer de rien and Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermee, call Emmeline a very badly told and uninteresting story. The almost over-elaborate description of the heroine at the beginning does not fit in with her subsequent conduct; Gilbert is a nonentity; the husband, though noble in conduct, is pale in character, and the sister had much better have been left out. So the rest may be silence.
[Sidenote: Gerard de Nerval—his peculiar position.]
I have been accused (quite good-naturedly) of putting Rabelais in this history because I liked him, though he was not a novelist. My conscience is easy there; and I think I have refuted the peculiar charge beforehand. But I might have a little more difficulty (though I should still lose neither heart nor hope) in the case of the ill-fated but well-beloved writer whom gods and men call Gerard de Nerval, or simply Gerard, though librarians and bibliographers sometimes insist on his legal surname, Labrunie. It certainly would be difficult, from the same point of view of strict legality, to call anything of his exactly a novel. He was a poet, a dramatist, a voyage-and-travel writer, a bibliographer (strange trade, which associates the driest with the most "nectaweous" of men!) even sometimes a tale-teller by name, but even then hardly a novelist. Yet he managed to throw over the most unlikely material a novelish or at least a romantic character, which is sometimes—nay, very often—utterly wanting in professed and admitted masters of the business; and he combines with this faculty—or rather he exalts and transports it into—a strange and exquisite charm, which nobody else in French, except Nodier (who very possibly taught Gerard something), possesses, and which, though it is rather commoner in English and in the best and now almost prehistoric German, is rare anywhere, and, in Gerard's peculiar brand of it, almost entirely unknown.
For this "Anodos"—the most unquestionably entitled to that title of all men in letters; this wayless wanderer on the earth and above the earth; this inhabitant of mad-houses; this victim, finally, either of his own despair and sorrow or of some devilry on the part of others, unites, in the strange spell which he casts over all fit readers, what, but for him, one might have called the idiosyncrasies in strangeness of authors quite different from each other and—except at the special points of contact—from him. He is like Borrow or De Quincey (though he goes even beyond both) in the singular knack of endowing or investing known places and commonplace actions with a weird second essence and second intention. He is like Charles Lamb in his power of dropping from quaintness and almost burlesque into the most touching sentiment and emotion. Mr. Lang, in his Introduction to Poe, has noticed how Gerard resembles America's one "poet of the first order" in fashioning lines "on the further side of the border between verse and music"—a remark which applies to his prose as well. He has himself admitted a kind of sorites of indebtedness to Diderot, Sterne, Swift, Rabelais, Folengo, Lucian, and Petronius. But this is merely on the comic and purely intellectual side of him, while it is further confined, or nearly so, to the trick of deliberate "promiscuousness." On the emotional-romantic if not even tragic score he may write off all imputed indebtedness—save once more in some degree, to Nodier. And the consequence is that those who delight in him derive their delight from sources of the most extraordinarily various character, probably never represented by an exactly similar group in the case of any two individual lovers, but quite inexhaustible. To represent him to those who do not know him is not easy; to represent him to those who do is sure, for this very reason, to arouse mild or not mild complaints of inadequacy. And it must be clear, from what has been already said, that some critic may very likely exclaim, in reference to any selected piece, "Why, this is neither a novel nor a romance, nor even in any legitimate sense a tale!" The inestimable rejoinder already quoted,—episcopal, and dignifying even that order though it was made only by a bishop in partibus—is the only one here.
[Sidenote: La Boheme Galante, Les Filles du Feu, and Le Reve et la Vie.]
The difficulty of discussing or illustrating, in short space and due proportion, the novel or roman element in such a writer must be sufficiently obvious. His longer travels in Germany and the East are steeped in this element; and the shorter compositions which bear names of novel-character are often "little travels" in his native province, the Isle of France, and that larger banlieue of Paris, towards Picardy and Flanders, which our Seventy Thousand saved, by dying, the other day. But it is impossible—and might even, if possible, be superfluous—to touch the first group. Of the second there are three subdivisions, which, however, are represented with not inconsiderable variation in different issues. Their titles are La Boheme Galante, Les Filles du Feu, and Le Reve et la Vie, the last of which contains only one section, Aurelia, never, if I do not mistake, revised by Gerard himself, and only published after his most tragic death. Its supra-title really describes the most characteristic part or feature of all the three and of Gerard's whole work.
[Sidenote: Their general character.]
To one who always lived, as Paul de Saint-Victor put it in one of the best of those curious exercises of his mastery over words, "in the fringes of the actual world," this confusion of place and no place, this inextricable blending of fact and dream, imagination and reality, was natural enough; and no one but a Philistine will find fault with the sometimes apparently mechanical and Sternian transitions which form part of its expression. There was, indeed, an inevitable mixedness in that strange nature of his; and he will pass from almost "true Dickens" (he actually admits inspiration from him) in accounts of the Paris Halles, or of country towns, to De Quinceyish passages, free from that slight touch of apparatus which is undeniable now and then in the Opium Eater. Here are longish excursions of pure family history; there, patches of criticism in art or drama; once at least an elaborate and—for the time—very well informed as well as enthusiastic sketch of French seventeenth-century poetry. It may annoy the captious to find another kind of confusion, for which one is not sure that Gerard himself was responsible, though it is consistent enough with his peculiarities. Passages are redistributed among different books and pieces in a rather bewildering manner; and you occasionally rub your eyes at coming across—in a very different context, or simply shorn of its old one—something that you have met before. To others this, if not exactly an added charm, will at any rate be admitted to "grace of congruity." It would be less like Gerard if it were otherwise.
[Sidenote: Particular examples.]
In fact it is in these mixed pieces that Gerard's great attraction lies. His regular stories, professedly of a Hoffmannesque kind, such as La Main Enchantee and Le Monstre Vert, are good, but not extraordinarily good, and classable with many other things of many other people. I, at least, know nothing quite like Aurelia and Sylvie, though the dream-pieces of Landor and De Quincey have a certain likeness, and Nodier's La Fee aux Miettes a closer one.
Aurelia (which, whether complete in itself or not, was pretty clearly intended to be followed by other things under the general title of Le Reve et la Vie) has, as might be expected, more dream than life in it. Or rather it is like one of those actual dreams which themselves mix up life—a dream in the composition. Aurelia is the book-name of a lady, loved (actually, it seems) and in some degree responsible for her lover's aberrations of mind. He thinks he loves another, but finds he does not. The two objects of his passion meet, and the second generously brings about a sort of reconciliation with the first. But he has to go to Paris on business, and there he becomes a mere John-a-Dreams, if not, in a mild way, a mere Tom of Bedlam. The chief drops into reality, indeed, are mentions of his actual visits to maisons de sante. But the thing is impossible to abstract or analyse, too long to translate as a whole, and too much woven in one piece to cut up. It must be read as it stands, and any person of tolerable intelligence will know in a page or two whether Gerard is the man for him or not. But when he was writing it he was already over even the fringe of ordinary sane life, and near the close of life itself. In Sylvie he had not drifted so far; and it is perhaps his best diploma-piece.
[Sidenote: And especially Sylvie.]
For Sylvie, with its sub-title, "Souvenirs du Valois," surely exhibits Gerard, outside the pure travel-books, at his very best, as far as concerns that mixture of reve and realite—the far-off goal of Gautier's Chimere—which has been spoken of. The author comes out of a theatre where he has only seen Her, having never, though a constant worshipper, troubled himself to ask, much less to seek out, what She might be off the stage. And here we may give an actual piece of him.
We were living then in a strange kind of time, one of those which are wont to come after revolutions, or the decadences of great reigns. There was no longer any gallantry of the heroic kind, as in the time of the Fronde; no vice, elegant and in full dress, as in that of the Regency; no "Directory" scepticism and foolish orgies. It was a mixture of activity, hesitation, and idleness—of brilliant utopias; of religious or philosophical aspiration; of vague enthusiasms mingled with certain instincts of a sort of Renaissance. Men were weary of past discords; of uncertain hopes, much as in the time of Petronius or Peregrinus. The materialist part of us hungered for the bouquet of roses which in the hands of Isis was to regenerate it—the Goddess, eternally young and pure, appeared to us at night and made us ashamed of the hours we had lost in the day. We were not at the age of ambition, and the greedy hunt for place and honours kept us out of possible spheres of work. Only the poet's Ivory Tower remained for us, and we climbed it ever higher and higher to be clear of the mob. At the heights whither our masters guided us we breathed at last the pure air of solitude; we drank in the golden cup of legend; we were intoxicated with poetry and with love. But, alas! it was only love of vague forms; of tints roseal and azure; of metaphysical phantoms. The real woman, seen close, revolted our ingenuousness: we would have had her a queen or a goddess, and to draw near her was fatal.
But he went from the play to his club, and there somebody asked him for what person (in such cases one regrets laquelle) he went so constantly to the same house; and, on the actress being named, kindly pointed out to him a third member of this club as the lady's lover-in-title. The peculiar etiquette of the institution demanded, it seems, that the fortunate gallant should escort the beloved home, but then go to the cercle and play (they were wise enough to play whist then) for great part of the night before exercising the remainder of his rights and privileges. In the interval, apparently, other cats might be grey. And, as it happened, Gerard saw in a paper that some shares of his, long rubbish, had become of value. He would be better off; he might aspire to a portion of the lady's spare hours. But this notion, it is not surprising to hear, did not appeal to our Gerard. He sees in the same paper that a fete is going to take place in his old country of the Valois; and when at last he goes home two "faces in the fire" rise for him, those of the little peasant girl Sylvie and of the chatelaine Adrienne—beautiful, triumphant, but destined to be a nun. Unable to sleep, he gets up at one in the morning, and manages to find himself at Loisy, the scene of the fete, in time.
One would fain go on, but duty forbids a larger allotment of space; and, after all, the thing itself may be read by any one in half an hour or so, and will not, at least ought not, to be forgotten for half a lifetime—or a whole one. The finding of Sylvie, no longer a little girl, but still a girl, still not married, though, as turns out, about to be so, is chequered with all sorts of things—sketches of landscape; touches of literature; black-and-white renderings of the Voyage a Cythere; verses to Adrienne; to the actress Aurelie (to become later the dream-Aurelia); and, lastly—in the earlier forms of the piece at any rate—snatches of folk-song, including that really noble ballad:
Quand Jean Renaud de la guerre revint,
which falls very little, if at all, short of the greatest specimens of English, German, Danish, or Spanish.
And over and through it all, and in other pieces as well, there is the faint, quaint, music—prose, when not verse—which reminds one somehow of Browning's famous Toccata-piece. Only the "dear dead women" are dear dead fairies; and the whole might be sung at that "Fairy's Funeral" which Christopher North imagined so well, though he did not carry it out quite impeccably.
* * * * *
[Sidenote: Alfred de Vigny: Cinq-Mars.]
The felicity of being enabled to know the causes of things, a recognised and respectable form of happiness, is also one which I have recently enjoyed in respect of Alfred de Vigny's Cinq-Mars. For Vigny as a poet my admiration has always been profound. He appears to me to have completed, with Agrippa d'Aubigne, Corneille, and Victor Hugo, the quatuor of French poets who have the secret of magnificence; and, scanty as the amount of his poetical work is, Eloa, Dolorida, Le Cor, and the finest passages in Les Destinees have a definite variety of excellence and essence which it would not be easy to surpass in kind, though it might be in number, with the very greatest masters of poetry. But I have never been able, frankly and fully, to enjoy his novels, especially Cinq-Mars. In my last reading of the chief of them I came upon an edition which contains what I had never seen before—the somewhat triumphant and strongly defiant tract, Reflexions sur la Verite dans l'Art, which the author prefixed to his book after its success. This tractate is indeed not quite consistent with itself, for it ends in confession that truth in art is truth in observation of human nature, not mere authenticity of fact, and that such authenticity is of merely secondary importance at best. But in the opening he had taken lines—or at any rate had said things—which, if not absolutely inconsistent with, certainly do not lead to, this sound conclusion. In writing historical novels (he tells us) he thought it better not to imitate the foreigners (it is clear that this is a polite way of indicating Scott), who in their pictures put the historical dominators of them in the background; he has himself made such persons principal actors. And though he admits that "a treatise on the decline and fall of feudalism in France; on the internal conditions and external relations of that country; on the question of military alliances with foreigners; on justice as administered by parliaments, and by secret commissions on charges of sorcery," might not have been read while the novel was; the sentence suggests, with hardly a possibility of rebuttal, that a treatise of this kind was pretty constantly in his own mind while he was writing the novel itself. And the earlier sentence about putting the more important historical characters in the foreground remains "firm," without any necessity for argument or suggestion.
[Sidenote: The faults in its general scheme.]
Now I have more than once in this very book, and often elsewhere, contended, rightly or wrongly, that this "practice of the foreigners," in not making dominant historical characters their own dominant personages, is the secret of success in historical novel-writing, and the very feather (and something more) in the cap of Scott himself which shows his chieftainship. And, again rightly or wrongly, I have also contended that the hand of purpose deadens and mummifies story. Vigny's own remarks, despite subsequent—if not recantation—qualification of them, show that the lie of his land, the tendency of his exertion, was in these two, as I think, wrong directions. And I own that this explained to me what I had chiefly before noticed as merely a fact, without enquiring into it, that Cinq-Mars, admirably written as it is; possessing as it does, with a hero who might have been made interesting, a great person like Richelieu to make due and not undue use of; plenty of thrilling incident at hand, and some actually brought in; love interest ad libitum and fighting hardly less so; a tragic finish from history, and opportunity for plenty of lighter contrast from Tallemant and the Memoirs—that, I say, Cinq-Mars, with all this and the greatness of its author in other work, has always been to me not a live book, and hardly one which I can even praise as statuesque.
It is no doubt a misfortune for the book with its later readers—the earlier for nearly twenty years were free from this—that it comes into closest comparison with Dumas' best work. Its action, indeed, takes place in the very "Vingt Ans" during which we know (except from slight retrospect) nothing of what D'Artagnan and the Three were doing. But more than one or two of the same historical characters figure, and in the chapters dealing with the obscure emeute which preceded the actual conspiracy, as well as in the scenes touching Anne of Austria's private apartments, the parallel is very close indeed.
[Sidenote: And in its details.]
Now of course Dumas could not write like Vigny; and though, as is pointed out elsewhere, to regard him as a vulgar fellow is the grossest of blunders as well as a great injustice, Vigny, in thought and taste and dianoia generally, was as far above him as in style. But that is not the question. I have said that I do not quite know D'Artagnan, though I think I know Athos, as a man; but as a novel-hero the Gascon seems to me to "fill all numbers." Cinq-Mars may be a succession or chain of type-personages—generous but headlong youth, spoilt favourite, conspirator and something like traitor, finally victim; but these are the "flat" characters (if one may so speak) of the treatise, not the "round" ones of the novel. And I cannot unite them. His love-affair with Marie de Gonzague leaves me cold. His friend, the younger De Thou, is hardly more than "an excellent person." The persecution of Urbain Grandier and the sufferings of the Ursuline Abbess seem to me—to use the old schoolboy word—to be hopelessly "muffed"; and if any one will compare the accounts of the taking of the "Spanish bastion" at Perpignan with the exploit at that other bastion—Saint-Gervais at Rochelle—he will see what I mean as well as in any single instance. The second part, where we come to the actual conspiracy, is rather better than the first, if not much; and I think Vigny's presentment of Richelieu has been too much censured. Armand Duplessis was a very great man; but unless you accept the older Machiavellian and the more modern German doctrines as to what a great man may do, he must also be pronounced a most unscrupulous one; while there is little doubt (unless you go back to Louis XI.) that Vigny was right in regarding him as the original begetter of the French Revolution. But he is not here made by any means wholly inhuman, and Vigny makes it justly clear that, if he had not killed Cinq-Mars, Cinq-Mars would have killed him. In such cases of course the person who begins may be regarded as the assassin; but it is doubtful whether this is distributive justice of the highest order. And I do not see much salvation for France in Henry d'Effiat.
This, however, is a digression from our proper subject, but one justifying itself after a fashion, inasmuch as it results from Vigny's own faulty handling of the subject itself and is appropriate to his line of argument in his Examen. He has written the novel not as he ought and as he ought not. The political and historical interests overshadow, confuse, and hamper the purely "fictional" (as people say now), and when he has got hold of a scene which is either purely "fictional," or historical with fictitious possibilities, he does not seem (to me) to know how to deal with it. There is one—of the extremest melodramatic character and opportunities—where, in a hut perched on the side of a Pyrenean gorge or canon, Richelieu's villainous tool, the magistrate Laubardemont; his mad niece, the former Ursuline Abbess, who has helped to ruin Urbain Grandier; his outcast son Jacques, who has turned Spanish officer and general bravo; and a smuggler who has also figured in the Grandier business, forgather; where the mad Abbess dies in terror, and Jacques de Laubardemont by falling through the flimsy hut-boards into the gorge, his father taking from him, by a false pretence before his death, the treaty between the Cinq-Mars conspirators and Spain. All this is sufficiently "horrid," as the girls in Northanger Abbey would say, and divers French contemporaries of Vigny's from Hugo to Soulie would have made good horrors of it. In his hands it seems (to me) to miss fire. So, again, he has a well-conceived interview, in which Richelieu, for almost the last time, shows "the power of a strong mind over a weak one," and brings the King to abject submission and the surrender of Cinq-Mars, by the simple process of leaving his Majesty to settle by himself the problems that drop in from France, England, and where or whence not, during the time of the Cardinal's absence. It is less of a failure than the other, being more in Vigny's own line; but it is impossible not to remember several scenes—not one only—in Quentin Durward, and think how much better Scott would have done it; several in the Musketeer-trilogy, if not also in the Margot-Chicot series, and make a parallel reflection. And as a final parry by anticipation to the objection that such comparison is "rascally," let it be said that nothing of the kind ever created any prejudice against the book in my case. I failed to get on with it long before I took the least trouble to discover critical reasons that might excuse that failure.
[Sidenote: Stello less of a novel, but containing better novel-stuff.]
But if any one be of taste sufficiently like mine to find disappointment of the unpleasant kind in Cinq-Mars, I think I can promise him an agreeable, if somewhat chequered, surprise when, remembering Cinq-Mars and basing his expectations upon it, he turns to Stello. It is true that the book is, as a whole, even less "precisely a novel" than Sainte-Beuve's Volupte. But for that very reason it escapes the display of the disabilities which Cinq-Mars, being, or incurring obligation to be, precisely a novel, suffers. It is true also that it exhibits that fancy for putting historical persons in the first "plan" which he had avowed, and over which heads have been shaken. The bulk of it, indeed, consists of romanticised histoires or historiettes (the narrator calls them "anecdotes") of the sad and famous fates of two French poets, Gilbert and Andre Chenier, and of our English Chatterton. But, then, no one of these can be called "a dominant historical personage," and the known facts permit themselves to be, and are, "romanticised" effectively enough. So the flower is in each case plucked from the nettle. And there is another flower of more positive and less compensatory kind which blooms here, which is particularly welcome to some readers, and which, from Cinq-Mars alone, they could hardly have expected to find in any garden of Alfred de Vigny's. For this springs from a root of ironic wit which almost approaches humour, which, though never merry, is not seldom merciful, and is very seldom actually savage, though often sad. Now irony is, to those who love it, the saving grace of everything that possesses it, almost equal in charm, and still more nearly equal in power, to the sheer beauty, which can dispense with it, but which sometimes, and not so very rarely, is found in its company.
[Sidenote: Its framework and "anecdotes."]
The substance, or rather the framework, of Stello, ou Les Diables Bleus, requires very little amplification of its double title to explain it. Putting that title in charade form, one might say that its first is a young poet who suffers from its second—like many other young persons, poetical and unpoetical, of times Romantic and un-Romantic. Having an excessively bad fit of his complaint, he sends for a certain docteur noir to treat the case. This "Black Doctor" is not a trout-fly, nor the sort of person who might be expected in a story of diablerie. It is even suggested that he derived the name, by which he was known to society, from the not specially individual habit of wearing black clothes. But there must have been something not quite ordinarily human about him, inasmuch as, having been resident in London at the time of Chatterton's death in 1770, he was—apparently without any signs of Old Parr-like age—a fashionable doctor at Paris in the year 1832. His visit ends, as usual, in a prescription, but a prescription of a very unusual kind. The bulk of it consists of the "anecdotes"—again perhaps not a very uncommon feature of a doctor's visit, but told at such length on the three subjects above mentioned that, with "links" and conclusion, they run to nearly four hundred pages.
It is possible that some one may say "Connu!" both to the stories themselves and to the moral of real suffering, as opposed to mere megrim, which is so obviously deducible from them. But Stello was quite as clever as the objectors, and knew these things quite as well—perhaps, as far as the case of Gilbert is concerned, rather better than most Englishmen. It is in the manner of the Black Doctor's telling and handling that the charm lies.
[Sidenote: The death of Gilbert.]
Even for those gluttons of matter who do not care much for manner there is a good deal in the three stories. The first avails itself—as Vigny had unwisely not availed himself in Cinq-Mars, though he was well acquainted with Shakespeare and lesser English masters—of the mixture of comic and tragic. The suffering of the unfortunate youth who was partly a French Chatterton and partly a French Clare, his strange visit to the benevolent but rather ineffectual Archbishop of Paris, and the scene at his death-bed, exhibit, at nearly its best, the tragic power which Vigny possessed in a very high, though not always well exercised, degree. And the passage of the poet's death is of such macabre power that one must risk a translation:
(The doctor has been summoned, has found the patient in his garret, bare of all furniture save a bed with tattered clothes and an old trunk.)
His face was very noble and very beautiful; he looked at me with fixed eyes, and between them and the nose, above the cheeks, he showed that nervous contraction which no ordinary convulsion can imitate, which no illness gives, but which says to the physician, "Go your ways!" and is, as it were, a standard which Death plants on his conquests. He clutched in one hand his pen, his poor last pen, inky and ragged, in the other a crust of his last piece of bread. His legs knocked together, so as to make the crazy bed crackle. I listened carefully to his hard breathing; I heard the rattle with its hollow husk; and I recognised Death in the room as a practised sailor recognises the tempest in the whistle of the wind that precedes it.
"Always the same, to all thou comest," I said to Death, he himself speaking low enough for my lips to make, in dying ears, only an indistinct murmur. "I know thee always by thine own hollow voice, lent to youth and age alike. How well I know thee and thy terrors, which are no longer such to me! I feel the dust that thy wings scatter in the air as thou comest; I breathe the sickly odour of it; I see its pale ashes fly, invisible as they may be to other men's sight. O! thou Inevitable One, thou art here, verily thou comest to save this man from his misery. Take him in thine arms like a child; carry him off; save him; I give him to thee. Save him only from the devouring sorrow that accompanies us ever on the earth till we come to rest in thee, O Benefactor and Friend!"
I had not deceived myself, for Death it was. The sick man ceased to suffer, and began suddenly to enjoy the divine moment of repose which precedes the eternal immobility of the body. His eyes grew larger, and were charged with amazement; his mouth relaxed and smiled; his tongue twice passed over his lips as if to taste once more, from some unseen cup, a last drop of the balm of Life. And then he said with that hoarse voice of the dying which comes from the inwards and seems to come from the very feet:
At the banquet of life a guest ill-fated.
[Sidenote: The satiric episode—contrast.]
But this death-bed, and the less final but hardly less tragic wanderings of the victim in his visit to the Archbishop (by whom also the doctor has been summoned), are contrasted and entangled, very skilfully indeed, with a scene—the most different possible—in which he still appears. The main personages in this, however, are his Majesty Louis XV. and the reigning favourite, Mademoiselle de Coulanges, a young lady who, from the account given of her, might justify the description, assigned earlier to one of her official predecessors in a former reign, of being "belle comme un ange, et bete comme un panier." At first the lovers (if we are to call them so) are lying, most beautifully dressed and quite decorously, on different sofas, both of them with books in their hands, but one asleep and the other yawning. Suddenly the lady springs up shrieking, and the polite and amiable monarch (apart from his Solomonic or Sultanic weaknesses, and the perhaps graver indifference with which he knowingly allowed France to go to the devil, Louis le Bien-Aime was really le meilleur fils du monde) does his best to console his beloved and find out the reason of her woes. It appears at last that she thinks she has been bitten by a flea, and as the summer is very hot, and there has been much talk of mad dogs, she is convinced that the flea was a mad flea, and that she shall die of hydrophobia. (As it happens, the flea is not a flea at all, but a grain of snuff.) However, the Black Doctor is sent for, and finds the King as affable as usual, but Mlle. de Coulanges coiled up on a sofa—like something between a cat and a naughty child afraid of being scolded—and hiding her face. On being coaxed with the proper medical manner, she at last bursts out laughing, and finally they all laugh together, till his Majesty spills his coffee on his gold waistcoat, and then pulls the doctor down on a sofa to talk Paris gossip. And now the Black One clears himself from any connection with the serpent as far as wisdom is concerned, though he has plenty of a better kind. Fresh from Gilbert's appeal to the Archbishop, he tries to interest this so amiable Royalty in the subject. But the result is altogether unfortunate. The lady is merely contemptuous and bored. The King gets angry, and displays that indifference to anybody else's suffering which moralists (whether to an exaggerated extent or not, is another question) are wont to connect with excessive attention to a man's own sensual enjoyments. After some by no means stupid but decidedly acid remarks on Voltaire, Rousseau, and others, he takes (quite good-naturedly in appearance) the doctor's arm, walks with him to the end of the long apartment, opens the door, quotes certain satiric verses on literary and scientific "gents," and—shuts it on his medical adviser and guest.
I know few things of the kind more neatly done, or better adjusted to heighten the tragic purpose.
[Sidenote: The Chatteron part.]
To an Englishman the next episode may be less satisfactory, though it was very popular in France under its original form, and still more so when Vigny dramatised it in his famous Chatterton. It is not that there is any (or at any rate much) of the usual caricature which was (let us be absolutely equitable and say) exchanged between the two countries for so long a time. Vigny married an English wife, knew something of England, and a good deal of English literature. But, regardless of his own historical penchants and of the moral of this very book—that Sentiment must be kept under the control of Reason—he was pleased to transmogrify Chatterton's compassionate Holborn landlady into a certain Kitty Bell—a pastry-shop keeper close to the Houses of Parliament, who is very beautiful except that she has the inevitable "large feet" (let us hope that M. le Comte de Vigny, who was a gentleman, took only the first signalement from Madame la Comtesse), extraordinarily sentimental, and desperately though (let us hope again, for she has a husband and two children) quite virtuously in love with the boy from Bristol. He entirely transforms Lord Mayor Beckford's part in the matter; changes, for his own purposes, the arsenic into opium (a point of more importance than it may seem), and in one blunt word does all he can to spoil the story. It is too common an experience when foreigners treat such things, and I say this with the fullest awareness of the danger of De te fabula.
[Sidenote: The tragedy of Andre Chenier.]
These two stories, however, fill scarcely more than a third of the book, and the other two-thirds, subtracting the moral at the end, deal with a matter which Vigny, once more, understood thoroughly. The fate of Andre Chenier is "fictionised" in nearly the best manner, though with the author's usual fault of inability to "round out" character. We do not sufficiently realise the poet himself. But his brother, Marie-Joseph, requiring slighter presentment, has it; and so, on a still smaller scale, has the well-meaning but fatuous father, who, hopelessly misunderstanding the signs of the times, actually precipitates his elder son's fate by applying, in spite of remonstrance, to the tiger-pole-cat Robespierre for mercy. The scene where this happens—and where the "sea-green incorruptible" himself, Saint-Just (prototype of so many Republican enthusiasts, ever since and to-day), Marie-Joseph, and the Black Doctor figure—is singularly good. Hardly less so are the pictures—often painted by others but seldom better—of the ghastly though in a way heroic merriment of the lost souls in Saint-Lazare, between their doom and its execution, and the finale. In this the doctor's soldier-servant Blaireau ("Badger"), still a gunner on active service (partly, one fancies, from former touches, by concealed good intention, partly from mere whim and from disgust at the drunken hectorings of General Henriot), refuses to turn his guns on the Thermidorists, and thus saves France from at least the lowest depths of the Revolutionary Inferno. Perhaps there is here, as with Vigny's fiction throughout, a certain amateurishness, and a very distinct inability to keep apart things that had better not be mixed. But there is also evidence of power throughout, and there is actually some performance.
[Sidenote: Servitude et Grandeur Militaires.]
His third and last work, of anything like the kind, Servitude et Grandeur Militaires, is no more of a regular novel than Stello; but, though perhaps in an inferior degree, it shares the superiority of Stello itself over Cinq-Mars in power of telling a story. Like Stello, too, it is a frame of short tales, not a continuous narrative; and like that, and even to a greater degree, it exhibits the intense melancholy (almost unique in its particular shade, though I suppose it comes nearer to Leopardi's than to that of any other great man of letters) which characterises Alfred de Vigny. His own experience of soldiering had not been fortunate. He had begun, as a mere boy, by accompanying Louis XVIII. in his flight before the Hundred Days; he had seen, for another fourteen or fifteen years during the Restoration,
No wars where triumphs on the victors wait,
but only the dreary garrison life (see on Beyle, sup. p. 149) of French peace time, and, in the way of active service, only what all soldiers hate, the thankless and inglorious police-work which comes on them through civil disturbance. Whether he was exactly the kind of man to have enjoyed the livelier side of martialism may be the subject of considerable doubt. But at any rate he had no chance of it, and his framework here is little more than a tissue of transcendental "grousing."
[Sidenote: The first story.]
The first story illustrating "Servitude" is sufficiently horrible, and has a certain element of paradox in it. The author, actually on his very disagreeable introduction to a military career by flight, meets with an old officer who tells him his history. He has been at one time a merchant sailor; and then in the service of the Directory, by whom he was commissioned to carry convicts to Cayenne. The most noteworthy of these, a young man of letters, who had libelled one of the tyrants, and his still younger wife, are very charming people; and the captain, who makes them his guests, becomes so fond of them that he even proposes to give up his profession and farm with them in the colony. He has, however, sealed orders, to be opened only in mid-Atlantic; and when he does open them, he finds, to his unspeakable horror, a simple command to shoot the poet at once. He obeys; and the "frightfulness" is doubled by the fact that a rather clumsy device of his to spare the wife the sight of the husband's death is defeated by the still greater clumsiness of a subordinate. She goes mad; and, as expiation, he takes charge of her, shifts from navy to army, and carries her with him on all his campaigns, being actually engaged in escorting her on a little mule-cart when Vigny meets him. They part; and ten years afterwards Vigny hears that the officer was killed at Waterloo—his victim-charge following him a few days later. The story is well told, and not, as actual things go, impossible. But there are some questions which it suggests. "Is it, as literature, a whole?" "Is it worth telling?" and "Why on earth did the captain obey such an order from a self-constituted authority of scoundrels to whom no 'sacrament' could ever be binding, if it could even exist?"
[Sidenote: The second]
The second is also tragical, but less so; and is again very well told. It is concerned with the explosion of a powder-magazine—fortunately not the main one—at Vincennes, brought about by the over-zeal of a good old adjutant, the happiness of whose domestic interior just before his fate (with some other things) forms one of Vigny's favourite contrasts.
[Sidenote: and third.]
But, as in Stello, he has kept the best wine to the last. The single illustration of Grandeur must have, for some people, though it may not have for all, the very rare interest of a story which would rather gain than lose if it were true. It opens in the thick of the July Revolution, when the veteran French army—half-hearted and gaining no new heart from the half-dead hands which ought to have guided it—was subjected, on a larger scale, to the same sort of treatment which the fresh-recruited Sherwood Foresters (fortunately not half-hearted) experienced in Dublin at Easter 1916. The author, having, luckily for himself, resigned his commission a year or two before, meets an old friend—a certain Captain Renaud—who, though a vieux de la vieille, has reached no higher position, but is adored by his men, and generally known as "Canne de Jonc," because he always carries that not very lethal weapon, and has been known to take it into action instead of a sword.
In the "sullen interval" of the crisis the two talk; and Renaud is led into telling the chief experiences of his life. He had known little of his father—a soldier before him—but had been taken by that father on Bonaparte's Egyptian expedition till, at Malta, he was stopped by Bonaparte himself, who would have no boy on it save Casabianca's (pity he did not stop him too!). But he only sends Renaud back to the Military Academy, and afterwards makes him his page. The father is blown up in the Orient, but saved, and, though made prisoner by us, is well treated, and, as being of great age and broken health, allowed, by Collingwood's interest, to go to Sicily. He dies on the way; but is able to send a letter to his son, which is one of the finest examples of Vigny's peculiar melancholy irony. In this he recants his worship of the (now) Emperor. It has, however, no immediate effect on the son. But before long, by an accident, he is an unwilling and at first unperceived witness of the famous historical or half-historical interview at Fontainebleau between Napoleon and the Pope, where the bullied Holy Father enrages, but vanquishes, the conqueror by successively ejaculating the two words Commediante! and Tragediante! (This scene is again admirable.) The page's absence from his ordinary duty excites suspicion, and the Emperor, more suo, exiles him to the farce-tragedy of the Boulogne flotilla, where the clumsy flat-bottoms are sunk at pleasure as they exercise by English frigates. The father's experience is repeated with the son, for he also is captured and also falls into the beneficent power of Collingwood, whom Vigny almost literally beatifies. The Admiral keeps the young man on parole with him four years at sea, and when he has—"so as by water" if not fire—overcome the temptation of breaking his word, effects exchange for him. But, as is well known (the very words occur here, though I do not know whether for the first time or not), Napoleon's motto in such cases was: "Je n'aime pas les prisonniers. On se fait tuer." He goes back to his duty, but avoids recognition as much as possible, and receives no, or hardly any, promotion. Once, just after Montmirail, he and the Emperor meet, whether with full knowledge on the latter's part is skilfully veiled. But they touch hands. Still Captain Renaud's guignon pursues him in strange fashion; and during a night attack on a Russian post near Reims he kills, in a mere blind mellay, a boy officer of barely fourteen, and is haunted by remorse ever afterwards.
A few days after telling the story he is shot by a gamin whom older men have made half-drunk and furnished with a pistol with directions to do what he does. And all this is preserved from being merely sentimental ("Riccobonish," as I think Vigny himself—but it may be somebody else—has it) by the touch of true melancholy on the one hand and of all-saving irony on the other.
[Sidenote: The moral of the three.]
So also these two curious books save Vigny himself to some extent from the condemnation, or at any rate the exceedingly faint praise, which his principal novel may bring upon him as a novelist. But they do so to some extent only. It is clear even from them, though not so clear as it is from their more famous companion, that he was not to the manner born. The riddles of the painful earth were far too much with him to permit him to be an unembarrassed master or creator of pastime—not necessarily horse-collar pastime by any means, but pastime pure and simple. His preoccupations with philosophy, politics, world-sorrow, and other things were constantly cropping up and getting in the way of his narrative faculty. I do not know that, even of the scenes that I have praised, any one except the expurgated Crebillonade of the King and the Lady and the Doctor goes off with complete "currency," and this is an episode rather than a whole tale, though it gives itself the half-title of Histoire d'une Puce Enragee. He could never, I think, have done anything but short stories; and even as a short-story teller he ranks with the other Alfred, Musset, rather than with Merimee or Gautier. But, like Musset, he presents us, as neither of the other two did (for Merimee was not a poet, and Gautier was hardly a dramatist), with a writer, of mark all but the greatest, in verse and prose and drama; while in prose and verse at least he shows that quality of melancholy magnificence which has been noted, as hardly any one else does in all three forms, except Hugo himself.
* * * * *
NOTE ON FROMENTIN'S DOMINIQUE
[Sidenote: Note on Fromentin's Dominique: its altogether exceptional character.]
I have found it rather difficult to determine the place most proper for noticing the Dominique of Eugene Fromentin—one of the most remarkable "single-speech" novels in any literature. It was not published till the Second Empire was more than half-way through, but it seems to have been written considerably earlier; and as it is equally remarkable for lexis and for dianoia, it may, on the double ground, be best attached to this chapter, though Fromentin was younger than any one else here dealt with, and belonged, in fact, to the generation of our later, though not latest, constituents. But, in fact, it is a book like no other, and it is for this reason, and by no means as confessing omission or after-thought, that I have made the notice of it a note. In an outside way, indeed, it may be said to belong to the school of Rene, but the resemblance is very partial.
The author was a painter—perhaps the only painter-novelist of merit, though there are bright examples of painter-poets. His other literary work consists of a good book on his Netherlandish brethren in art, and of two still better ones, descriptive of Algeria. And Dominique itself has unsurpassed passages of description at length, as well as numerous tiny touches like actual remarques on the margin of the page. Only once does his painter's eye seem to have failed him as to situation. The hero, when he has thrown himself on his knees before his beloved, and she (who is married and "honest") has started back in terror, "drags himself after her." Now I believe it to be impossible for any one to execute this manoeuvre without producing a ludicrous effect. For which reason the wise have laid it down that the kneeling posture should never be resorted to unless the object of worship is likely to remain fairly still. But this is, I think, the only slip in the book. It is exceedingly interesting to compare Fromentin's descriptions with those of Gautier on the one hand before him, and with those of Fabre and Theuriet on the other later. I should like to point out the differences, but it is probably better merely to suggest the comparison. His actual work in design and colour I never saw, but I think (from attacks on it that I have seen) I should like it.
But his descriptions, though they would always have given the book distinction, would not—or would not by themselves—have given it its special appeal. Neither does that appeal lie in such story as there is—which, in fact, is very little. A French squire (he is more nearly that than most French landlords have cared to be, or indeed have been able to be, since the Revolution and the Code Napoleon) is orphaned early, brought up at his remote country house by an aunt, privately tutored for a time, not by an abbe, but by a young schoolmaster and literary aspirant; then sent for three or four years to the nearest "college," where he is bored but triumphant: and at last, about his vingt ans, let loose in Paris. But—except once, and with the result, usual for him, of finding the thing a failure—he does not make the stock use of liberty at that age and in that place. He has, at school, made friends with another youth of good family in the same province, who has an uncle and cousins living in the town where the college is. The eldest she-cousin of Olivier d'Orsel, Madeleine, is a year older than Dominique de Bray, and of course he falls in love with her. But though she, in a way, knows his passion, and, as one finds out afterwards, shares or might have been made to share it, the love is "never told," and she marries another. The destined victims of the unsmooth course, however, meet in Paris, where Dominique and Olivier, though they do not share chambers, live in the same house and flat; and the story of just overcome temptation is broken off at last in a passionate scene like that of "Love and Duty"—which noble and strangely undervalued poem might serve as a long motto or verse-prelude to the book. It is rather questionable whether it would not be better without the thin frame of actual proem and conclusion, which does actually enclose the body of the novel as a sort of recit, provoked partly by the suicide, or attempted suicide, of Olivier after a life of fastidiousness and frivolity. The proem gives us Dominique as—after his passion-years, and his as yet unmentioned failure to achieve more than mediocrity in letters—a quiet if not cheerful married man with a charming wife, pretty children, a good estate, and some peasants not in the least like those of La Terre; while in the epilogue the tutor Augustin, who has made his way at last and has also married happily, drives up to the door, and the book ends abruptly. It is perhaps naughty, but one does not want the wife, or the children, or the good peasants, or the tutor Augustin, while the suicide of Olivier appears rather copy-booky. It is especially annoying thus to have what one does not want to know, and not what one, however childishly, does want to know—that is to say, the after-history of Madeleine.
Yet even in the preliminary forty or fifty pages few readers can fail to perceive that they have got hold of a most uncommon book. Its uncommonness, as was partly said above, does not consist merely in the excellence of its description; nor in the acuteness of the occasional mots; nor in the passion of the two main characters; nor in the representation of the mood of that "discouraged generation of 1850" of which it is, in prose and French, the other Testament corresponding to Matthew Arnold's in verse and English. Nor does it even consist in all these added together; but in the way in which they are fused; in which they permeate each other and make, not a group, but a whole. It might even, like Sainte-Beuve's Volupte (v. inf.). be called "not precisely a novel" at all, and even more than Fabre's Abbe Tigrane (v. inf. again), rather a study than a story. And it is partly from this point of view that one regrets the prologue and epilogue. No doubt—and the plea is a recurring one—in life these storms and stresses, these failures and disappointments, do often subside into something parallel to Dominique's second existence as squire, sportsman, husband, father, and farmer. No doubt they
Pulveris exigui jactu compacta quiescunt,
whether the dust is of the actual grave and its ashes, or the more symbolical one of the end of love. But on the whole, for art's sake, this somewhat prosaic Versoehnung is better left behind the scenes. Yet this may be a private—it may be an erroneous—criticism. The positive part of what has been said in favour of Dominique is, I think, something more. There are few novels like it; none exactly like, and perhaps one does not want many or any more. But by itself it stands—and stands crowned.
 Some years after its original appearance Mr. Andrew Lang, in collaboration with another friend of mine, who adopted the nom de guerre of "Paul Sylvester," published a complete translation under the title of The Dead Leman; and I believe that the late Mr. Lafacido Hearn more recently executed another. But this last I have never seen. (The new pages which follow to 222, it may not be superfluous to repeat, appeared originally in the Fortnightly Review for 1878, and were reprinted in Essays on French Novelists, London, 1891. The Essay itself contains, of course, a wider criticism of Gautier's work than would be proper here.)