Two New French Novels
A NEW novel by Alphonse Daudet is pretty sure to be a good deal talked about, even in this remote region, and it is easy for us to imagine how Paris must be full of gossip and chat about his last book, Les Rois en Exil.1 The disposition to discuss it can only be increased by the fact that the veil that covers some of the people he mentions, instead of being a concealment, is but a clue to their identity; this is especially the case with some of the crowned heads who are mentioned, and it is more than likely that some of the untitled characters are as well known to their fellow-citizens as are the ex-Queen of Spain and the exKing of Hanover through their flimsy disguises as the Queen of Galicia and the King of Westphalia. But whether or no the Parisian public has seen them on gala days, or has brushed against them on the streets, is a minor matter ; the proof of their actual existence is of no importance, if, indeed, it be not a hindrance ; they have to show to the reader’s satisfaction that they are those much rarer things, real characters, such as make a novel live. That they do this no one will deny, for the book leaves on the reader a very strong impression of the writer’s power. Daudet has already shown his ability to draw life-like characters, although he often indulges in what is very nearly caricature. Still, it has never been proved that caricature is necessarily a thing to be avoided by writers.
Le Nabab was a sort of historical novel about the present time, and the same thing can be said of Les Rois en Exil. In this story is shown the degradation of a king, of Illyria we are told, who having been driven from his throne by a revolution, takes refuge in Paris until such time as his people shall have grown tired of governing themselves. This king, Christian II., is an easy-going, pleasure-loving young fellow, without enthusiasm, caring only for enjoyment, who much prefers the easy joys he finds in Paris to the cares of ruling a remote kingdom. His wife is a very different person. She has the most earnest desire to see her husband, or their young son, on the throne of his ancestors. She believes fully in the divine right of kings, and she chafes under exile. She is wholly indifferent to her husband, except as the possible filler of a throne, and her life is spent, not in forgiving, so much as in trying to hide and condone, his many villainies. He is a Slav by birth and in character, that is to say, — judging from contemporary fiction, — he is almost wholly without character, and Paris completes the moral ruin of a man who was never more than a moral nonentity.
The book, then, describes the different stages in the modern Rake’s Progress, together with the wife’s futile struggle against fate. The story is a touching one, and what is more to the purpose it bears the mark of probability. Given the man and his surroundings, and the result described follows as surely as a brick detached from a chimney - top reaches the ground. A novel that naturally suggests itself for comparison is Cherbuliez’s L’ Aventure de Ladilas Bolski, a story that was not written for the New England public, to be sure, yet one of great impressiveness. Daudet’s novel has the same quality that, one would hope, even in the face of the unblushing translations of Zola, would keep it from becoming too well known here, and it is curious to see how very much the same effect has been produced by the two writers in two different ways. Cherbuliez’s method is what we may call an ideal one, while Daudet’s is more nearly a realistic one. To be sure, Cherbuliez’s ideal is a good deal like what one often sees in the theatre ; it is melodramatic, in short, while Daudet’s method is much simpler. We readers of English novels, who are accustomed to all sorts of inartistic construction, will feel ourselves at home in this story, which is not put together with formal precision ; but there is little doubt that in France this inattention to the generally followed rules may be judged with harshness. There is no crisis in the story, it is simply a collection of incidents, but these incidents are narrated with great skill. The novel is as formless as Middlemarch, and its merit is of very much the same kind, that is to say, it is a novel with a strong moral tendency. That it should show the worthlessness of kings is merely incidental ; the crown of Christian II. is but a thing of pasteboard which serves to make more impressive the already solemn tone of the book. What most distinctly marks the hero is the weakness, the shallowness, of his character.
Without sermonizing, without contempt for the poor king, Daudet has written what is a serious defense of upright conduct, simply by showing a weak, vicious man, and the consequences of his faults. His realism is not a mere tour de force, like Cherbuliez’s melodrama, it is direct study from life, and if it is a moral lesson that is most strongly enforced, this is the fault — if it be a fault — of life and not of the novelist. There is a certain way of looking at the dramatis personœ, that marks this book distinctly with the flavor of the present time, and some princes will doubtless be unable to read it without uneasiness, for they are not represented in their awe-inspiring state-robes, but as they appear behind the scenes to some of their coolheaded subjects. They are judged as men, not as something superior to man, and this novel of Daudet’s is almost as much flavored with democracy as it is with interest in Paris. Yet both this democratic feeling and this tone of moral earnestness were probably not intended to be prominent, but it is their apparent subordination and real prominence that raise the novel from the rank of entertaining books to that of a really important one.
As to the way in which the characters are drawn, too much cannot be said in praise. They are all set vividly before us by their position, while the pathetic story is one that is every day repeated before our eyes in other circles of society. But a king who is worthless seems more worthless than, say, a worthless coalheaver ; and a woman like this queen, who incedit regina, adorned with every virtue, wins our sympathy at once from the very contrast between her high estate, even when in exile, and her heartbreaking sufferings. She endures everything with a proud patience which sets in a more shameful light her paltry husbandmisdeeds, and she suffers doubly, as an outraged wife and as a betrayed queen. It is this exalted setting that gives the book its really poetical flavor ; what would have been touching under any circumstances is only the more touching on account of the magnitude of the interests involved, and the book is a real contemporary tragedy, that is to say, a tragedy as distinguished from a pathetic novel like Jack or even Le Nabab. Not only does it deal with a more exalted theme, but the disgust at the weakness of the king in this story is relieved by the prominence given to the queen. In the other tales the virtues of the heroes do but add to the poignancy of the accumulated sufferings, but in this one the reader is comforted by the exalted dignity of the heroine, who rises higher, whatever her trials.
The superiority of this story to even the best of merely clever, even if supremely clever, stories, like Ladislas Bolski, for instance, is most marked. One is pleasing in just the way that paper is pleasing, the other is something taken from human life.
Of less significance, though extremely entertaining, is Luigi Gualdo’s Un Mariage Excentrique.2 At a time when so many poor French stories are published, so many, that is, in proportion to the readable ones, this novel will be found very good reading. The author has set the scene of his story in Italy, and all the principal characters are Italians, but they really exist in the sort of fashionable fairy-land about which so much has been written. The plot is very complicated, and he is an ingenious reader who sees through all its complications beforehand, and who is not held with something approaching breathless interest to the swiftly turned pages. The story is in its way a natural one. It runs on with uniform vivacity ; the people are all life-like; the conversations are exceedingly good, and, as has been said, the plot is a masterpiece ; any one must be hard to please who is not amused by this combination of attractions. The author has some of the qualities with which Cherbuliez has entertained a delighted world. In other words, he belongs to what will soon be looked upon as oldfashioned, that is to Say, the romantic school. The new men, who are scientific, have, to be sure, the merit of doing something, and that rightly counts for something; but their work will have to be judged, not by the excellence of their intention to follow the thought of the century, but by its value for the reader. Emile Zola says that the days of the psychological hero in fiction are numbered, and that it is the physiological hero who is to do all the running. But however this may be, and this is not the moment for its complete examination, there are yet some readers who will not turn their backs upon agreeable books. Men with theories are often not so completely in the right as they imagine, and it may be that readers will look for something besides scientific method in the fiction that is provided for them. As it is, this Mariage Excentrique will be found interesting. It belongs to the class of novels which includes fairy tales, while Zola’s novels find their most formidable rivals in the criminal reports of a daily newspaper.