Daudet's l'Immortel

WHEN Tourguénef signalized M. Daudet’s charm as his most distinctive quality, he indicated the true source of a rapid and brilliant success, and laid a caressing touch on the richest quarter of a talent which even in its first freshness had already a handled and cheaper side. It was not alone the sub-title Mœurs Parisiennes affixed to each yellow-covered volume, the introduction of known names and catch-words, the notice taken of the latest fashionable fad in the newest society dialect; it was not only the gift of narration, possessed by M. Daudet in a high degree, which gave Parisian and world-wide vogue to his novels : it was above all their charm, the movement of a vivid and picturesque pen, that graceful, tender delineation which made the existence of an improbable queen in an unsavory Paris read like an idyl, and gave distinction and piquancy to such a hard, vulgar figure as the petite Chèbe. Like Doré, who gained and lost a popularity not wholly dissimilar, M. Daudet had, to begin with, the artist’s hand, great facility of drawing and characterization, the power of invoking scenes and figures abundantly and saliently, and an irony leaning toward caricature. He had, moreover (his work in its brilliant surface effects constantly suggests comparison with the pictorial arts), an eye for color and value no less keen than his sense of form. His street scenes, with the rain washing over the pavements, the reflections, the figures passing and repassing, or the bouquets of color, the artificial stir and life of fashionable Paris under a dazzling sky and a veil of spring foliage, are like so many clever aquarelles. But with all this fertility of talent, M. Daudet, like Doré, struck a false note in art from the beginning. He had his perception of beauty and he had his ideals, but they were imagined, not perceived. He had his prepossessions, warm and captivating, but not always logical: a passion for forced contrasts and exaggerated lights, a sentimentality of tone, which, combined with his caricaturing tendency, brought upon him an immediate charge of having imitated Dickens. Although that charge was silenced in rounds of applause, forgotten in the fascination of his gifts and his personality, there is today, in French criticism, a certain depreciatory tone regarding his work which was not there yesterday, — a tendency to speak of his methods as no longer new, or to go back affectionately to the Daudet of Tartarin and the Lettres de mon Moulin, to the purely fantastic and idyllic Daudet, and to regard the Mœurs Parisiennes with less ardor of admiration ; and this, though the sale of his books still counts by tens of thousands.

Readers of M. Daudet’s new book 1 will search its pages in vain for the charm they have been wont to find in his work. It is not to be found in the characters, with a possible half exception in favor of the sculptor Védrine, a slight, vaguely picturesque personage, who, carelessly and defiantly erect amid a crumbling world, may be taken as a suggestion of the vitality of art in that capital whose novelists are always so fondly revealing its decay in all other respects. It is certainly not in the situations, which are, to put it mildly, not less than usually revolting, nor in the existence depicted, for the description of which the word “ feverish,” so often encountered here and in similar books, is altogether too healthful and hopeful an adjective. It can hardly Be discerned in the style, which, clever as heretofore, and graced with the normal accretion of new words and phrases, native or imported (the latest bit of English is “ struggle-for-lifeur,” shortened, for convenience, to “ strugforlifeur ”), is suggestive of a kind of talking between the teeth, pushing the words out, and firing or hissing the epigrams. M. Daudet has retrenched in the matter of sentiment; the waters have abated in a marked degree since Jack; but his exaggerations and his love of contrast are as inveterate as ever. His progress is not only in accord, but identical, with that of the age ; it demands and supplies more implements and accessories rather than more thought or skill. There is something more — or less, according to the point of view — than the spirit of the time reproduced in his pages : the inventions are let in bodily, so to speak; the electric light has been introduced, and his shadows are projected by its improved and unnatural glare, strong and uncompromising, slices from the very heart of darkness.

A novel is the comment of art upon life as well as a work of art per se. Of the life exhibited in L’Immortel perhaps the less said the better. If the interpretations of the author have no cleansing effect upon it, the milder labors of a reviewer will go for naught, and the reader entering its Augean precincts will do so at his own risk and peril. Moreover, it is the picture of a society from which the primal and human element is so thoroughly eliminated that there is little left to stimulate literary interest and discussion. The grouping of the book is excellent, the construction passably clever, the types so familiar even to our American eyes that we feel sure we must have encountered them in the daily papers. There is the Academy with its forty members, checked off into three orders, ducs, Petdeloup, cabotins. The first includes the aristocracy, the second the professorial class, the third the larger and more heterogeneous tribe of lawyers, theatrical men, journalists, and novelists. Around the Academy, as about a church door, are grouped the women who “run” the institution, entertaining its members and aspirants, and lobbying on behalf of their husbands, lovers, relatives, and friends ; and lastly there is the remorque of haggard candidates, who follow in the wake of the great association, haunting it as Stevenson’s band of Londoners haunted the suicide club, and watching the sicklist of its members with an interest which rises to frenzy at the prospect of a fatal termination in any quarter. Coming to individuals, we find a society nomenclature in which real names are shuffled in with names that are more than probable, and notabilities not only cross the scene in their habit as they lived, but lend of their traits or vestments to the leading characters ; tempting us to say with the deaf old Academy doyen, Jean Réhu, winding up his anecdote of a bygone day, “ J’ai vu ça, moi.” The Immortal who bestows his title on the book, Astier-Réhu, is adroitly introduced by an article on him from the “ Dictionnaire des Célébrités Contemporaines, édition de 1880; ” if the extract had been omitted, we should almost have been beguiled into looking for it in some such publication. “Astier, dit AstierRéhu (Pierre-Alexandre Léonard) de l’Académie Française, né en 1816,” endowed, according to the dictionary, with a rare aptitude for history, and cited by Mommsen in a note as ineptissimus, has gathered all the traditional dust and mould of the schools about his head. Long-eared, short-sighted, dogged, narrow, and important, he is a figure for a burlesque. He devotes himself to the accumulation of autographs, and to the publication of historical memoirs based upon these rather brief, not to say doubtful, materials. He has a son who despises him, and directs his energy with full nineteenth-century concentration to the getting of money. He has a wife, granddaughter of Jean Réhu, who has got him into the Academy, and relegates him on sweeping and reception days to the garret; who steals his most valued autographs, and sells them to raise money for the son, and is thus the cause of the discovery that the entire collection is a forgery, — a discovery which creates a panic in the Academy where they had been indorsed, and which, combined with domestic unpleasantnesses, drives the Immortal to take refuge in the Seine, from which his mortal remains are dragged out before the veteran who intimates by the cock of his venerable head that he has “ vu ça, moi.”

Among the unofficial — they cannot be called tender or romantic — incidents of the book is an episode of rivalry betwéen a living lover and a dead husband, the details of which are brutal enough, but the situation is one in which a cynical point of view has the advantage of a sentimental one in wholesomeness. Of sentiment, indeed, the book is thoroughly denuded. The alternate shower and sunshine of the afternoon passed by Paul Astier and Colette de Rosen in visiting her husband’s tomb at Père-Lachaise is an out-door effect in M. Daudet’s happier manner, but it lends no factitious grace to the absurdity and unpleasantness of the scene. A great deal of clever by-play is furnished by some of the lesser Academicians : by Lavaux, the journalist, friend of princes and duchesses, au fait of the latest scandal, who serves unquotable anecdotes and mots for Danjou to volley back; Danjou, the handsome dramatist, at work on a new play called Les Apparences, sulking at the duchess’s table because his wife is not asked, and in his element without her when the invitation has been extended to both. The conversation is full of allusions, newspaper horrors, on dits, of shrugs and glances, indicating in every paragraph that the author is one who knows his Paris.

It is a knowledge which those who read L’Immortel will be glad, and those who do not may well rest content, to leave him. The seal of the Academy could add nothing to the dreariness or the monotony of the book. If it is a trifle more homogeneous than some of its author’s former productions, the point is gained by a more uniform and intensified tone of bitterness, and by the fact that the high lights are fewer, not that they are in any way softened or blended. M. Daudet has always had a fancy for sorting his characters beforehand, dividing the sheep from the goats — let us say rather the lambs from the wolves — behind the curtain, and driving them before the public already branded and ticketed. That the whiter band should become less numerous in each successive volume is a phenomenon in accordance with the Darwinian or any other theory of the universe; in fact, the survival of such of its number as remain extant can be satisfactorily accounted for only by supposing a motive of economy or a singular absence of mind on the part of the prevailing species. M. Daudet has given us a gallery of figures which are attractive and sympathetic in spite of their heightened innocence and too evident destination to the purposes of sacrifice, — the little grandmother in Le Nabob, Elysée, Frédérique. Among the “ strugforlifeurs ” who fight the Darwinian battle under the dome of the Academy in the present volume, there is one unmistakable lamb, endowed with the qualities and defects of his kind, — Abel de Freydet, a provincial poet with a “ jolie note à la Brizeux,” who rests his claims to a seat among the Forty upon a poem entitled Dieu dans la Nature, and is deterred from publishing a second book, Pensées d’un Rustique, by the representations of Lavaux that it would be much better for his chances to let it be supposed that he has given up writing altogether. Moins on a d’œuvres, plus on a de titres.” His innocence is astounding, or would be if it were not accompanied by other traits equally associated with mutton. That notwithstanding this blamelessness and his abstinence from production he does not obtain the desired honor is of course a foregone conclusion. For the portrayal of lupine characteristics M. Daudet has a sharper pencil, and his sketches show no lack of individuality. But it is life from the standpoint of the Petit Journal Pour Rire, a series of satirical paragraphs in which the disgust of a genuine feeling, talent, and force descends to the weapons and methods of a petty spite. It may be the picture of a society from within ; it is a view of life from the outside.

How far this satire is animated by personal motives, how far the French Academy and the Parisian world are deserving in detail of the scorn heaped upon them by the Provençal romancer, are matters on which it would be presumptuous for a critic on this side of the ocean to venture an opinion. But without being informed as to the origin of a quarrel, we may examine into the nature of such missiles as chance to fall at our feet. And L’Immortel is a weapon of pretty questionable taste, though there can be no doubt as to its “ telling ” quality. There are some keen remarks on the lack of observation in fashionable people absorbed in their several rôles and toilets, — their blindness not only to the whole spectacle of Nature and the entire mass of their fellow-beings, but to innumerable points within their own narrow range of interest. There is the following portrait — for the identification of which one is almost tempted to turn to the Dictionnaire des Célébrités — of the Prince d’Athis, Samy for short and to be in the English fashion, a diplomatic figurehead, “ qui méprisait comme personne. Il méprisait de l’œil, ce fameux ceil dont Bismarck n’avait pu soutenir l’éclat; il méprisait de son grand nez chevalin, de sa bouche aux coins tombants, il méprisait sans savoir pourquoi, sans parler, sans écouter, sans rien lire ni comprendre, et sa fortune diplomatique, ses succès féminins et mondains, étaient faits de ce mépris répandu.”

But the keenness of the paragraphist is not the insight required for the creation of a work of art, nor are on dits the best sort of material for a novelist. Contempt, effective as it may be found socially in the hands of a Prince d’Athis, is not an all-potent factor in literature, and M. Daudet relies upon it a little too strongly. His book has a tone which reminds us of the Notes sur Paris, of M. Graindorge scornfully watching his ant-hill ; the assumption that ants are necessarily objects of contempt being M. Graindorge’s own. The fact is that there is a larger current of conventionality in French literature than can be bounded by the walls of the Academy. Apart from the learned and classical and social conventions, there is the monstrous convention of the French novel, cast and worshiped by novelists, to which the greatest and strongest talents have in some measure succumbed, — the convention of looking through the eyes of other novelists into a world created by the fraternity. M. Daudet, with all his alertness of mind and defiant attitude towards classical traditions, has subscribed to the convention, and written from the note-book instead of from the heart. Gifted with an impressionist talent, artistic in its aptitudes, but drawn by its very success in depicting the evanescent and the actual into hasty and mannered conclusions; with a charming fancy and a something in tone and spirit that was un-Parisian, happy, and captivating, he gave up his ideal tendencies, which required only to be strengthened by an alliance with the real, and adopted in their stead a readymade realism. It has not made him a great writer, and he has ceased, for the moment at least, to be an agreeable one. It will be a fortunate day for art, and for the novel in particular, when the French shall have finished their exhaustive labors in the sewer, and reached the level of the pavements. Their present industry and mining activity encourage us to hope that the day will come.

  1. L’Immortel: Mœurs Parisiennes. By A. DAUDET. Paris: Alphonse Lemerre. 1888.