Some Recent French Novels

M. HENRI LAVEDAN, one of the later aspirants for fame in the ranks of French fiction, — at this distance from Paris we hesitate to use the word “ new ” in the superlative, — was introduced to English readers some months ago by the Baroness Blaze de Bury, in the Fortnightly Review. He is a stylist and a cynic ; his credentials and the insignia of his art are a picked vocabulary and a drop of gall. Among the “ giddy offenses that he hath taxed the whole race withal ” — for both sexes come under the lash — “there are none principal.” His aptitude for condensation and keen sense of form necessitate, however the selection as a theme of some special phase or crisis, and in both the stories before us he has poured his generalization into the mould of the particular by making his observations at that point where a man puts off the garment of his folly, which his successor dons in tribute to his memory. A funeral, to M. Lavedan, is the scene in which human pretensions and human results are measured back to back, and in which the disproportion is greatest between the sentiments which people actually experience and those which they are supposed or suppose themselves to have. Upon this scene he accordingly expends the better part of the talent entrusted to him, and the strength of his drop of bitterness. His forte may be said to lie in “ a nice derangement of epitaphs.” A sense of the unreality of funerals is not confined to moralist or cynic. The merest child, seeing in the acting of his elders a grief which he feels he ought to feel, and knows he does n’t, is haunted by it. The most sincere mourner is in presence of a mystery which interposes a void between his sorrow and its object. Man playing his little part before the mirror of death is a sufficient subject for observer, humorist, or poet; a spectacle for amusement, pity, or it may be reverence. M. Lavedan’s gifts have not the amplitude essential to poetry or humor; he has a suggestion of these qualities, attenuated in the one case to picture-making, in the other to satire. Of his qualifications as an observer it would be unfair to judge from two stories which deal but little either with the manners of the day or the development of character.

In Les Inconsolables the personages are but two, and they are of the ordinary type which has been elaborated to the last degree of finish by a host of clever writers of comedy and vaudeville, and now stands ready for hire in the French literary market. It is their situation which is novel, and it is not rendered less amusing by the conventionality of the actors, who are excellent histrions in their line. They meet before an open grave, each in the capacity of husband of the deceased : the one being recently widowed, the other bereaved some years previously by divorce. The not unnatural embarrassment of the first moment having worn off, they discover that a common grief is a bond of union, take up their abode together, and vie with each other in dual manifestations of woe, which in the end are duly and dually laid aside for a rivalry in neutral tints and hues of festivity. It is a comedy in crape, which, if presented to us in English, would be termed a farce. The treatment which M. Lavedan bestows upon it, skillful as it is, can hardly be said to remove it from that category; and the production seems rather commonplace for so delicate a writer, though the ironic intention which runs through it and the bit of cenotaphic word-painting in the first pages are of finer grain.

We can engage to call nothing common in Sire, though there are passages which prevent us from carrying out the remainder of the injunction. The costuming, decoration, and adjective-hunting suggest an apprenticeship to Gautier, though a certain joy in these occupations, which generally managed to get into the pages of the master, is conspicuously absent. Here, again, the cast includes but two leading characters : the Countess of Saint-Salbi, rich and no longer young, who, reared in the monarchical cult, and leading a narrow, solitary life, has fastened her atom of mind with all the tenacity and fanaticism of weakness upon one idea, — that of the existence and possible restoration of Louis XVII.; and an ex-postilion, who, provided with the requisite costume and snuff-box, is introduced to her as Louis XVII., incognito, and secures her fortune by a morganatic marriage. Pending the day when the king shall claim his own, they reside in an old castle belonging to the countess, where “ le Roy ” seeks relief from ennui in the society of the bottle and the laundrymaid ; while his spouse, recognizing as part of the tradition a royal license in the matter of pleasure, is consumed with mortification that the object of a king’s passion should be of lower rank than a marquise. This tale of imitation royalty is adorned with touches of a mock symbolism, and with the resources of a style of which the most noticeable feature is its power of giving relief to objects suggestive of plastic rather than literary effects. The sun and the moon lend their glory to the illusion, and are decorated for their services with capital letters. The dramatis personœ have little responsibility beyond that of contributing to the general rococo character of the scene : the countess is a graceful, faded outline in tapestry ; the impostor swaggers with an ancient air even in the privacy of his actual character. Of living, human interest there is none; the book is not a representation of life, but an epigram on it. There is a flight from Paris, made in the strictest incognito, with no retinue save a coachman ; his Majesty is lost in thought, or some other medium, while the countess, respecting “ this silence of a surety filled with the most poignant recollections,” thinks, “ It is Varennes over again.” There is a death-bed scene, in which the impostor makes full confession, and the victim for an instant sees the whole fabric of her religion totter. But noblesse oblige; she is true to her faith, sets aside the confession as an utterance of delirium, and in all the etiquette of court mourning devotes herself to the obsequies and memory of “ le Roy.”

“ That night, the next day, and the second night following the catastrophe, madame, refusing all food, gaining from her grief all the strength that came to her, remained by the bedside of the prince, who lay in full dress on a bed of state, with rouge de Portugal on his cheeks and white gloves, in the supreme irony of his royal attire. She could not take her eyes from the face, from which the usual element of vulgarity, invisible to her alone, had disappeared, now that it lay like a block of marble on the cushions of blue velvet. Illuminated thus by the wavering lights of torches and candelabra, the head of le Roy, clear cut and firm, with holes of shadow about the temples and in the hollow of the jaws, seemed the ready-modeled head of his own statue. . . . Shortly before the body was transferred to the bier, the countess, worn out, sat down by the window, which was wide open on the chill dawn of a late November day. ... In the sky, the very night clouds had erected, in honor of the sovereign who had yielded his soul to God, an immense catafalque, with its foreground and background, its framework, its vault, and its hangings of darkness. It was still lit as by pale candles with a last few stars; a smoke rose at its corners as from halfextinguished torches, and long shredded veils, each a mile of black tulle, floated gently, like funeral scarfs. But all at once the fragile, colossal machine trembled and split; its steps gave way ; the wind blew out the candles, overturned the columns, demolished the great triumph of mortuary art, and its warped remains soon vanished to the northward, driven by a slow, heavy cloud shaped like a giant dung-cart. And madame sat still in her place. Hypnotized in a fashion by a spectacle in which she longed to find some prophetic token, she suddenly comprehended, as by intuition, looking through a momentary vista of the future, that an end had come to that undefined and glorious essence which is called monarchical Prestige. The monarchy itself could never have expired with him who lay ready for burial; it would still live for ages and prosper in that France which owed to it her indestructible greatness. In spite of revolutions which should break its power in the morning, to demand it again at night, it would rise ever stronger and more complete from its ashes, but without Prestige ; without the charm, the glamour, and the grace which once embroidered and adorned it; without that flower of etiquette, its powdered, ever watchful politeness; without the worship and religious adoration of a whole people,”

This is a great outlay of talent to convince one poor lady of a small fraction of truth ; and even looking over her shoulder and seeing many things disappear with the capitalized Prestige, we cannot help feeling that the sun and the moon and M. Lavedan have been at great pains to tell us very little. Man the little and Death the flat-nosed, la Camarde, — these are the actual hero and heroine, the real personages, of these stories ; but it is hardly necessary to a proper mortuary culmination to eliminate so carefully as M. Lavedan has done all traces of life ; and though it is doubtless the correct thing artistically to sit upon velvet cushions and discourse of the nothingness of man, we prefer, as plain novel-readers, to have his existence sufficiently taken for granted to insure a likeness.

M. Cherbuliez comes back to us with his old interest in the intricacies of character and his old belief in the efficacy of literary machinery as fresh as ever. He is an established favorite with American readers of French novels, and Une Gageure shows no falling off in cleverness, though it is less translatable than its predecessors, and, while by no means immoral in tone, may better be left to its native yellow covers, and to an audience of novel-readers more mature than our usual American one. There are two waiters perceptible in M. Cherbuliez, and he is a great deal too fond of contrast and paradox to make any attempt to reconcile them. There is a story-teller, who has the talent and the vice of ingenuity, who relies on trapdoors and coincidence, and gives us mysterious staccato personages of the Count Kostia order; and there is also an analyst, who proceeds by finer and more subtle methods, — who initiates us into plausible and intricate workings of the human mind, and introduces us to a set of characters who, if they never existed, have at least acquired a sort of intellectual right to do so. Each of these writers has merit in his special line of a high, though by no means of the highest order. Our own preference is for the Cherbuliez of Prosper and the creator of Didier Randoce, that clever study in idiosyncrasy, which came so near to being, and to being so admirable. It is the analytical Cherbuliez who is uppermost in Une Gageure, and Mademoiselle Claire Vionnaz, with her docile intelligence, her ignorance of the world, and her ready-made conceptions, her capacity for loving and her exaggerated ideal of friendship, is one of his best achievements. The tale of her vow of celibacy, of her marriage, of her subsequent revulsion of feeling on being told, in the interval between the civil and religious ceremony, that her husband does not love her, and of the wooing that follows, is an interesting one, in which the storyteller as well as the analyst is in good trim, though he now and then grates upon our sensibilities by an excess of zeal. We like Claire far too well not to regret that the gifts which she wears with such modesty and grace should include a turn for forgery, a talent of so little practical service to her that it might easily have been dispensed with. Any other tool would have done as well to force the dénoûment, which is really brought about very pleasantly and naturally by her love for her husband, and by the attitude of self-assertion to which she is forced at the last. Her friend, the Duchesse d’Armanches, who as an amateur artist was so brilliant that she could never discover why she failed of reaching the highest professional standard, is less carefully and truly worked out, but admirable as a conception.

“ The Duchesse d’Armanches had not the faculty for combining and driving abreast her undertakings, so as to leave no one of them at a disadvantage. This superior woman, intellectually so rich and so fired with ambitions and endowed with diverse talents, was incapable of caring for two things at once, or of being interested in two persons at one and the same time. It is only large hearts which can give themselves freely without being exhausted, and in her organization everything was on a large scale except the heart. A mother with ten children can give her whole soul to each one of them; but the duchess was destined never to know maternal love, or anything resembling it. Whatever occupation she took up, she gave herself completely to it, and was then obliged to take herself completely back again in order to bestow herself anew. When she had a picture in hand, the universe suddenly disappeared, and she created around her a solitude to which Mademoiselle Vionnaz alone was admitted. There were whole weeks, and even months, in which she cared for nothing but music : song appeared to her the only language worth speaking, — the one in which to pour out one’s secrets, to reveal one’s inmost being; she was in love with her golden voice, and despised her paintbrush. In her attacks of worldliness, she belonged wholly to the world. A clever woman of business, she sometimes gave herself up to speculating, which generally turned out successfully ; it was done only as an amusement, but it was an amusement which had the character of a fever. Then, if the fancy for travel seized her, she left all, and forbade her broker to write to her save in a case of the utmost extremity. Thus one nail drove out another, and burning passions were followed by long periods of forgetfulness, of mortal indifference. She was a person of great distinction, but she was also a very incomplete one, and she suffered secretly from that fact.”

The complications of the story are brought about by the fact that when the duchess gives herself to lying, she is like Méta Holdenis, and can “ lie to the grave.” She is one of those characters whom the author delights to pursue and to prove in the wrong. The impartiality of novelists who treat all their personages alike is not for M. Cherbuliez. But we will not defend the duchess, who is a type, not an individual, and represents that attitude of art without heart which would soon rule the world were it capable of producing anything that could count as a masterpiece.

We hear a good deal of talk nowadays about the impropriety of novelists taking upon themselves to explain their art instead of leaving it to be divined by their readers. But the phenomenon is not very surprising, after all, save in a country where the interest in literature is largely of an unliterary sort. True, we have not the authority of the older writers for such a proceeding, but with each generation customs arise which Moses omitted either to enjoin or prohibit. Literature is the natural medium for the expression of ideas upon literature, and the fullness with which writers nowadays take readers into their confidence results from the quickening on both sides of a conscious interest in the means by which literary works are produced, and in the relation which they bear to life. The critic, at least, cannot afford to censure; for a criticism which has for its primary object the perception and disclosure of an author’s meaning will be ready to accept any aid in arriving at that object, even from so direct a source. In France, it is no new thing for an author to set forth his methods and convictions, or to presuppose an interest in them on the part of his readers. M. Edouard Rod’s chapter of literary autobiography, given as a preface to Les Trois Cœurs, is by no means the least interesting part of the book. M. Rod set out, as lie tells us, ten years ago, as an enthusiastic naturalist, — more enthusiastic than natural, we suspect; and now, at a considerable distance from the camp, he retraces the steps by which he left it. He characterizes his own naturalism as a matter of conviction rather than of temperament, and notes the existence throughout the school, and by his own confession in Zola himself, of a levain romantique. Our own acquaintance with the novels of M. Rod had not, we regret to say, begun, in the days when he was a naturalist; but, judging from the present book, and making full allowance for the rebound of a convert, it is difficult to imagine that his achievements in the realistic line can ever have been great. The first intellectual doubts came to him from the founder of the faith. Zola’s theory of the experimental novel, substituting a potential for an indicative mood, and placing a larger executive responsibility in the hands of the novelist, was seized by his disciple as an escape from the novel of observation, of which the limitations — or the requirements — had proved irksome to some of the younger members of the school.

“ It will not do to forget that there were developing within us cravings which naturalism could not satisfy; being in its essence limited, self-satisfied, materialistic ; interesting itself in manners rather than in souls. We were — and we were destined to become in a still higher degree — restless minds, smitten with a longing for the infinite ; idealists, careless of manners, and looking through appearances to man.”

To disaffection within the ranks were joined beguiling voices from without. We will mention only two of the literary influences felt by M. Rod : that of the Russian novelists and that of Dante Rossetti. Having proceeded from naturalism to symbolism without, so far as we can perceive, experiencing any very radical change, M. Rod has set himself to discover a method of novel-writing by which he can embody some of his new convictions; and, while recognizing the fact that there have been too many attempts at schools in France, and that it requires “ a unilateral faith ” to believe implicitly in terms, he has erected for himself a sort of provisional government under the name “ intuitivism.”

What is an intuitive novel, and how does it differ from other novels whose writers may be supposed to have been blessed now and then with intuitions ? Intuitivism M. Rod defines as inward observation; the study of self, not as an end, “ but as a key to the mysteries of the human mind.” With this key Shakespeare no doubt unlocked more hearts than his own, though he has left us no record of having done so. “ Look into thine own heart and write ” is no new maxim, and it is one which would have been pretty sure to be followed in some fashion or other, if it had never been formulated; for we comprehend the minds of others by our own, as we see through the eyes bestowed upon us. But the programme of intuitivism as set forth by M. Rod is a more special matter. It does away with most of the materials which are accumulated by other than intuitional methods. “ I have sought, in this little book, to disengage the novel from some of the tares which prevent it from developing in the way that I have indicated: to free it, in the first place, from description, which appears to me affected and often illusory, since it takes up a great deal of space, says little, and explains nothing ; secondly, from retrospective narrative, which, intended simply to introduce the characters, has become in time a stereotyped discussion on childhood, youth, and education, and which, when significant, has the drawback of making the outline too precise ; and, finally, — though not to as great an extent as I could have wished, — from ‘ scenes,’ which have always an artificial and theatrical air.” Theoretically, these are steps in a right direction, though the oldfashioned novel-reader may be tempted to inquire what is left after this wholesale elimination. After an attentive reading of JLes Trois Cceurs, we cannot say that we think there is much left. M. Rod might almost have included conversation among his omissions, for we get very little of it, except of a new order, which we might call solitary conversation, if we had not the better word intuitive ” Supplied to us.

In his inward investigations, M. Rod has not failed to note the fact that, alongside of our active life, there takes place a sort of drama of idleness; that much of our existence is passed among imaginary scenes and conversations. The mind anticipates events, shapes them at its own will, and produces those castles in the air erroneously assumed to be the exclusive property of youth ; those inward dialogues in which we ourselves shine so brilliantly, and the other party becomes a mere echo. One of the most striking points in the Russian novels, to one curious of methods in novel-writing, is the place given to this double action of the mind. Those men of the steppe know all the elves and demons by which solitude is peopled. Tolstoi and Turgenieff, with their rich storehouse of experience, gleaned from within and without, are observers, psychologists, realists, and idealists in one. But in France the differentiation of talent is carried, nowadays, to such excess that we meet with novelists apparently endowed, like INI. Cherbuliez’s duchess, with an incapacity for beholding two things at once. In Les Trois Cceurs, we are introduced to the hero, Richard Noral, and his wife, as they sit at their fireside, each carrying on a line of meditation, from which we get alternate passages, making a sort of unspoken dialogue. When a man dreams in a style too generally ascribed by novelists to members of the weaker sex, — “I have never loved enough ! . . . Whenever a new feeling beat within my heart, I have driven it away by reason. I have never let myself go. I have analyzed all my desires. I have known no intoxication ; ” when he is filled with “ un ardent soif d’inconnu,” and aspires “ à des mystères d’âme et de chair,” and his wife thinks, He is unhappy, and my love for him is vain ; I can do nothing for his happiness,” — there are rocks ahead, as any novelreader can tell. This inward drama not only serves as the exclusive medium through which we watch M. Rod’s characters ; it also dominates and shapes their action. Richard Noral, egoist and dreamer, breaks three women’s hearts in his attempts at an outward realization of his rather commonplace aspirations, and is rewarded by a momentary contact with the real aspect of things, and by the discovery that in pursuing the shadow he has let the substance flee. The scene of the book is an interior one. The inward, invisible symbol is substituted for the outward and visible fact. Were it not for the incident which disposes of the American adventuress, whose name M. Rod has sought across the Channel rather than on this side of the Atlantic, we should have been allowed to hope that M. Noral’s misdemeanors and attractions had been taken a little too seriously by the author as well as by himself, and that the hearts of Hélène, Rose-Mary, and Madame d’Hays might be susceptible of recovery in a clearer atmosphere. But the breaking of hearts is a question which a prudent critic will forbear to meddle with. M. Rod’s experiment in novel - writing has interested us more than his novel. No large result in fiction could ever be obtained by looking at life in sections, but we may reasonably expect interesting studies from such an undertaking. There are, no doubt, many lives wrecked upon unsubstantial reefs, and the life of an egoist, intuitively viewed, may bring to light a number of truths, of however unpleasant a variety. But M. Rod’s intuitions play as persistently upon the surface as if his subject were contemporary manners. They give us no real insight, no new fact. His intuitive novel is neither realistic nor in any true sense ideal, but a slice of the conventional French fiction dipped in a solution of Rossetti. Even among his own countrymen, Rossetti has not always been happy as an influence, and an imitation House of Life is tolerably sure to meet with the fate of a house built upon sand.

M. Rabusson has no subtleties to unfold, no psychological investigations to make ; he is content with the outside of things, likes his personages to be strong and well, and tells their story in a straightforward manner. There is a certain English element in M. Rabusson’s books; at least, it is one not common in French fiction. He is at his best in scenes of outdoor and country-house life; his heroines are bright-eyed, athletic, independent beings, and he makes a hearty plea for more air and exercise in the training of young France, contrasting town and country, with an allegiance to the latter almost as uncompromising as Cowper’s. The present book is a protest against society influences and surroundings for young girls, but the moral is not too prominent. M. Rabusson preaches by story rather than essay, and chooses his examples without exaggeration. Mademoiselle Béatrix de Laverdun has just enough high spirits and love of pleasure to excuse the uneasiness of her lover, and leave room for a shade of doubt as to the result of a struggle between hereditary tendency and influence, on the one hand, and education and early surroundings, on the other. She is submissive and conventional to a degree which would rarely be reached by or expected from American girls, yet she preserves an amount of independence which does great credit to her original force of character. She is, in short, a nice fellow, and so is her boy lover ; and, though an Englishspeaking reader may wish that the author had omitted, in describing their good points, to mention all the unwholesome sentiments which they might have entertained, but did not, it is perhaps too much to ask of the author of a virtuous French novel that it should refrain from showing off its virtue. The parlor idyl of these two young people is joined to the drama of their elders in a way that is well indicated and in the end very happy, and the double story makes a readable and pleasant, though not particularly powerful novel.

Pierrille is a veritable idyl, with its scene laid as far as possible from the madding crowd, and its prose loitering within the borders of poetry. It was M. Claretie’s first book, and won him a cordial recognition from George Sand. The reprint before us, with its graceful little French pictures, which tell us so much in the corner of a page, will be a delightful acquisition to students of French, for the charm and simplicity of the style. It was written in 1859, — the year, by the way, in which Mirèio appeared,—and the scene, which is laid in Périgord, is southern enough to recall the Provençal poem to readers of Miss Preston’s translation. Among the peasant feasts and customs, we find mention of a corn-husking, which is like a bit of our own country ; but the peasants in M. Claretie’s tale, with their affectionate expansion and overflowing emotions, are very unlike anything in the Bay State or Granite Hills. They are pleasant bonnes gens to read of, and the courtesy and native breeding which they display make of this rustic idyl, as compared with many rural pictures, almost an idylle de salon.

  1. Les Inconsolables. Par HENRI LAVENAN. Paris : Ernest Kolb.
  2. Sire. Par HENRI LAVEDAN. Paris: Librairie Moderne.
  3. Une Gageure. Par VICTOR CHERBULIEZ. Paris : Librairie Hachette.
  4. Les Trois Cœurs. Par EDOUARD ROD. 3me édition. Paris : Perrin et Cie.
  5. Idylle et Drame de Salon. Par HENRI RABUSSON. 3me édition. Paris : Calmann Lévy.
  6. Pierrille. Par JULES CLARETIE (de l’Académie Française). Paris: E. Dentu.
  7. Boston: Carl Schoenhof.