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Gospels of Anarchy and Other Contemporary Studies . Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
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page: 233

ROSNY AND THE FRENCH ANALYTICAL NOVEL

page: 235

ROSNY AND THE FRENCH ANALYTICAL NOVEL

I

SHALL we ever obtain this truth which all novelists seem striving after, or have we ever obtained it—truth, subjective truth even, such as we find it, for instance, in Rousseau’s “Confessions,” or in certain veiled autobiographies, like “Werther” and “Adolphe”?

A hundred reasons prevent the novelist from working with absolute fidelity to life; and reluctance to abuse confidence, to hurt the feelings of his models, is the least important of these reasons. The strongest reason is that reality is reality, defies presentation by its complexity; that a mutilated, isolated, arranged reality, with cause and effect freely upset, is no reality at all; moreover, that it is doubtful whether any one save a professional novelist would give a thank you for real reality in a novel. Reality is valuable to us only as the raw material for something very different; the artistic sense alters it into patterns, the logical faculty reduces it to ideas. Except for individual action, the individual case, which is the only reality, has no final importance.

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But the novelist continues to delude himself; he piques himself upon the quality he cannot get. Most novelists (and the more deliberately realistic the worse) treat human life and character by a system of scientific fictions, deliberately simplifying phenomena till they become abstractions, diagrams; they pretend to explain as the result of a single factor of grossly exaggerated importance what must have been the result of a dozen or a hundred factors. So, the real action copied from life is made the centre of a circle of unrealities.

Again, most novelists practise realism by explaining the unknown in one real personage by the known in another real personage, most commonly their own self. They fuse together two creatures of the same category, and think that two half organisms must necessarily make one whole, forgetting, alas! that you can unite only such parts as complete each other, but not such others as are either duplicates or substitutes; producing by such arrangements sirens and minotaurs, creatures who could not have assimilated with a bird’s gizzard or a ruminant’s stomach the food which must have passed through a human gullet or set in motion human limbs. At best they patch up centaurs, decorative animals who can trot and caper, because the artist paints them trotting and capering, but who have two stomachs and two pairs of lungs, those of the man and those of the horse, a reduplication which natural selection and Dr. Weissmann’s “Law of Panmixia” render improbable.

Is this exaggeration? Scarcely. Is not a Père Goriot, for instance, an agglomeration of the parental page: 237 quality of at least a dozen parents, something analogous to the creature on the Shield of Sicily and the Isle of Man, made of three legs without a head or arms? The day will perhaps come when biological psychology and the study of individual cases, when, above all, a scientific habit of mind, will accustom us to the notion that an individual cannot be anything except himself; that if a real Tom were fused with a real Dick, and both with a real Harry, there would be an end to the three realities without the birth of a fourth one. We may then learn, perhaps, how real people are made up of various strands; the necessary fashion in which grandfather Falstaff reacts on great‐grandfather Hamlet; and how maternal grandmother Clarissa Harlowe is modified or neutralised by paternal grandmother Becky Sharp; nay, what colour of hair and skin, what voice and gait, what physiological affinities and repulsions the various living puppets of the world’s stage can have.

Meanwhile, the psychological novelist traffics in people’s ignorance, and men like Bourget and Maupassant manufacture individuals and types much as our earliest ancestors made up bird‐women, bull‐men, and that magnificent human document, the bronze chimæra of Arezzo.

Luckily, there are still novelists without scientific pretensions, without mania for reality; or, shall we say, luckily there is among novelists a certain amount of intuition, of that synthetic and sympathetic creation which is genius. I will not even speak of Tolstoi. Far lesser men, like Björnsen and Rosny, have given us work which is intuitive and genial. page: 238 They do not make up a complete skeleton for sale out of odd bones picked out of the heap (I knew such a skeleton once, the property of a painter; it had French legs and the skull and spine of a Dutchman). They tell us about creatures not objectively real, but not subjectively unreal, who have come to exist by a spontaneous stratification of impressions, in the transmuting heat of liking and disliking; creatures who have life because born of the life, the preferences and aversions, the passionate hope and hostility of the author.

For the rest, should we regret the novelist’s incapacity to compass reality? Surely not. No book, only experience, could teach us to know the individual. Indeed, there is no individual to know; since what we take for one is merely the impression made on ourselves by the ever‐shrouded, mysterious selves of other folk. The novel cannot teach us to know the individual. But it can teach us certain general—very general—facts about classes and the surroundings of classes. It can teach us the influences to which individuals are subjected, whether of bodily crisis or of social position. Thus, all children cut their teeth and crawl on the floor; all girls gradually evolve into women; all people change; all people have material wants, social ideals, national peculiarities. What if we might have known all this without the novelist’s pseudo‐realities? We should not have found it out so efficiently, so universally; we should have known these things piecemeal, superficially, always alike too late in the day, for want of something to make it worth our while—of something to catch our attention and enlist our page: 239 sympathies. Now, the novelist makes it worth our while. By interesting us in the unreal creatures, children of his wishes or diagrams of his analysis, he accustoms us to take interest in the living mysteries who walk, act, and suffer all round us. And when he is a great novelist—not an analyst, not a copyist of the actual, but a sympathetic artist, a passionate lover of the human creature—he can do infinitely more: he can people our fancy with living phantoms whom we love, he can enrich our life by the strange power called charm.

II

I doubt whether Rosny will ever be popular, despite the force and the thoroughly human warmth of his genius. He is full of arduousness, of splendid qualities which take energy and intelligence to enjoy, mixed with unimportant defects which require even more energy and intelligence to overlook; for, after all, is there not an art of appreciation, like an art of living, which consists in making the most of what is fruitful and pleasant, and disregarding what is tiresome and to no purpose? There are not many good readers (though there be many subtle critics) in the world; but, to such good readers as there are, Rosny, like Browning, will give much in return for much.

Speaking of Browning, Rosny always reminds me a little of Browning’s Grammarian; there is in him a combination or discord between rare distinction, amounting to exquisiteness sometimes, and a certain page: 240 denseness and pedantry, which we feel sure that Grammarian had also, going to be buried on the top of his rock, untidy, unkempt, having walked past much of the sweetness and beauty of life, nay, stumbled over it, in his absorption over the enclitic δε.

Rosny possesses what among living French novelists is rather unique than rare—sincerity; he wishes to please himself, he does not make himself up for sale. Sincerity; and hence the highest kind of distinction—personal preference. He does not cast about him for subjects which have not yet been treated; he does not seek for the exotic in the wares of the Far East or in the Parisian dust‐heap. His singular originality—the new views of life, the new kind of characters (his charming class of nature‐lovers, men with intuition and sympathy for clouds, plants, beasts) which he gives us are due to the fact of his being a human individuality, full of individual likings and dislikings, long before he is a writer. Before setting about rather arduously describing, analysing, making things live again, he knows perfectly well that he cares for them in themselves, that they seem to him full of intrinsic importance. One feels sure, in dealing with Rosny, that he would have liked to read about the things he likes to write about; that they are for him what savages and virgin forests are to his little friend in “l’Impérieuse Bonté,” what storms and seas are to the doctor in “Renouveau,” what the poor abortions are to the divinely kind women in that strange book of his on charity. Rosny’s distinction of nature, his real aristocratic quality (as opposed to the odd impotencies and depravities which other French novelists cherish as page: 241 signs of superiority!) is also shown in that love for cleanness and strength which underlies his surgeon’s, nay, his sick nurse’s tenderness towards disease and suffering. He sees that strength alone can be divine; not, as a brutal misunderstanding of Darwinism is for ever telling us, because strength can crush weakness; but because, on the contrary, only through strength can weakness be compensated, neutralised, reclaimed. To the strong, the wise, the rich shall be given, because by them alone can more be given in return. The full personal life, according to Rosny, is the life which transcends mere personal wants and interests, or, rather, whose wants and interests are those also of others.

The little story called “Daniel Valgraive,” though by no means among Rosny’s most satisfactory work, is extremely significant of his temper and tendencies. It is a story of a man’s victorious struggle with creeping death; death which is stealthily invading all his nobler part, trying to beat his soul back to the microscopic central ego, trying to canalise his last vigour into mere bitterness and envy. Valgraive is victorious. In him “la fatalité du bien” is irresistible, and death loses its sting. He lives, to the last moment of his life, in community with the life universal; and, instead of being extinguished before the bodily dissolution, his soul survives yet awhile, in the impulse of happiness it has given, in the love it has left.

Rosny has given us the reverse case in the painful and over‐elaborate study called “Le Termite.” Noël Servaise, destroyed piecemeal by bodily pain, is narrowing closer and closer; his tortured nerves perceive other folk only as obstacles and enemies, the world as a vague, page: 242 dreadful antagonist. Each time that the crisis of his malady is over, that the bodily agony is staved off for a time by liberation from the constantly re‐forming calculus, the man becomes capable, to an extent at least, of liberation from his hideous self. Liberated, if only in the possibility of selfish love, of sensitiveness to the kindlier aspects of Nature, he knows joy, which is a union, however humble, with what is not his own wretched ego. One guesses that he may, if time be given, become almost capable of love. Or will the calculus, inexorably gathered together in his flesh, turn him back in agony on himself? This hero of the “Termite” is the outcast of Nature, the creature who should never have been; the creature born of the selfishness of others, of the shortcomings of our civilisation; the creature who deserves all the patience and understanding and tenderness of those who, unlike himself, can have patience and understanding and tenderness.

Of Rosny, further. The pedantic element shows itself, like nearly all intellectual and moral defects, in a lack of harmony between the writer and his subject; between the observer and the world; in a disproportion a separateness between the individual ego and the myriad multifold egos all round—the besetting sin of the whole French school of novelists, beginning with Balzac. Hence he lacks that sense of the mystery of other folk, nay, almost of the mystery of oneself, which makes the very greatest novelists so respectfully delicate in their handling of the human soul, even the cynical Stendhal, the jocular Thackeray; and which distinguishes so immeasurably the two greatest novelists of our age—Browning and Tolstoi. Rosny thinks page: 243 that he can penetrate into a human creature as he could penetrate, with knife and microscope, into a plant or a dead limb. He does not feel that the reality of another can never be coextensive, much less consubstantial, with any formula, or definition, or description; since our formulas, definitions, and descriptions are limited and conditioned by our individual experience and nature: The world is so vast, and every human soul so immense (the human soul which is, who knows? perhaps the close‐packed soul stuff of a thousand ancestors), that whenever we paint, nay, see any portion thereof in minutest detail, we do so at the price of a monstrously disproportionate picture or vision; the flea’s proboscis becomes that of an elephant, while the table or chair hard by becomes, by comparison, mere toy‐box furniture. And Rosny, with unsuspecting awkwardness, calmly dismembering human life, does often present us with such microscope nightmares. I am thinking of portions of the otherwise splendid “Indomptée,” but particularly of that gruesome book “Le Termite.” I do not blame him in the least for deliberately analysing physical pain and its moral miseries. Such an analysis is, of course, atrociously painful to the reader; but is it not fair that we should be pained sometimes, in order to learn what pain others are feeling? And is it not as well that we should realise the wretched ruin of so many lives, considering that we have it in our power very often similarly to ruin the life of our neighbours, our children, and of the unborn generations? The moral object is surely legitimate. What I object to in Rosny—and, for the matter of that, in nearly all novelists of the page: 244 French analytic school—is that the psychological method is faulty. All these accounts of pain, greater or less, lack one of pain’s most essential features—its evanescence; as, for the matter of that, all analysis of life lacks life’s chief characteristic—change, instability. Rosny’s hero probably did not realise the agonies of his crisis, once those agonies were over, in anything like the way in which we are made to realise them; for there is in literature a power of fixing impression, making it uniform and uniformly continuous, causing, as it were, the water which would run off in its natural channels to return for ever and ever by the artificial mechanism of a fountain. And this, the chief fault of Rosny, is the fault, of course, of less sincere and less genial writers, like Huysmans. In the case of Rosny’s Noël Servaise, life, however honeycombed by suffering, was not composed solely thereof; however huge a minute, nay, a second, of pain, the painless minutes must take up a certain room; they are not eliminated by life, as they are eliminated by literary craft. If the novelist is to magnify, and all literature must magnify, it is not fair to magnify only one kind of life’s many tissues. But the analytical Frenchman—and, alas! this great and delightful Rosny, worse almost than any—screw and screw at their lenses, magnify till the image enlarges to bursting, and begins, luckily for the operator, to swim in mist.

This tendency is what makes much of the odiousness of French novelists’ treatment of female characters; they are not all cads, they are often merely literary pedants. Certainly, of all modern Frenchmen, Rosny is the most respectful, the most tender and serious in his page: 245 attitude to women. The young doctoress, Nell Horn, above all, Eve, in the “Bilatéral,” are among the finest and most charming women in all fiction. They are charming, they are such as we see them, as a result of Rosny’s painting; but the process of painting, so long as it goes on, is often such as one can barely watch without anger. Take that Eve in the “Bilatéral.” Rosny gives us the material, he puts into our possession the sympathetic spell which makes her live, live with extraordinary fulness and charm of life; but at the same time he gives an account of her which is false, and which we banish at once into the limbo of the unlifelike. This charming young girl, under all her emancipated ideas, is but a new‐born woman awaking to her woman’s cravings for love and motherhood; overcome sometimes by joy, sometimes by sadness, she knows not why, wondering vaguely she knows not at what. But she cannot, for all her familiarity with free‐spoken men and pseudo‐scientific books, she cannot, in her young entireness, be conscious of the meaning of it all; she cannot, however well she knows the names, realise, in her lack of all experience of life and change, understand such things as phases and crises. Now Rosny, perpetually harping on such matters, perpetually offering us his explanation of Eve’s feelings, turns the poor girl into a sort of walking physiologico‐psychologic demonstration; we see not merely what the girl sees of herself, but her poor, innermost nature laid bare by the kind but intolerably blundering hands of a pedant. In his immortal Natacha, Tolstoi has given us the case of a girl situated much like Eve; she also is traversing a page: 246 crisis. We know it, but she does not; because Tolstoi respectfully refrains from telling us in the girl’s presence the secrets which she cannot yet comprehend. For surely there is one thing which youth cannot know, which only experience can teach: that youth is a period of stress, that experience will come, that life is but phase, change, and the manifestation of hidden forces.

There is, perhaps, a dash of pedantry—there is certainly the usual French seeking after literary novelty, apart from real interest, in Rosny’s strange descriptions of nature. One is worried at familiar sights being described in obscure terms of chemistry or botany; one resents, in this case also, quite simple things, seen every day with the corner of the eye, being elaborated into marvellous enigmatic visions, which strain one’s sight and intelligence. But for all this Rosny does give one, like no other modern, impressions of the splendour and mystery mingled in everyday things. Nay, the very unintelligibility of the phraseology of those names of acids and minerals and astronomic and botanic details reproduce some of the unintelligible impressions which make the wonderfulness of certain skies, certain night effects, tangles of vegetation, weirdnesses of town rubbish and factory outlines, Aladdin’s palaces, built up we know not of what, labyrinths and galaxies composed of unguessable material. In this, as in his sympathy for profoundly intuitive natures, nay, with the life of dumb creatures, of plants, and of seas and skies, Rosny seems to free us from the weariness of those tiresome, workaday formulæ by which mankind, as it has reduced the material world into a kind of Army and Navy Stores page: 247 for its feeding and housing, has reduced its own thoughts and feelings to little better than a catalogue of the world’s qualities as seen by the haberdasher and the caterer; nothing left for other creatures, for the germs which live invisible in everything, or for the angels who guide the storms and the stars.

III

Of course, Balzac was not the root of what I should call the psychological and literary nuisance in the novel: the looking at life as a subject for analysis and description, instead of analysing and describing such parts of life as had been found interesting or fascinating in the process of living.

It was not his example which made the modern French novel go the way it has gone; his example would never have affected the Russians or the English. If Balzac has unduly influenced his countrymen, and influenced them by his faults even more than by his great qualities, it is surely because those faults were inherent in the French literary type of our century—faults due to the very strength of literary energy, the very richness of intellectual perception by which modern France has differed from its more practical, more sentimental, and, at all events, duller and more tongue‐tied neighbours.

Balzac’s method—for it became a method, and one universally imitated—consisted in writing about human beings, not according to the manner in which they, or, the image of them, had affected him; but according page: 248 to the manner in which they would present a most definite diagram, at best a most picturesque outline. He describes not characters with one exaggerated peculiarity, but one exaggerated, isolated peculiarity with a human person, a vague puppet, sometimes barely more than a name and a physical presentment—Hulot, Grandet, Pons, Rastignac—attached to it. As the medical boarder in the Pension Vauquer, née de Conflan, says of him, the Père Goriot is nothing but the Bump of Philoprogenitiveness. The rest of the brain, one might say, has been cut away. Now the real way in which the excessive preponderance of one portion of a character manifests itself is by subordinating, silencing, pushing into a corner, sending to sleep the other portion; but, for all this to happen, those other portions must exist. To begin with, every human being possesses, besides his more individual character, a sort of average character as human being, inherited from his ancestors and acquired from his neighbours; the psychological life of the one‐sided person, of the monomaniac, consists in the gradual victory over this character (and over everything in himself to which it is attached), or in the gradual enslaving thereof in the service of that one faculty. Balzac’s fault is to disregard or hide this uneven battle within the individual, and substitute for it the mere outer fight with other folk and with circumstances; hence, instead of the life of a human being, we get a sociological diagram of forces and resistances. In order to realise this fact, one should compare Balzac with another novelist, but belonging to the human, non‐analytic, non‐literary sort, namely Thackeray, in his page: 249 treatment of one‐sided character. Take Colonel Newcome. He, too, might have been described as a bosse de la paternité rather than a whole human being. But in him paternal fondness is connected with a half dozen cognate qualities. It goes over into tenderness towards all young and weak creatures, it borders on high chivalry; for qualities produce one another. But if Thackeray seem insufficiently typical in his work, and Colonel Newcome seem insufficiently paternal, take Shakespeare, and place by the side of Goriot no less a father than King Lear. For him paternal infatuation, arises not, as with Colonel Newcome, from readiness to love, but from a mania for being loved; and this strange selfishness mixed with generosity goes over into jealousy, graspiness, injustice, and that tragic alternation of rage and weakness, of proud raillery and childish complaint. But Père Goriot’s paternal infatuation arises from nothing, and is connected with nothing; it is inorganic, at best utterly maniacal—in truth it is a literary diagram. How unlike anything living must needs be to a diagram, we can all of us study in observing one of the most one‐sided, nay, one of the most maniacal varieties of human being—the vain man. In him we can watch how, where the vanity does not interfere, qualities of a very different kind can be very active—intellectual interest, kindliness, honesty, the very qualities which take a man most out of himself, the most incompatible with vanity; or else we can watch, as in Meredith’s “Egoist,” how vanity, instead of obliterating, will merely appropriate and enslave such qualities as clash with it, until a man’s genuine impulses, his sincerest thoughts and actions page: 250 change their nature, find a new basis, and become mere lies.

Different as are, for instance, Flaubert and Zola, they belong, nevertheless, to the same school as Balzac, if we compare them with Tolstoi, Dostoievsky, or even Björnsen. Flaubert, with his effects produced by extreme elimination of detail, and Zola, so brimful and often overwhelming, are yet alike in the fundamental character of writers whose knowledge proceeds from deliberate study, and whose interest in the subject is due to its being a subject, and a good one. One has, not unfrequently, the feeling that these great men have sat down in front of the portion of life they have undertaken to treat, after casting about for months and weeks for something to write about, and one remembers the astonishing lamentations of certain contemporary novelists interviewed by M. Huret, making enumerations of every recondite unspeakableness with the melancholy comment, “on a déjà fair cela—on a même fair cela.” About all writers of this school, major and minor, gods or mice, it is clear to the reader that there is no reason for supposing them to have anything to do with life in any form, to be alive, or to have been alive. Were it not that we know, from different sources, that novels are written by men, and that we run easily to anthropomorphism in all matters, we might quite well put down “Le Père Goriot,” “La Cousine Bette,” “Mme. Bovary,” “L’Assommoir,” and all the novels of MM. de Goncourt and of M. Huysmans to the agency of some more or less divine Chance in the manner of Lucretius, or to some wonderful literary machine, phonograph and camera combined page: 251 with some contriving and superposing mechanism for the automatic production of types.

Opposite to this school of analytical, literary, professional novelists like Balzac, there exists, in sharpest contrast, the school of sympathising, personal, in a way unprofessional novelists, whose greatest representative is Tolstoi; and which, with no idea of derivation, but merely to give one of the most marvellous literary personalities his due, I should call the school of Stendhal.

The novel of this school, which has representatives in all countries—for the greatest novelists, from the author of “Manon Lescaut” to the author of “Vanity Fair,” all belong to it—the novel of this school seems not written, but lived. It affects us as being so much of life which the author has gone through, and he seems to us to be lurking always in one—nay, sometimes in all—of the characters: that life has indeed been lived by the author, not in the body, most likely, but in the spirit; he has really been one of those characters in the fervour of sympathetic creation, for there is nothing here which has been observed, constructed, invented—it has been a reality, an inevitable sequence in the imaginative experience of the writer. What such novelists tell us has the weight of the words of an eyewitness; it has even, frequently, increasing that weight, an eyewitness’s vagueness and unaccountableness. For the man in whose presence (or in whose soul) certain things have actually taken place, does not know about them with the same sort of clearness as the man who has followed a deliberate experiment, or reconstructed the how things must have happened by a page: 252 process of circumstantial logic. And there is in life—life spontaneous, flowing, complete, not life artificially arranged by experiment—an inevitable share of vagueness, due to the fact that all life is, after all, the perception thereof by one creature at one moment, full therefore of gaps and lapses. Neither is there in life any unity of point of view, hence no stable system of outlines or of colouring. Nothing is less like life, that is to say, like our experience, than that marvellous solidity, all‐roundness, fulness, and almost distressing projection of the analytic school of novel. It is quite possible—contrary to the opinion of impressionists—that a painted picture full of extreme detail should give us a satisfactory sense of realisation; because, like the picture itself, the real objects are in most cases stationary, allowing us to take in their detail, deliberately to sit and stare. But life does not allow you to sit and stare; at least, it is not the same portion of life which we are sitting in front of and staring at. It is only by photographing the single instances, and then patching them together by a sort of reversed analysis; it is only by thinking it out that we ever know very clearly how anything ever happens. Clearness is a desideratum, a product of the human mind, which life itself has no use for. Hence there is something convincing in the very vagueness with which, as with a real atmosphere, the unanalytical novelists frequently envelop events and persons. We feel Manon Lescaut to have lived and died, because we feel Des Grieux’s love and despair. She is a phantom, but a real one, as are the lovers and sweethearts unseen by us, but not unfelt, of our friends. page: 253 We understand Mme. Bovary, Cousine Bette, Rougon, Numa Roumestan, or the hero of “En Route”; and in a certain measure we do not understand, we cannot account for all their doings, Natacha, Levine, the little heroine of Björnsen’s “In God’s Ways,” or Stendhal’s Duchess, or Julien Sorel; but, unless we are singularly presumptuous and deluded, neither do we understand with any such fearful certainty our nearest and dearest, nay, ourselves.

As it is with the personages, so it is, to a certain extent, with the places. We know that town in Norway, that house at Moscow, with the mixture of clearness and vagueness of real places in our memory. Above all, with a very definite and special emotion; whereas the places in Balzac, Zola, and even in Flaubert (think of Flaubert’s Carthage!) are such as we know very distinctly at the moment of looking at them, even as we know pictures, but with no mood attaching to them, and quite without that indefinable familiarity which tells us, however vaguely, about the omitted parts: where that road leads to, and what there is on the other side of that block of houses or group of trees; a sort of halo of knowledge, which means that, in body or in spirit, we have been in those places.

IV

There is another, and a far graver objection to be made against this, that I have called the professional or literary school of novel: it is morally arid in its perpetual pessimism; it refuses the reader what, after page: 254 all, we claim from literature, as from other art, more imperiously than we claim skill, imagination, knowledge, or even the sense of life, and that is the sense that life is good. We are made neither more happy nor more fit for happiness by the perpetual insistence on the ugly side of things, the perpetual assurance of this hopelessness. Moreover, if we are at all normally constituted, with the normal experience of good and evil, we recognise not merely that such a view of life is false, but also, when it becomes universal in a writer or a school of writers, that it is not at all—how express it?—well, not at all noble. For such a pessimistic attitude—the attitude of Flaubert, Zola, the Goncourts, Maupassant, let alone all the little masters—renders the attainment of artistic impressiveness quite infinitely easier. Nay, it becomes an almost mechanical, automatic method for awakening the kind of emotion which is, after all, the crudest of any—the black mood. It is significant that whereas Shakespeare alternates serenity with gloom, sadness with joy, expressing life, and various aspects in words sometimes heroically gay, sometimes bitter and hopeless, the lesser men, Marston, Webster, Tourneur or Ford, know only horrors and misery, and only a philosophy of pessimistic vanity or stoical indifference. For an unmixed kind of emotion is easier to deal with than any kind of alternation, a harmony is easier to construct out of few elements than many; and of all kinds of emotions the gloomy is the easiest to play upon; an artistic element more easy to manage. It takes the highest genius to mingle and harmonise the sad and the joyous, the easily lived and the painfully felt, as in Tolstoi’s marvellous page: 255 symphonies. And it is even more difficult—impossible for any length of time—to play on the tonalities of unmixed optimism. Hence it is quite natural that a people so artistically constructed as the French, a school of writers so superbly literary, should succumb to artistic dodgery, to school methods and royal roads; the novel, like a certain sort of painting, has become in France so organised as to be virtually à la portée de tous. Now, of such School methods and literary royal roads, pessimism is one of the most obvious. It is a method and a mannerism.

Pessimism gives, moreover, a false sense of superiority both to the writer and the reader. The reader feels, in dealing with imaginary miseries as matters of course, that he is endowed with fortitude and not to be duped by the powers above; the writer gains a Promethean attitude which immensely increases his sense of power. Nay, the very sensitiveness and honesty of a man will be warped into such a cheap view of life. It takes an enormous dose of either to resist the tendency to be pitiful or sarcastic where there is nothing to be pitiful or sarcastic about; one needs to be very honest to be, so to speak, theoretically, nay more, rhetorically honest with life’s deserts and shortcomings. And the literary instinct, the artistic traditions of our French contemporaries have apparently cost them this higher, this thoroughly independent sensitiveness and honesty towards life.

Of none of them does one feel this so acutely, I think, as of Maupassant, and in exact proportion to his admirable literary qualifies. Think of a book like “Bel Ami.” Everyone, alas, who has lived at all in page: 256 the world (and particularly in the plain speaking world of the Latins) has heard stories like those making up this novel; and has, many a time, had people pointed out who would have fitted into it. But all this, as one has caught whiffs from drains and sinks, with tolerably breathable air between. Maupassant seems to live permanently in these stenches, his thoughts, during the elaboration of a volume of three hundred and fifty closely printed pages, know nothing else; and that he should have enjoyed the writing, and any person the reading, strikes me as scarcely human. It is by comparison with a book like “Bel Ami” that one sees what it is that makes Zola endurable. That very element which mars the homogeneousness of his work and takes from its trustworthiness, that Victor Hugo‐like tendency to see things in fantastic lights, to translate the (alas! normally) nasty into the superhumanly terrible. This allows him to write, or rather enables us to read, books on such subjects as “Germinal” and even “La Terre.” We can survive (it seems) in madness situations which would kill the sane. The mind, diverted to feelings of strength and wonder, can stand the strain of otherwise unendurable horrors; and, in the presence of Zola’s wicked Earth sending up villains as it sends up wheat ears, with monstrous indifferent fertility; in the presence of that mine of his which swallows cartloads of human life and suffering, we can endure sights which would be unendurable shown in their real proportions, and shown as the only reality existing.

But Maupassant eliminates with unswerving instinct everything which is not mean, and groups into a page: 257 perfectly graduated pattern everything which is thoroughly ignoble. In real life things are only very occasionally what we call artistic: reality is not always ironical any more than it is always in agreeable perspective. Within sight of my house is a hill, with trees and houses, which is quite perfect as to arrangement; but all around are other hills, fields, trees, houses, which seem all scattered any how. Similarly, I know of several female orphanages which were founded in a most uninteresting way by quite respectable women; while I know only one orphanage of the sort which was founded by a lady of exceedingly light manners. The French novelist, who is an artist (sometimes much more so than the contemporary French painter), refuses to speak of the orphanages founded by the respectable ladies, as the painter would refuse to paint the hills and houses and trees all scattered at random; he spots at once and instantly notes down the disreputable lady’s foundation: that has a point, makes a pattern, is worth talking about! What sort of reality, what picture of life, can such men give us? They can no more be trusted than the etcher, who looks out for lines converging into head and tailpieces, can be trusted for a faithful statement of ten miles of road. The artistic sense—the artistic sense applied to literature, which is at once infinitely less and infinitely more than art—the dramatic love for contrast, irony, and climax are as fatal to truthfulness in the novel as any three unities and other classical requirements were fatal, once upon a time, to truthfulness in the French play.

But, you will say, why ask for truthfulness? why page: 258 not be satisfied with what these men really give, which is art, and not ask them for what they only say they give, which is reality? Have we not been seeing that real reality, objective or subjective, is unattainable in the novel; that its creations are, when most scientific, mere bird‐women and men‐horses, chimæras, fantastic monsters?

True. But there is, in this curious anomalous art of literature, an artistic quality without complete analogy in painting, or sculpture, or music, and which transcends all external convergence, pattern, climax, and the rest. And there is within the power of the novelist a kind of reality, a quality which affects us as truthfulness, which far surpasses in efficacy the utmost fidelity to single cases, or the highest clearness of typical diagrams. What this quality consists in, on what it depends, is one of the many mysteries of the mysterious province of æsthetics, and even to exemplify it would require as many notes as these, and about a totally different set of writers. We should have, above all, to speak of those two most different men, who are yet alike in their special supremacy, Stendhal and Tolstoi .... But the mere mention of their names will suggest to the reader—at least, as a matter of feeling—what is this quality in the novel which transcends all minor artistic qualities, and what is this un‐real truthfulness, by which the greatest novelists subdue our souls more efficaciously than by any detail or any diagram! The only name I can find for it is sympathy, or passionate personal interest. Stendhal, Thackeray, Tolstoi, even our golden but clay‐footed idol, Meredith, care for what they write about more than for page: 259 their own writing. They are, whether cosmopolitan cynics, bourgeois moralists, religious reformers, or harum‐scarum chivalrous romanticists, all alike in their passionate preference for their Duchesses, their Sorels, their Becky Sharps, and their Colonel Newcomes; their Pierres, Levines, Annas, and Natachas; their Beauchamps and Diana Warwicks. And this most potent æsthetic magic acting within acts on their reader. He is convinced, enthralled; he is satisfied that all this must be real, since he is made to love or hate it.

These thoughts on realism, satisfactory and unsatisfactory, have naturally grouped themselves in my mind, around the work of J.H. Rosny, because, among French novelists, he is, perhaps, the most important, since Stendhal, who has cared for his subject more than for his treatment.¹


¹ The above was written more than ten years before the appearance of the incomparable “Jean‐Christophe” of M. Romain Rolland.

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