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A LITERARY CAUSERIE ON SOME NOVELS, CHIEFLY FRENCH

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A NOVEL used once to be a story. When the story required
padding, the novelist would introduce descriptions of
scenery, philosophical reflections, and other irrelevant
matters. To-day, especially in France, the country of
good fiction, a novel is rather an essay, in which the padding
consists of irrelevant fragments of story, introduced when
the descriptions and reflections run short. Take, for instance, Zola’s last
book, the immense, fatiguing ” Rome,” as fatiguing as a Cook’s personally
conducted tour through the actual city. It has been said that Zola has
written a bad story, that his talent is in collapse. Not in the least. He has
not tried to write a story at all, he has (unfortunately for his readers) written
an encyclopaedical essay on Rome, on the Rome of the Caesars, of the Popes
of the Renaissance, of the modern Kings ; on Catholicism as a system, on its
social and political influence, on its ancient history and its prospects for the
future ; on the Rome which survives in architecture, and the Rome which
survives in its cardinals ; but a story, no. The essay is not merely of immense
length, it is of great ability ; it is full of ideas, admirable in its arrangement
and interpretation of facts. But its effect is that of a canvas all background,
a canvas in which the figures have not been fitted in. Do but contrast it for
a moment with that exquisite novel of Goncourt, ” Madame Gervaisais,” in
which the very soul of Rome seems to animate the pages. Never was a
background more elaborately, more delicately painted, with a more precise
and unwearying care of detail ; yet the book, with all its marvellous descrip-
tions, is first of all a study of the soul of a woman, in its communion with that
invading and conquering soul of the eternal city. The soul is a ” particle ‘
with which Zola has never greatly troubled himself. His priest, who visits
Rome in order to see the Pope and prevent the interdiction of his book, is not
so much as a coherent bundle of sensations. He acts, at most, as the
“personal conductor” of Cook’s tour. In the tiny mesh of intrigue which he

                  A LITERARY CAUSERIE                                    101

finds himself caught in, there is just one quality to be commended, yet with
reserve. As I was reading the book, nothing struck me more than the
mastery of what might be called the atmosphere of character, as well as of
surroundings. These Boccaneras and the rest, they are undoubtedly Italians,
not Frenchmen dressed up in Italian garb ; they have the voice and gesture
of their race. Yet after all is not this one piece the more of that talent for
exteriority which is certainly the great, conspicuous talent of Zola ? It is
something to paint the tint of the Italian. But that is only the beginning of
creation. Othello, though you play him with a blackened face, is universal
jealousy, not merely a jealous Moor. And you may play him without his
properties, and only the costumier will be the loser.

Another, and a far greater novel, in which the revolt against the story is
carried with finer violence to a further point of conquest, is Huysmans’ “En
Route,” of which a translation, written and published by Mr. Kegan Paul, has
just appeared ; a translation as conspicuously and conscientiously admirable as
Mr. Vizetelly’s translation of “Rome” is conspicuously and carelessly in-
competent. Here is a novel which is but the record of wanderings through
all the churches of Paris and a brief rest in a Trappist retreat ; and it is a
great book. For it is the study of a conscience, a new Pilgrim’s Progress
through all the devious and perilous pathways of the soul. Mr. Kegan Paul
tells us he has translated it partly for purposes of edification, at which
M. Huysmans, if I know him rightly, will perhaps be a little amused. But it
is a book, certainly, which, as a document of the soul, is more valuable than
any book lately written. A story ? Not in the least ; less of a story than
“Rome ;” but, in the modern acceptance of the word, it would appear,
a novel.

I sometimes wonder whether there is any reason for keeping the tradition
of a name when we have abandoned the tradition of the thing which that
name once signified. Look at Balzac (and English readers are for the first
time able to look at something which is approximately Balzac, in the complete
translation which we owe to the enterprise of Messrs. Dent), and you will see
that, in spite of the interminable pages of essay-writing, of the prodigal casting
adrift of ideas and reflections, all through this vast analysis of the Human
Comedy, it is always for Balzac, as it was always for his less complex pre-
decessors, the story which counts. And yet Balzac certainly led the way (with
Stendhal, to whom, no less, the story is everything) to that final development
in which story evaporates in analysis (as in Bourget), in atmosphere (as in
Pierre Loti), or, as I have already said, in essay-writing and the confessions of

102                                  THE SAVOY

the soul. Even in England, where ideas penetrate slowly, it is coming to be
felt that, at all events, the point of view of a novel is of considerable importance,
not only as we see that question of the point of view, crudely and with intention
to instruct, in a writer such as Mrs. Humphrey Ward, but as we see it also,
artistically and with a studious, unbiassed intelligence, in Mr. Thomas Hardy’s
“Jude, the Obscure.” In all this it must be for individual preference to decide
how much we lose, how much we gain. Scarcely in some fantastical country
of romance is it now possible for a narrative, which is only a narrative, to be
written by any writer of brains. Dumas, if he returned to France, would have
to publish his stories in the feuilleton of the “Petit Journal.” Is this because
we are getting too serious to be amused, too conceited with our seriousness to
even desire amusement? Possibly, and no doubt it is all for the good of the
race, the benefit of the wiser among us. It gives, certainly, new opportunities
of approach to the vivid thinker on life, who had once to content himself with
the meagre platform and the scanty audience of the essay. But, much as I
may personally prefer “En Route” to “Monte Cristo,” it is a little difficult
for me to speak of them both under the same name, or to feel that the former
has any right to the title of the latter. It is merely a question of terms, but I
think terms are better for conveying a precise sense. And if, not merely
“Monte Cristo,” but “Le Pere Goriot,” or “Le Rouge et le Noir,” or “L’Edu-
cation Sentimentale,” even, is to be described as a novel, then “En Route,” if
we call it a novel, must be called a bad novel. And yet it is undoubtedly a
great book.

                                                                                                ARTHUR SYMONS.

MLA citation:

Symons, Arthur. “A Literary Causerie on Some Novels, Chiefly French.” The Savoy vol. 3, July 1896, pp. 100-102. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv3-symons-causerie/