Copyright
Edmund Gosse.

French profiles online

. (page 8 of 25)
Online LibraryEdmund GosseFrench profiles → online text (page 8 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


better suited to his condition, and here, in excellent spirits,
charmed with the change, and eager for the spring to blos-
som in the surrounding gardens, he was proposing to
receive his friends at Christmas. But another guest long
since due, but not at that moment expected, knocked first
at the door of the still unfinished house. On the even-
ing of December 16, 1897, while he was chatting gaily
at the dinner-table in company with his wife and children,
Alphonse Daudet uttered a cry and fell back in his chair.
His sons flew for a doctor, but in vain ; the end had come
— the terrible spectre so long waited, so mysteriously
dreaded for its attendant horrors of pain and intolerable
decay, had appeared alone, and in the guise of a bene-
ficent angel. The last page of Ma Douleur, when it
comes into our hands, will be the record, by another voice
than Daudet's, of a death as peaceful and as benign in
all its circumstances as death can be.

I

It is not possible to discuss the character of Alphonse
Daudet without some consideration of his ])ersonal

105



io6 French Profiles

conditions. In every page of his brilliant, variegated,
emotional books, ever trembling into tears or flashing
into laughter, the writer is present to the mind of the
instructed reader. Few men have been born with a
keener appetite for life or an aptitude for more intense
enjoyment. Daudet was of the tribe of those who,
as Keats says, " burst joy's grape against their palate
fine." It is highly possible that, with this temperament
and a southern habit of life, advancing years might have
tended to exaggerate in him the tumult of the senses;
he might have become a little gross, a little noisy. But
fortune willed it otherwise, and this exquisite hedonist,
so amorous of life and youth, was refined and etherealised
by a mysterious and wasting anguish. It was about the
close of 1881 that, while engaged in writing Sapho,
Daudet became conscious of sudden thrills of agonising
pain in his limbs, which attacked him unexpectedly,
and lacerated every part of his frame in turn. From
this time forth, he was never free from the terror of
the pang, and he once used a phrase regarding it, which
awakens a vision of Prometheus stretched on Caucasus.
" La souf trance, chez moi," he said, " c'est un oiseau
qui se pose partout, tantot ici, tantot la."

It will be remembered that when Daudet pubhshed
L'Evangeliste in 1883, he dedicated it to Charcot. It
was that great master of diagnosis who detected in what
the family physician had supposed to be neuralgia the
first symptoms of that malady of the spinal cord to
which the novelist now slowly succumbed. The ravages
of this terrible disease, while they gradually affected
more and more completely his powers of locomotion,
spared all the functions of the head. Since the comple-
tion of Sapho, it is true, there has been apparent a
flagging in Daudet's constructive power; but this need



Alphonse Daudct 107

not be attributed to disease. In agility of conversa-
tion, in refinement of style, in alertness and lucidity of
mind, Daudet showed to the last hour no observable
decline. His courage, on the other hand, his heroic
resignation and patience were qualities that raised him
to a sort of moral sublimity. They would have done
credit to the most placid of northerners, but as the orna-
ment of a Provencal in early middle life, the blood in
whose veins was quicksilver, they were exquisite and
astonishing. There are not many finer pictures in the
cabinet of modern literary history than that of Alphonse
Daudet waiting to be racked with anguish from moment
to moment, a shawl wrapped round his poor knees,
lifting the ivory lines of his face with rapture to the
beauty of a flower, or pouring from his delicate lips a
flood of wit and tenderness and enthusiasm. It carries
the thought back to Scarron, who " souffrit mille fois
la mort avant que de perdre la vie ; " and the modern
instance, while no less brave, is of a rarer beauty.

These physical considerations are so important,
they form so essential a part of our conception of Daudet
and of Daudet's conception of literature, that they
cannot be passed over, even in a brief outline of his place
in the world of writers. He was not one of those who
shrink from being contemplated. His work was not
objective as regarded his own person, it was intensely —
one had almost said it was exclusively — subjective.
Large portions of his fiction are nothing more or less
than selected autobiography, and he had no scruple in
letting this be perceived. He took in later life to writing
prefaces to his old novels, explaining the conditions
in which they were composed. He published T rente Ans
de Paris in 1882 ; what it was not quite convenient that
he should narrate himself was confessed by M. Ernest



io8 French Profiles

Daudet, in Moji Frere et Moi. The early writings of
Alphonse Daudet, up to Frornont Jeune et Risler A/ne a.t
least, resolve themselves, it is plain, into autobiography.
His only long romance of the early period, Le Petit Chose,
begins with the sentence " Je suis ne le 13 Mai 18 — , dans
une ville du Languedoc." So speaks the hero, and
presenth', we calculate from facts recorded, that 18 —
stands for 1840. Well, Alphonse Daudet was born at
Nimes on May 31, 1840. This changing of 31 into 13 is
very characteristic ; an analogous alteration is often the
only one which the author makes in turning reality into
a novel.

The drawback of such a practice is that in reading the
charming works of Alphonse Daudet's first thirty-five
years, we are divided in allegiance between the artist
and the man. This is the danger of the autobiographical
method when carried to so great an extreme, and con-
fessed so openly. The poor little hero of Petit Chose
flying from his tormentors, comes up to Paris in a pair
of india-rubber goloshes, having no shoes, and the author
makes very happy and pathetic use of this little incident.
I remember, however, being much annoyed (I hardly know
why) by discovering, as I read Mon Frere et Moi, that
Alphonse really did come up to Paris thus, in goloshes,
but without shoes. By some perversity of temper,
I felt vexed that a real person should have plagiarised
from the invented history of Petit Chose, and to this da}^
I think it would have been better if this piece of per-
sonal history had not been unveiled by M. Ernest Daudet.
But as a family the Daudets are unsurpassed in the
active way in which they take their musical-box to
pieces, the result being that we scarcely know, at last,
whether the music was the primary object, or was
merely secondary to the mechanical ingenuity. This



Alphonse Daudct log

is a doubt which never enhances our pleasure in the fine
arts.

The self-consciousness which coloured all the mani-
festations of the mind of Alphonse Daudet had much to
do with his pathos, his really very remarkable command
over our tears. There is no recent French writer with
whom we weep so easily, and the reason, without doubt,
is to be found in his own aptitude for weeping. If his
nature were harder, if he were not so sorry for himself, we
should not be so sorry for his creations. The intense
and sincere sensibihty of Daudet disarms the nerves;
there is no resisting his pathos. When he chooses to
melt his audience he can scarcely be heard for their
sobbing. I am bound to say that I think he sometimes
carries this sensibility to an illegitimate extreme; it
makes, for instance, a great part of Jack too painful for
endurance. In this otherwise admirable book the author
becomes hke the too emotional attorney, Baines Carew,
in the Bab Ballads ; he seems to " lie flat upon the floor,
convulsed with sympathetic sob," until the reader,
bent on pleasure, " toddles off next door," and gives the
case to M. de Maupassant or M. Bourget.

Yet this pathetic sensibility, if occasionally pushed
to excess, has been one of the most vivid of the qualities
which have endeared Alphonse Daudet to thousands
of readers. He has a sense of the hysterical sadness
of life, the melancholy which arises in the breast without
cause at some commonplace conjunction of incidents,
the terror of vague future ill, the groundless depressions
and faint forebodings which strike men and women like
the vision of a spectre at noon-day. Of these neurotic
fallacies Daudet is a master ; he knows how to make us
shudder with the pictures of them, as, consummately, in
Avec Trois Mille Cent Francs. Pure melodious pathos.



iio French Profiles



produced by the careful balance of elements common to
all human frailty, and harmonised by a beautiful balance
of style, we discover frequently' in the Contes dii Lnndi,
\r\ the Alsatian stories, and everywhere in Jack. To the
last, a novel in Alphonse Daudet's hands was apt to be,
what he calls one of his great books, " un livre de pitie,
de colere et d'ironie," and the irony and anger were
commonly founded upon pity. In particular, Le Petit
Chose is all pity : the arrival of the telegram that the
boy is afraid to deliver, the extreme lachrymosity of
Jacques, the agony of the pion in sound of the keys of
M. Viot (a species of educational Mr. Carker), the fate
of Mme. Eyssette taking refuge among her stingy provin-
cial relations — almost every incident in this very pretty
book is founded upon the exercise of slightly exaggerated
sensibiUty. The author's voice trembles as he tells
the tale; when he laughs, as every now and then he
does so gaily, we give a sigh of relief, for we were begin-
ning to fear that he would break down altogether.

II

From this dangerous facility in telhng a tale of tears
about himself Alphonse Daudet was delivered by develop-
ing a really marvellous talent for expatiating on the
external and decorative side of life. Out of the wreckage
of his experimental writings he has saved for us the
Lettres de mon Moulin and the Contes Choisis which
contain, with Le Petit Chose, all that needs trouble the
general reader, although the amateur of literature
examines with interest (and finds entirely Daudesque)
those early volumes of verse, Les Amoureuses, of 1858, and
La Double Conversion of 1861. But Lettres de mon Moulin
(1869) is the one youthful book of A. Daudet which the
most hurried student of modern French literature cannot



Alphonse Daudet i i i



afford to overlook. In its own way, and at its best,
there is simply nothing that surpasses it. A short story
of mediaeval court life better than La Mule du Pape
has not been told. It is not possible to point to an
idyll of pastoral adventure of the meditative class more
classic in its graceful purity than Les ^toiles. As a
masterpiece of picturesque and ironic study of the life
of elderly persons in a village, Les Vieux stands where
Cranford stands, since sheer perfection knows neither
first nor last. There are Corsican and Algerian sketches
in this incomparable volume; but those which rise to
the memory first, and are most thoroughly characteristic,
are surely those which deal with country life and legend
in the dreamy heart of Provence. " Dance and
Provencal song and sunburnt mirth " — that is what we
recall when we think of the Lettres de tnon Moulin.

From his ruined mill at Fortvielle, " situated in the
valley of the Rhone, in the very heart of Provence, on a
hillside clothed with pine-trees and green oaks, the said
mill, deserted for more than twenty years and incapable
of grinding, as appeareth from the wild vines, mosses,
rosemaries, and other parasitic growths which chmb
to the ends of its sails," from this mill, honourably
leased at Pamperigouste, in presence of two witnesses.
Francet Mamai, fife-player, and Louiset, called Le Quique,
cross-bearer to the White Penitents, Alphonse Daudet
writes to his friends, or records a story, as the whim
takes him. He recounts legends that illustrate the habits
and prejudices of the folks around. He visits the poet
Mistral, he accompanies local sportsmen on their walks,
he spends his nights with the customs officers. Some-
times, to gain intenser naivete, to get closer still to the
heart of things, he borrows the voice of a goat, of a
partridge, of a butterfly. And the main object of it all



1 1 2 French Profiles

is to render the external impression of this Provencal Hfe
more dehcately, more radiantly, more intimately than
has ever been done before.

It is very difficult to analyse the skill with which
Daiidet contrives to produce this sense of real things
seen intensely through the bright-coloured atmosphere
of his talent. His economy of words in the best examples
of this branch of his work is notable. The curious
reader of his little story, " The Beacon of the Bloody
Isles," may ask himself how it would be possible to
enhance the mysterious dazzlement caused by the
emerging of the writer from the dark winding stairs up
into the blaze of light exhibited above : —

"En entrant j'etais ebloui. Ces cuivres, ces etains,
ces reflecteurs de metal blanc, ces murs de cristal bombe
qui tournaient avec des grands cercles bleuatres, tout
ce miroitement, tout ce cliquetis de lumieres, me donnait
un moment de vertige."

What could be more masterly than that ? It is
said in the fewest possible words, ^^et so that an im-
pression, in a high degree bewildering and complex, is
accurately presented to us. Scarcely less marvellous
is the interior, in Les Vieux, where, under the miraculous
mfluence of the Life of St. Irenaeus, read aloud by a little
pensioner in a blue blouse, not the old gentleman and
lady only, but the canaries in their cage, the flies on
the pane, and all the other elements of still life are
plunged in deepest sleep at noon. And of the fantasia
about Valencia oranges in the winter streets of Paris,
and of the scene in " The Two Inns," which every one
has praised, and of the description of the phantom
visitors who come uninvited to supper with M. Majeste,
and of the series of idyllic vignettes " en Camargue,"
what shall be said ? — the enumeration of Alphonse



Alphonse Daudet 113

Daudet's successes in this direction becomes a mere
catalogue. It is particularly to be observed that with
his incessant verbal invention, we are conscious of no
strain after effect. Daudet is never pretentious, and
it requires some concentration of mind, some going
backward over the steps of his sentences, to perceive
what a magic of continual buoyancy it is that has carried
us along with so swift a precision.

When Alphonse Daudet began to write in Paris, a new
set of critical ideas and creative aspirations were setting
the young men in motion. In poetry, the example of
Baudelaire in noting impressions, and in widening the
artistic repertory, was having an electrical influence,
while Daudet and Zola, in conjunction with those elder
brethren of theirs, Flaubert and the Goncourts, were
endeavouring to make of the practice of novel-writing
something more solid, brilliant, and exact than had been
attempted before. This is no place to touch on what
will eventually occupy the historian of literature,
Alphonse Daudet's place in the ranks of the naturahsts.
But it is important to note that he possessed one quality
denied to his distinguished friends, denied even to
Flaubert, namely, his graceful rapidity. As M. Jules
Claretie said of him the other day, he was " un r6aliste
ail6," and he was preserved from the dulness and pedes-
trian jog-trot of prosy naturalism by this winged light-
ness of his, this agilit}^ in sensation, and illuminating
promptitude in expression. His hand was always light,
among the tribe of those who never knew when to stop.
Daudet could not fall into the error of Zola in his " sym-
phonies of odours," nor destroy the vitality of a study
like Cherie, as Edmond de Goncourt did, by the pedantic
superfetation of documentary evidence. He was a
creature of the sun and wind, like the cicala that the
1



114 French Profiles

Greek poets sung of, intoxicated with a dew-drop, and
flinging itself impetuously into the air, while it struck
melody from its wings with its own flying feet.

Ill

Thus palpitating with observation, thus, as he himself
said, " hypnotise par la realite," filled to the brim of
his quivering nature by the twin sources of pictorial
and of moral sensitiveness, seeing and feeling with almost
abnormal intensity, his sails puffed out with the pride
of life and the glory of visual sensation, Daudet prepared
himself by a mj^iad experiments for the true business
of his career. After a somewhat lengthy and arduous
apprenticeship as an observer of nature and of himself,
armed with those little green books of notes, those
cahiers of which we have heard so much, he set out to
be a great historian of French manners in the second
half of the nineteenth century. In 1874 he made a
notable sensation with Fromont JetmeetRisler Aine, and,
almost simultaneously, with Jack. But these were
immediately excelled by Le Nabab (1877), a trenchant
satire of the Second Empire and the Third Republic.
Then followed, in a very different key, that extremely
delicate study of the dynastic idea in bankruptcy', which
he called Les Rois en Exit (1879). Daudet had built
up an edifice of fiction about his old patron, the Due de
Morny, in Le Nabab ; he returned to politics in Numa
Roumestan (1881), and crystaUised his invention round
the legend of Gambetta. This book, in my judgment,
marked the apogee of Alphonse Daudet's genius ; never
again, so it seems to me, did he write a novel quite so
large, quite so masterly in all its parts, as Numa Roume-
stan. But L'^vangeliste (1883), a satiric picture of
fanatical Protestantism, had brilliant parts, and a



Alphonse Daudet 115



great simplicity of action ; while in Sapho (1884), which
M. Jules Lemaitre has called " simplement la Manon
Lescaut de ce siecle," Daudet produced an elaborate
study of that obsession of the feminine which is so dear
to our Gallic neighbours. The consensus of French
criticism, I think, puts Sapho, where I venture to put
Numa Ronmestan, at the head of Daudet's novels.
After this came L'lmmortel (1888), Rose et Ninette (1892),
even later stories, never quite without charm, but
steadily declining in imagination and vitality, so that the
books on which Daudet bases his claim to be regarded
as a great novelist are seven, and they range from Jack
to Sapho, culminating as I most obstinately hold, in
Numa Ronmestan.

In looking over these seven extraordinary books,
which we read in succession at their first appearance
with an enthusiasm that may have carried the critical
faculty away, we are conscious of the brilliant and solid
effect which they still produce. They stand midway
between the rigidly naturalistic and the consciously
psychological sets of novels which France has seen
flourish during the last twenty-five years, and on the
whole, perhaps, they are standing the test of time better
than either. The moment we were fairly launched,
so long ago, upon the narrative of Fromont Jeune et Risler
Ami, as soon as we became acquainted with " the
blooming and sonorous Delobelle," as Mr. Henry James
so happily calls him, when, again, a very little later, we
were introduced to all the flatulent humbugs of the
Maison Moronval in Jack, we acknowledged that here
was come at last a great French novelist, with whom the
Anglo-Saxon reader could commune with unspeakable
dehght. This meridional, who cared so little for England,
who could never read an Enghsh sentence, seemed from a



I 1 6 French Profiles

certain limited point of view to run in the very channel
of British fiction. He has been called (alas ! poor man,
it was a thorn in his flesh !) the French Dickens, but
he has aspects in which he seems Mrs. Gaskell and
Anthony Trollope as well, even Robert Louis Stevenson
and Rudyard Ivipling. A whole repertory of such
parallelisms might be drawn out, if we examined Daudet
not wisely but too well.

The truth seems to be that, with all his violent southern
colour and temperament, his pathos, his humour, his
preference for the extravagant and superficial parts
of character and conduct had a greater resemblance to
the English than to the French tradition of invented
narrative. This is true of works written before Alphonse
Daudet could possibly have touched an English story.
We talk of his affinity to Dickens, but that relation is
much more strongly marked in Le Petit Chose than in an\-
of Daudet's mature works. In the very beginning of
that story, the formidable rage of M. Eyssette, and the
episode of Annou who marries in desperation because
she has lost her " place," are more like pure Dickens
than anything in Fromont Jcune. It is quite certain,
from what he has protested over and over again (and
did he not fight poor M. Albert Delpit that he might seal
his protest in blood?), that Daudet's knowledge of
all English literature, the works of Dickens included, was
extremely exiguous. You could probably have drawn
it through the eye of a needle without crushing it. It
remains true, none the less, that in his idea of how to
entertain by a novel, how to write a thrilling story of
pity, anger, and irony, he came much nearer than any
other Frenchman to the English standpoint. When we
add to this the really extraordinary chastity and delicacy
of his language, the tact with which, even in a book like



Alphonse Daudet 117

Sapho, he avoids all occasion of offence, and has therefore
been a well of pure and safe delight to thousands of
young Englishwomen, it is not to be wondered at that
the non-critical class of British readers look upon
Alphonse Daudet as the most sympathetic of Continental
novelists. He is certainly the one who offers them the
smallest chance of springes and pitfalls along their
innocent pathway.

In his great novels, the art of Daudet is seen in his
arrangement and adaptation of things that he has
experienced, not in his invention. He was never happy
when he detached himself from the thing absolutely
observed and noted. For most readers, I suppose, the
later chapters of Le Petit Chose are ruined by the absurd
episode of Irma Borel, the Creole, a figure laboriously
invented a la Paul de Kock, with no faint knowledge of
any actual prototype. It is interesting to compare
this failure with the solid success of the portrait of Sapho
fifteen years later, when Daudet had made himself
acquainted with this type of woman, and had noted her
characteristics with his mature clairvoyance. Even in
his more purely fantastic creations, surely, the difference
between what Daudet has seen and has not seen is
instantly felt. What a distinction there is between
Tartarin in Tarascon, in Algeria, on the Righi — where
Daudet had accompanied him — and Tartarin in the
South Seas, where his creator had to trust to books and
fancy ! I am inclined to push this so far as even to
question the value of Wood's Town, a story which many
admirers of Daudet have signalled for special eulogy.
This is a talc of a peninsula somewhere in the Gulf of
Mexico, where a tropic city is built, at first with success,
but only to be presently overwhelmed by the onset of the
virgin forest, which defies all the exertions of the inhabi-



ii8 French Profiles

tants ; lianas are flung from roof to roof, the municipal
buildings are roped to one another by chains of prickly-
pear, yuccas pierce the floors with their spines, and fig-
trees rend the walls apart; at last the population has
to take flight in ships, the masts of which are already
like forest-trees, so laden are they with parasitic vege-
tation. The whole forms a fine piece of melodramatic
extravagance, but one feels what an infinitely truer, and,
therefore, infinitely more vivid picture of such a scene
Mr. Cable could have written in the days when he was
still interested in The Grandissimes and Mme. Deiphine.

IV

In all the creations of Daudet, as we have said, the
fountain of tears lies very close to the surface. There
is, however, one eminent exception, and it is possible
that this, in its sunny gaiety, its unruffled high spirits,
may eventually outlast the remainder. All his life
through, Daudet was fascinated by the mirthful side
of southern exaggeration. He set himself to invent
a figure which should unite all the quahties of the
meridional, a being in whom the hallucination of adven-
turous experiences should be carried to its drollest
excess. The result was pure frolic : the Prodigious
Feats of Tartarin de Tarascon (1872). Tartarin the
boaster, the mighty hunter before the Lord, " le roi des
chasseurs de casquettes," has bragged so long and so



Online LibraryEdmund GosseFrench profiles → online text (page 8 of 25)