French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Poetry And The Drama
History, Philosophy, Criticism
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Though only a writer of short stories, Guy De Mau-passant (1850-1893) won a reputation equal to the best as an artist. He had the advantage, for such it was to one who aspired to literature in writing, of knowing Flaubert. It is told that the elder insisted on his docile pupil practicing at descriptive writing for years, giving him the most trivial objects on which to exercise his powers. At last he attained the Flaubert standard of proficiency, and his schooling gained instant attention to his work. The French short story is now thoroughly acclimated here and need not be analyzed. Maupassant followed his master's method, devoting his days and nights to intimate exploration of the life he sought to paint. His fatal enthusiasm landed him in a madhouse and a suicide's grave, perhaps the strongest testimony to the realism of his work. The stories show all the qualities held supreme in this kind of art work, graphic power, microscopic observation, knowledge of the morbid mind, quick changes of scene and impression. If most of them leave a nasty taste in the mouth, the more enjoyable to those on whose palate the pleasing is sickly flat.
The brothers Goncourt added notably to the literature of their day. Edmond, born in 1822, died in 1896; Jules, 183o-1869. Their first joint novel, "En 18-," failed on its first appearance in 1852, owing to the excitement of the time. They also failed in journalism before they took to history as material for romance. They made fanciful pictures of Eighteenth Century personages, royal and other. The "Soeur Philomène" (1861) was a success. Four years later came "Germinie Lacerteux," a study in morbid psychology, which caused a sensation. Their productions have influenced recent writers ambitious to succeed in this school. They formed a new Academy de Goncourt, and Edmond left a large estate for its support.
Anatole France is known by his novel, "Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard," a striking production. In "Thais" and other stories he goes back to early Christian times without intent to create sympathy for Christianity. "La Fille de Lilith," "Le Livre de Mon Ami," and the collection of stories "Balthasar," display a remarkable versatility, with a subtle vein of irony which somewhat shakes one's faith in the writer's general seriousness. He is equally clever as a miscellaneous writer and critic, and may yet do a strong piece of work.
Jules Viaud, known in literature as Pierre Loti, was received into the Academy while quite a young man, the more interesting, seeing he was a lieutenant in the navy. His claim to remembrance will rest upon his style rather than his strength. His first books were the outcome of voyaging round the world. The "Mariage de Loti" is a story of Tahiti, with natives for its heroines, affording opportunities for the study of love in its primitive manifestations, and for sentimental reflections in the vein of the early romanticists, who pitched their stories among half- savage people. "Les Pêcheurs d'Islande" (The Fishers of Iceland) ventures into a quasi-philosophical analysis of motives in love and duty. The general tone of his writings, beneath their fantastic peculiarities, is that of a deep-rooted pessimism, all the gloomier for the half-poetic flights into introspective wonderland, seeking happiness and finding none.
As author of "Cosmopolis" Paul Bourget gained his footing among novelists who introduce their readers to fashionable and brilliant metropolitan circles. He dwells among the sons and daughters of wealth, gathered for its most effective display in the gayest of cities. These mixed people he pictures with no marked power, and with no particular moral, unless to inspire contempt. A criminal trial suggested the psychological novel, "Le Disciple," as morbid and artificial a story as need be read. "Un Crime d'Amour," and other books of his confessedly excel in the presentation of figures which are not men and women. His fluent style and superficial penetration commend his books to certain readers, but his better work is seen in essays and critical studies. His last novel, "La Duchesse Blue," is an argument for the impersonality of the novelist.
These are the popular men of the hour, whose slightest productions are sure of a ready sale. They indicate the parting of the ways, on the one hand toward rigid realism, on the other bearing toward a mystical region not far from the old personal romanticism. In both there is a strange lack of the rational romantic spirit which lifts the mind above the oppressive materialism of existence without losing it in pure moonshine. For the present the French novelist holds aloof from the old, old story of honest love, beset with ills from without and frets within, tested by troubles, strengthened by patient struggle, triumphing over all in the long run with a happiness all the richer for their buffetings. The passing appetite is for seasoned and overseasoned meats. The novelist by profession takes note of public taste. Much excellent naturalistic work has been done by Hector Malot, René Bazin, du Boisgobey, and a few others.