Monday, October 17, 2016

Twenty Thousand A-Year

Review of:
“Cinq Cent Mille Francs de Rente” (by Louis Véron, 1855).

Those who were familiar with the French newspapers five years ago must well remember the Constitutionnel, and its leading articles signed Louis Véron. Even to the most indifferent holiday-maker, M. Véron was something more than a name. In every print-shop were to be seen caricatures of a short fat figure, with turned-up nose and a greedy mouth—reminding one irresistibly of Mr. Carlyle's portrait of Cagliostro—generally busily engaged with a pestle and mortar, and glancing complacent1y at the gallipots which ornamented the scene of his labours. Since those days, we have had time to forget the details of M. Véron's Constitutionnel lucubrations, but their general tone is still fresh in our recollection, and is indissolubly associated with the caricature. They were stuffed with the sort of commonplace good advice which we could easily imagine to proceed from an apothecary, rangé with years and connexions, to the patients whom hot blood or wild blood had brought to his surgery. What were M. Véron's principles, it was not easy to discover. All that we can say of them is, that, like Farmer Jones’s advice to his son,—
‘In the main, we understood
’Twas good advice, and meant, My son, be good.’
Since that time, “Le Docteur L. Veron," as he delights to style himself, has become, if not more widely, at least more personally known. He has depicted himself to the world in the Mémoires d'un Bourgeois de Paris, and has been depicted in the very much more entertaining, and probably not less truthful, Mémoires de Bilboquet. However much the engaging frankness with which M. Véron unveils his life, and with which his friends have embalmed it, may have added to our information, it has not superseded one of our former associations. The Bourgeois de Paris and Bilboquet are just the persons who would have written the leading articles, and suggested the caricatures which first introduced us to M. Louis Véron. They all unite in depicting the same blunt, heavy, not ill-natured, and most multifarious hunter of the good things of this life—the same feaster upon feasts of fat things, of wine upon the lees well refined. Though his figure may not suggest diminutives, and though probably he is rarely long esurient, few persons better fulfil some of the conditions which Juvenal and Johnson have made so familiar. Rhetor and medicus he has been by profession, and if his times disqualify him for the practice of magic, and his embonpoint for rope-dancing, he has certainly seen a good deal of this world, and would, we should imagine, have no objection to make an equally good thing of the other. A physician, the proprietor of a well-own and much-puffed medicine, and manager of the opera—founder of a review and editor of a newspaper—M. Veron has, as he says of himself, passed his life behind the scenes. Upon this foundation he has lately resolved to build a reputation for authorship. His Mémoires d'un Bourgeois de Paris have probably overtaxed the patience of many of our readers. His present performance is, we believe, his first appearance as a novelist. We are afraid that there is but little chance of its being his last. In the Mémoires de Bilboquet may be read a singular account of the machinery by which a book may be driven through ten editions in a few days. How far these tactics really were adopted by M. Véron, we are of course unable to say; but if the present work ever reaches a second edition, it must be by some such means. A more scandalous catchpenny we never saw. It was announced with all the pomp of extra-large capitals, and purchasers were begged to give their orders early, inasmuch as the book would have un grand succés de curiosité—M. Véron being determined to dévoiler franchement a great many things which he could not divulge in his own proper person, but which his course of life had brought before him. Such as it is, the novel is now before us. It consists of two shabby and very thin volumes, which might be printed in one with the cutest ease. In one of the pages which appeared to us remarkably full, there were Just 123 words—in another, 99. Almost every sentence is printed as a separate paragraph, and a large blank space is left after it in order to give the reader time to recover from the effect of the announcement. For example, vol.i. p.1, is, as lawyers would say, in the words and figures following:—
I.-- Une Scène de famille (an interval of 1 1/2 inches must be supposed to elapse).
“Vera 1848, dans une des rues du faubourg Poissoniére, un honnête homme so fit banquier."
M. Véron seems to think this as startling as if he had written, "se fit voleur," for he can only find room on the same page for the following:—
“Cette nouvelle maison de banque s'était imposé les règles de conduite les plus se—"
The story of the book is as flimsy as the typography. This honnête homme speculated, made money, made a fool of himself, sustained a run on his bank, upon which his son received a legacy of cinq cent mille francs de rente,-- the bank was saved; two young men most unexpectedly married two young ladies; and there were present at the marriage the Joblilies, the Garryulies, and the Great Panjandrum herself, in the persons of a certain Marquise of the Faubourg St. Germain and her various fashionable friends. Anybody can write rubbish of this kind; but it must not be supposed that M. be Docteur Véron confines himself to twaddling in this engaging manner. In order to obtain his anticipated succés de curiosité, he has introduced into his handiwork a rich, though dull, vein of pruriency. He writes about debauchery and immorality much as a stupid courier might describe the roads through striking scenery. You cannot doubt his familiarity with his subject; but he has not imagination enough to be piquant. There is a dull matter-of-fact description of an “orgie" at a restaurant in the Palais Royal, which reads as if the whole party had figured next morning before Mr. Jardine as a parcel of drunken disorderlies, and the author were a policeman giving his evidence. Here is a specimen, almost literally translated:—
‘The ladies and gentlemen were all smoking. There was a great noise and a great deal of tobacco smoke. That made them worse; they were drunk as it was, the had been mixing their liquors so. There were several bottles broken am some glasses. They were all about the room. The parlour was in such a mess, they had to go into the drawing-room. They began to dance again when they got there in a very queer way. Somebody was playing the piano very loud.’
These “frank unveilings" are all very well at Marlborough-street in the mouth of a sergeant of the A division, who, from information which he receive, proceeded to the spot to abate the nuisance; but they hardly give a flimsy pamphlet a right to be called a roman de moeurs, and to obtain a succés de curiosité. There are other scenes in the book of a stronger complexion, to which we only allude to say that they are just as dull as what we have noted. M. Véron no doubt avoids introducing scenes and descriptions which would altogether outrage decency; but he founds his plot on such pleasing incidents as an attempt on the part of his honnête homme to ruin a poor girl whom he afterwards introduces to his son. When the young man has the grace to marry her, the old hypocrite has the impudence to tell him that, if his wife ever “raconte toute sa vie de travail et de lutte, ses souvenirs ne pourront être que la preuve éclatante de son courage et de sa vertu." In short, except two or three stock personages—a couple of jeunes filles, a couple of vieux militaires, a mère chérie, and an old marquise—a more disgusting crew than M. Véron’s characters we have seldom fallen in with. A miserable roué— half stag, half swindler; his cast-off mistress; two young fools, his pigeons; and a floating capital of greedy speculators and debauchees, make up the list. We hope that the failure of this disgusting performance will be as complete as it deserves to be, and that it will discourage M. le Docteur from publishing a second roman de moeurs which we see advertised. French novels have not the best of reputations as it is; but hitherto no one has felt it necessary to complain of their dulness, whatever may have been thought of their immorality. M. Véron has contrived to neutralize the one fault by the other. His book would do harm if anybody were likely to read it, or if, having read it, any one's imagination could be influenced by it. As it stands, however, it reads like the stale reminiscences of debaucheries witnessed, not unsympathetically, in former times, and tricked out for publication with the exordiums and perorations of the lithographed sermons which are advertised at two shillings a-piece for clergymen too lazy or too stupid to write their own.

Saturday Review, December 29, 1855.

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