Monday, December 12, 2016

Light literature in France

A pamphlet called Thirty Years of French Literature, by M. Masson, an assistant master of Harrow, which has been lately brought to our notice, appears to us remarkable enough to demand some attention. M. Masson is a Frenchman, who has, we believe, long been resident in this country, and writes its language with singular force and purity. Some time since, the editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes offered a prize of £100 for an Essay on the Decay of French Literature during the present century, and, without becoming a candidate for the prize, M. Masson has addressed to his adopted countrymen some remarks upon the recent literary history of their neighbours, which are curious, interesting, and singularly full of knowledge, but which seem to us to take a gloomier view of France and French society than the circumstances call for.

M. Masson's pamphlet deals successively with the poetry, the drama, and the romance of the last two generations; and after going through the land from Dan to Beersheba, he pronounces it a sort of moral wilderness, in which nothing is to be found but a dreary atheistic materialism, haunted rather than varied by all sorts of unreal and sentimental efforts after something better and higher. We do not affect to possess so wide a knowledge of the subject as M. Masson shows; but we would submit to our readers some considerations upon the general subject which seem to us to be deserving of attention, although they are almost, if not altogether, ignored by most of those who express opinions in the present day about the condition of French society. We will confine ourselves to that part of M. Masson's Essay in which he stigmatizes, if not in express words at least by implication, the whole novel literature of France for the last thirty years, as the outward and visible sign of an unutterable corruption, spread through the whole fabric of French society. We cannot by airy means agree in so sweeping a censure. It is true that many French writers deserve the severest reprobation that can be applied to them. We could name books, by distinguished writers, which the vilest shop in Holywell-street could not expose for sale without coming under Lord Campbell's late Act. But we do not think that the works of such writers as Sue, Charles de Bernard, and Balzac, deserve to be described as "slow dissolvents upon the generous feelings of the heart, which leave us unfit to cope with the realities of life." They are certainly not books for women or for children; but to men, and especially to men able to make those allowances and deductions which are necessary in drawing from novels inferences as to life, they may, we think, be neither unneeded nor unimpressive sermons. Most of them, as far as our experience goes, contain scenes which might be wished away, but many of them can, to some extent, and with some reservations, be depended upon as a man's observations upon life addressed to his equals. Before we condemn books for their immorality, we must remember that novels arc only possible in a very peculiar state of society, and that if they aim at representing any portion of society as it exists, novelists must, from the nature of the case, confine their representations to a very small section of it. It is only when civilization has made much progress—when a class of persons sufficiently educated, and sufficiently at leisure to use books as toys, has arisen—and when, therefore, there is much luxury, and much idleness— that a novelist can be produced, or that novels could find readers. Such a society as we have described is sure to be in many ways immoral, and it is also sure to invest its immorality with a grace which, no doubt, makes it more dangerous than the coarser vices of simpler times. Is it, then, not to be represented at all? We think it should; and we also think that such representations are far from being calculated to injure those to whom they are addressed—the members, namely, of the society which they describe, or those who are hovering on its outskirts, or who have sufficient connexion with it to be able to understand and to sympathize with it. To our perceptions, such books as Balzac's Scenes de la Vie d'un C√©libataire, or George Sand's Horace, are amongst the keenest of all conceivable satires upon the vices of which their authors disapprove; and though the virtues which they praise are flighty and unsteady enough, it would be hard to deny that, so far as they go, they really are virtues.

A novel presupposes a certain degree of experience in its readers. Expunge a few pages of Gerfaut, which may be called specifically immoral, and it is hardly possible to mention a book which, to a pure-minded man, who has seen something of life, would read a more terrible lesson of the danger of giving way to temptations which all men occasionally feel. The story turns, no doubt, upon the violation of the marriage tie, and it is true that M. de Bernard does not moralize upon the sinfulness of breaking the seventh Commandment, but we know of no story which more fearfully illustrates the danger and the misery of a marriage without affection, or which sets the wickedness and the shameful treachery of indulging an unlawful fancy, merely by way of amusement, in a more lurid light. It may be objected that the principal character is a man of great power, who may be called "interesting," and that he is made the object, not of contempt, but of sympathy. Is it, however, the fact that men guilty of such vices are usually weak silly people, and would it be possible to impose upon men who have seen anything of the world by so shallow an expedient as that of representing them as such in novels?

M. Masson is rather severe upon the principle of art pour l’art—of writing, that is, without any specific moral purpose. Surely, in so far as art is regulated by essential and eternal rules, it is its own justification. Art is but a version of life so contrived as to make a deep impression on the imagination. Unless, therefore, life is immoral, art can hardly be so. If, in point of fact, the wicked are not plagued like other men, neither tormented like other men, why should not the novelist say so? If the lessons of history are sometimes stern and hard to read, why should not those of fiction, which is its shadow, be so too? A novelist is no more disrespectful to morality in simply imitating the world as he finds it, than the analyst is disrespectful to geometry in representing the conic sections under algebraical forms. If, indeed, the novelist represents the world as worse than it is, that is a fault of art; and it is the more serious, because it may have bad moral consequences. We do not by any means deny that French writers of fiction have often erred in this matter, or that many of their books are very immoral indeed; but they do seem to us to have kept in view a fact which some of our most popular English novelists appear altogether to forget—the fact that a work of imagination ought to be considered, not as a child's plaything, but as a great and serious undertaking, to be executed according to the rules of its own art, and not to be mutilated for the sake of pointing any moral which may strike the fancy of the writer.

We must finally protest against a way of speaking to which M. Masson gives some little countenance, and in which far too many of our own countrymen indulge. We cannot think, and do not believe, that France is utterly corrupt and degraded; and it annoys us to see how frequently Frenchmen of considerable talent and knowledge use language which implies that it is. We honour and love our own country beyond all others in the world, and we see much to dislike, and something to blame, in the French character; but surely it is worse than illiberal to deny that France is one of the very greatest nations that the world ever saw, or that its position in European politics and literature can only be considered as second even to our own by those who enter far more fervently into English forms of thought than any but Englishmen ever will. Where there is such vast power, so magnificent a history, such a wonderful accumulation of every gift that can adorn humanity, there must be great virtues. Mere military glory implies a great deal, but there is in France infinitely more than that. There must be a great deal of salt in a society of 35,000,000 souls which is not too corrupt to form a single, orderly, compact, and homogeneous body. We are all brought so near together in these days of railroads, that every member of the great European republic affects every other. England is certainly not very corrupt nor utterly effete, and if she is not, we may be sure that there must be a great deal of good in those with whom our intercourse is so constant and familiar. It would be to us the saddest thing in the world to be forced to think very ill of the social condition of such near neighbours and close allies; and we do not see that French light literature by any means obliges us to do so. Our views of morals may be widely different from theirs, and our practice may or may not be better, but we firmly believe that the principal difference between the novelists of the two countries is, that in France they address the most plain-spoken, and in England the most reserved, of modern nations.

Saturday Review, September 5, 1857.

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