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The Ten French Novels Which I …

ISSUE:  Autumn 1929

I have been asked which ten French novels I like most. I believe it was Jules Lemaitre who started the fashion of the little game Pierre Louys and I used to play when we were still in rhetoric: “If you had to pass the rest of your days on a desert island, which twenty books would you rather take with you?” Twenty books! We thought it was very few to people a desert and furnish the pleasure of a lifetime; so instead of writing the titles of works, we wrote the names of authors. For example, we chose simply Goethe, which kept us from having to choose between “Faust,” “Wilhelm Meister,” and the poems. Then we resorted to ruses ; we chose Amyot, which guaranteed us the delightful “Daphnis and Chloe” with “Plutarch” thrown in. We chose Leconte de Lisle, whose translations seemed to us then to display an unsurpassable Hellenism. I used to choose Sainte-Beuve. . . . In this way our library of twenty authors furnished us with from three to four hundred volumes.

I have kept several of these lists, which we made out anew each term. I search among them in vain for the name of a novelist.

Though the novel is the latest born child, today it enjoys most favor. In the body of literature, particularly French literature, it holds small place; we were not so short-sighted that we were not already able to see that. It is true that at twenty we had not yet discovered Stendhal. But even if I had to choose among this writer’s works, would it be his novels I should pick? Or rather his letters, his “Henri Brulard,” his “Journal,” and his “Reminiscences”?

But today it is novels I am asked to designate; what is worse, French novels!

I have hesitated a long time between “The Red and the Black” and “The Charterhouse of Parma.” In my doubt, I even came near picking “Lucien Leuwen,” for which I retained a certain predilection as long as I had not reread the other two. But no: “The Charterhouse” remains the unique book; even though “The Red and the Black” be at first acquaintance more surprising, “The Charterhouse” has this one magic quality; every time one goes back to it, it is always a new book one is reading.

When I reopen Montesquieu, La Fontaine, Montaigne, I can always taste in them some sentence from which at first I had not sucked all the marrow, or which, even, I had not noticed; my mind can listen with more docility, with more intelligence, to their counsel, or, if it refuses to, it is for the most judicious reasons. . . . I deny myself unceasingly to Stendhal; I should find only boredom in what brings him pleasure; prolonged, his company would be deadly to me; but like Racine’s Britannicus, it is always with a new face that Mosca, Fabrice, and the duchess smile at me, that the whole book smiles at me. What grace in his detail I What elegance in the cleanness of his line! How little he insists! . . . I leave him; I come back to him; never shall I finish talking of him.

The great secret of this diverse youth is that Stendhal, and particularly in his “Charterhouse,” wishes to affirm literally nothing; the whole book was written for pleasure. Hardly ever, here and there (much less than in the other two books), does Stendhal take sides; it is in that way that he might age. How I love him on the contrary, when he writes: “I fear lest Fabrice’s credulity deprive him of the reader’s sympathy; but after all thus he was: why flatter him more than another?” And how much more even would I love him if he were pretending less, if he had written that more sincerely.

There remain in man a great many regions which Stendhal has not discovered, and he does not even like to discover anything he cannot later explain; the ultra-violet tones escape him, precisely those which occupy us most today; a certain theory of pleasure pushes him to conclusions a little too quickly; he shuts himself in a little too deliberately. . . . No matter! If I had to choose ten novels, without bothering about their origin, I should pick two French ones: “The Charterhouse” would be the first.

The “Liaisons Dangereuses” of Laclos would be the other.

I loved this book so much at first — I ask myself now whether I am not making too much of it. I must reread it. I did not discover it, happily, until pretty late; I mean nearer thirty, than twenty. Readers who are too young get tired of Madame de Tourvel’s resistances; they believe the book would gain if she gave way sooner to Valmont and spent less time afterwards in bewailing. They, deserve to prefer Faublas.

Everything in the “Liaisons” disconcerts me, and nothing I have ever learned about Laclos enlightens me as to his motives for writing this novel. I have almost come to the point of doubting whether, in his impertinent preface, the author is mocking, or whether he really did not imagine that he was “rendering a service to morals” as he says. I should wish this were the case, and that this book might prove by reductio ad absurdum that to render service to morals is to render disservice to art. It must be admitted that he becomes rather mediocre when he plumes himself, near the end, on making up for things and putting in the right not only the wife of President de Tourvel, in whom sincere love and virtue are incarnate, but even Madame de Volanges, Madame de Rosemont, and other supernumeraries who represent, if you will, the party of good morals—against which true love and true virtue will always have to struggle, and more than the Valmonts and Merteuils ever did.

And sometimes on the contrary I doubt whether, under cover of a virtuous intention, Laclos did not wish rather to compose the real manual of debauch. After all debauchery is not the Merteuil’s vice or Valmont’s, but rather Danceny’s and the Little Volanges’ ; debauch starts where pleasure begins to dissociate itself from love. I am hardly forcing my point if I decline to see a debauchee in Valmont, but only a libertine; in Don Juan, not so much a profligate as an unbeliever. Danceny is no longer a debauchee when he ceases to love Cile. Between the sensations of pleasure and the feelings of love, the cleavage is not so fatal, nor even perfectly natural. “Love, which people vaunt to us as the cause of our pleasures, is no more at most than their pretext.” This little sentence, which Laclos puts in the Merteuil’s mouth, throws plain light on some of the supposed “mysteries” of the human heart.

In like manner it is in this book that I find, and always in the same letter of the Marquise de Merteuil, the subtlest and most pertinent criticism, even though the most indirect, of the doctrines of Barres. “Believe me, Viscount,” says she, “one rarely acquires good traits one can do without.” And the environment Barr postulates puts man in precisely that situation which exacts from him only the least effort and the least virtue. . . . We have developed this elsewhere.

After these two novels, if my choice is not restricted to France, I shall cite only foreign ones.

“What! You think no more of France than that?”

“Simply: in my eyes, it is not in the novel that France excels.”

France is a country of moralists, of incomparable artists, of composers and architects, of orators. Whom will foreigners put against Montaigne, Pascal, Molie, Bossuet, Racine? But, to offset this, what is a Le Sage beside a Fielding or a Cervantes? An AbbProst compared to a Defoe? And what, even, is a Balzac when faced with a Dostoevsky? . . . Or, if you prefer, what is a “Princess of Cleves” beside a “Britannicus”?

Nevertheless I must pick “The Princess of Cleves,” since my choice is to be restricted to French. But I confess I feel only a mild admiration for this book. There is nothing new to be said about it, nor anything that has not been well said. Without doubt, there are various ways of reacting to “The Princess of Cleves,” and it is possible not to like this novel at all; but the moment one likes it, I defy him to have more than one reason for liking it. There is no secret, no withdrawal, no indirection; no unutilized resources—everything is set out clearly, exploited, there is nothing further to wait for. Without doubt this is the height of art: a nec plus ultra without possibility of further development. Shall I really put “The Princess of Cleves” on my list? Or rather “Le Roman Bourgeois”? Ah, if only Fureticre were Moliere; and Javotte, Monsieur Jour-dain! . . .

In default of “Moll Flanders,” shall I now choose “Ma-non Lescaut”? Perhaps. Warm blood courses through it. . . . Yet I feel uncomfortable before this book; it has too many readers, and of the worst sort; I prefer not to like it.

“When you read it, you shed plenty, of tears!”

“Precisely. I’ blame it a little for that. If it touched my mind first, I would be more willing to have it touch my heart too.”

To offset this, I do not hesitate for an instant to seize on “Dominique.” So beautiful is the modesty of this book, it seems almost indiscreet to talk about it. It is not a sublime book; it is a friendly book. It speaks intimately, so much so that when one reads it, it seems as if one were talking to oneself, or as if one had no need of any other friend.

Nothing is artificial in “Dominique”; Fromentin shows in it that he is undoubtedly an artist, but not particularly a man of letters; all the good qualities of his pen are merely those of his intelligence and his heart.

What novel of Balzac shall one prefer? How can one prefer only one Balzac novel? The “Human Comedy” forms a whole; to admire only a fragment of it is to admire it badly.

It is well to read Balzac before twenty-five; afterwards it becomes too difficult. Through what balderdash one goes in him to hunt one’s food! Even then one is not always rewarded, for, as soon as he has set forth his characters, their sublimest words are foreseen; to say that they are topical is to say everything. . . . I know. But it is important to have read Balzac—all Balzac. Certain literary men have believed it possible to dispense with him; later they may not have wholly realized something that they lacked; one realizes it for them.

It is “La Cousine Bette,” I believe, that I find most profit in rereading; let us say it is the book I choose from Balzac.

I choose next “Madame Bovary,” without comment. A discussion of Flaubert would run away with me; I reserve it.

I have loved Flaubert for a long time, as a master, as a friend, as a brother; his correspondence was my bedside book. Ah, how I read it, around twenty! There is not a sentence of it today that I am not familiar with. . . . The most important progress of my, mind, since, has been to dare to judge it. Even today, there is nothing more painful to me than to hear Flaubert criticized by someone who has not first loved him. For example I recently read an article on him, which was almost hateful to me; though if it had not sought to damn, it would not have seemed to me unjust. But it attacked only the form and seemed to ignore at the same time the importance of Flaubert and the very point of the question. Nietzsche at least would not have mistaken the meaning of an aberration so plausible; the passion with which he denounces it really indicates a sort of admiration and his hatred is only the revulsion of his respect and love.

What will those who are already crying down “Madame Bovary” say when they hear me name “Germinal”? Nevertheless such a book is not dispensed with by saying that none of the praise Stendhal deserved could be applied to Zola; nor even does it make me consider it less admirable. I remain almost astonished, it is true, that it should be written in our language; but I cannot imagine it more easily in any other language whatever. It is an annex to literature. It should have been written in Volapuk.

Such as it is, this work exists; it affirms itself; it is masterly; it could not have been written differently.

I was not asked to designate ten models here. If I incline by, preference to these books, it is even less because I seek to recognize myself in them, to adore in them my own reflection. Certain critics have reproached me with the eclecticism of my tastes and have called me a dilettante because I have exacted only from myself the qualities which they exact only from others. They are working, say they, to reform the taste of the public; they do well, and I am grateful to them for preparing readers for me.

Yet I notice there is one book lacking on my list. . . . Now, for the last one, let us take something new: this one, for example—and I blush not to have read it yet: Marivaux’s “Marianne.”


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