The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet

BOOK: The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet
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Little Whafs'His-Name {Le Petit Chose') Daudet's first published, though not his first written, novel, appeared in 1868, but had been begun in Provence shortly after the death of the Due de Morny in 1865 had released him from his slight political ties. The first and better part was composed in that Southern France it describes so charmingly; the second part was completed in Paris, The whole book seems to bear the impress of the circumstances under which it was written. It ends with a happy marriage, and Daudet had just found a nobly sympathetic helpmeet. It is full of the milk of human kindness, and its author had had little but generous treatment since the favor of the Empress Eugenie had secured him his political sinecure. Its first chapters form one of the most touching of autobiographies, and his recent residence in Provence had freshened Daudet's recollections of his childhood. Finally Daudet, although then turning his attention to the drama, had not left his poetry far behind and was doing admirable work in short stories; hence it is not surprising to find that Le Petit Chose is steeped in a poetic atmosphere

and is obviously the work of a writer not yet used to elaborating his materials. He afterwards expressed the wish that he had not made such early use of his youthful experiences, on the ground that something very good could have been made of them; but it is questionable whether his increased skill as a writer would have compensated for that blurring of the memory from which not even great novelists are surely exempt.

However this may be, it is quite clear that when he wrote Le Petit Chose in his early manhood, he succeeded in producing one of the most delightfully idyllic of his works, one that will probably continue to be read as long as any of the more powerful novels of his prime. It is much to his credit as a man and a writer that the misfortunes France underwent in 1870-1871 should have turned Little What's-His-Name into a great novelist; but it will perhaps seem to some people more to his credit that his youthful vicissitudes and his precarious health should have left his exquisite nature as untouched as it appears to be in the first half of his poetical autobiography. Hence it seems unlikely that the Daudet of the Nabab will ever inflict upon the Daudet of Le Petit Chose the fate that the Daudet of the early poems has already undergone.

But what introduction does such a simple, idyllic story need besides the easily followed injunction — Read and enjoy! Scarcely any, unless we wish to

enjoy it as we do a good old comedy; in which case we should be somewhat at a loss if we did not encounter an encomiastic prologue written by an admirer of the dramatist. In those days, however, the prologue was in verse and the comedy generally in prose; with Le Petit Chose the homely prose will be found inevitably in the introduction, not in the charming book itself.

Yet perhaps there is after all something that must be said to the English reader. Daudet's story has two parts, and it would be a great mistake to suppose that the second by itself merits the praise that has just been given. It is a pretty, sentimental romance that ought to suit the good people who can still cry over the pathetic scenes of Daudet's English counterpart, Dickens; but it is surely little more. The motherly care of the elder brother for the younger, the perfect and at times stupid selfishness of the latter, the rustic kindness and simplicity of Pierrotte, — these are not new or strong elements of fiction, although they are by no means so despicable as some thorough-going realists would have us believe. There is sentiment as well as sentimentality in Dickens and in the Daudet of the second part of Z^ Petit Chose; but it is also true that both writers were capable of much higher work. The yielding to the impulse to sentimentalize, however much temporary popularity it may secure, rarely helps a novelist to live. If Goldsmith had not been able

to depict a noble character, it is very doubtful whether The Vicar of Wakefield would now be included among the English classics read in schools. Then, too, the writer who sentimentalizes, time and again loses his opportunity to do really effective work on subjects of the greatest interest. For example, Daudet has to tell in his second part of the struggles of an idealistic young poet in the selfish, devouring whirlpool of Paris. How does he do it? Would any competent critic set his descriptions beside any of the corresponding pictures Balzac has painted ? Or, to descend to a minute detail, will any one contend that the excellent Abb6 Germane, so strongly outlined in the first part of Le Petit Chose, is not blurred when he is momentarily introduced in the second? And finally does not Le Petit Chose himself cease to interest us in a manner that cannot be accounted for entirely by his highly developed selfishness — a selfishness, by the way, not sufficiently brought into play perhaps, in the first part? But to what are these defects due — should the reader admit them to be defects — if not to Daudet's access of sentimentalism, when he turned aside from his own experiences and began to weave a romance?

But ah ! that wonderful first part! Does it not reproach us for the hard things we are saying about the second? Not only is it precious to every lover of Daudet because of the invaluable

light it throws upon his early years; but it is one of the most perfect representations in literature of childhood's hopes and fears and of youth's aspirations and defeats. It is perfect because it is real. The little Robinson Crusoe of the unused silk factory at Nimes with his red-headed Friday, Rouget, and his parrot; the ever-weeping Jacques; the cockroaches that swarmed in the wretched apartments at Lyons; the scene of the broken pitcher, with M. Eyssette's unending refrain, "Jacques, tu es un ane ! " — these things will never fade from the reader's mind because the author has seen them, heard them, lived them. They are the things that Jacques and Daniel laughed over when they lay in bed that first night in the attic near Saint Germain-des-Pres, and tried in vain to close their eyes; they are the things that still keep a reader from laying the book down. Mr. Walter Pater's admirers grow eloquent over his subtle delineation of the ways of childhood in The Child in the House; but the lover of Daudet will neither argue nor declaim in behalf of his favorite — will only re-read with increased delight the first pages of Le Petit Chose. Perhaps he would do the same thing if one praised in his presence Dickens's semi-autobiographic David Copperfield.

Nor is it different when Le Petit Chose leaves the fast breaking up home at Lyons and begins life as an usher in the school at Alais. The suffer-

ings of the poor pion are our sufferings far more than the miseries of the disappointed poet and low comedian are our miseries. We too stand somewhat in dread of M. Viot and his keys, we too wonder what Little Black Eyes makes of life, we too have confidence in the rugged, uncouth Abb6 Germane. We should have liked to sit with the tiny scholars in order to hear Le Petit Chose tell them stories; we are glad to find him repentant toward Bamban; we take his part in the famous " Affaire Boucoyran." Finally we sympathize much more with him when he has his first attack of typhoid fever than when he has his second; and we are surprised to find how much we also are affected by the sight of the swinging ring with the loop-knot attached made of a violet necktie. Yet after all there is no reason to be surprised, for the writer of these fascinating pages had obeyed to the letter the precept of Sir Philip Sidney's muse, he had looked in his heart and written.

If now the practical reader should ask, " Has Daudet's description of his life as an usher at Alais produced the good effects upon French schools that Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby is held to have produced on English boarding schools?" one would probably be forced to answer in the negative, in spite of the recent discontent with their schools that has been manifested by some distinguished Frenchmen. The French are too great slaves to system, to be as easily affected as

the English by a book; and, in any case, Daudet was hardly in 1868 the author to stir them deeply. He is much more of an idyllist than Dickens ever was, and if we wish to find a counterpart in his works to the Dotheboys Hall of Dickens, we must turn to the powerful pages in which the " QEuvre de Bethldem" (the Orphanage of Bethlehem) is described in the eighth chapter of the Nabab or to the still more powerful description of the Mon-roval School in Jack. In the earlier work Le Petit Chose, though a great sufferer, is also a dreamer, yet by no means such a dreamer as Balzac described in his own autobiographic Louis Lambert. It is just as well that Daudet was himself, not Dickens or Balzac, for he was thus enabled to give us as pathetic a school idyl as can be found in literature.

But he has given us something more, not merely in his first part but in his entire story. He has given us a reply that ought to be final, but seemingly has,not been—to the very silly but often repeated statement that French home life is inferior in point of tender intimacy to English — a statement which is nearly always based upon a philological argument drawn from the use of " chez soi" and " foyer" as synonyms for " home." It may be safely contended on the other hand that if tender domesticity exists anywhere in the world, it is in France, and that the novels of Daudet, Balzac and others bear out the contention. The

observations of intelligent travellers also bear it out; but Le Petit Chose shall suffice for us. Where in English or American literature will one find a story that is fuller of the sentiment that "there's no place like home?" It is the dream of the brave Jacques's heart to gather the scattered family again under one roof. Inspired by this holy purpose, he ceases to weep, stops breaking pitchers and justifying his father in his opprobrious refrain, goes to Paris, works day and night, and lays by a large portion of his scanty salary — " pour reconstruire le foyer." Would he have been any braver, nobler, or truer a lad had he been named James and had he said to himself, "I'll buy the old home back?" And even the selfish Petit Chose feels the flame of this sacred duty kindle within his heart. When he sees his mother condemned to be a dependant upon the bounty of silly old Uncle Baptiste, he too swears " two or three times very solemnly to conduct himself henceforward like a man and no longer to think of anything but re-establishing ihe foyer^ Poor Petit Chose! His resolutions are not carried out; but doubtless they were strong enough to make him forget for a while that he had nothing better with which to pace the streets of Paris than a pair of gum-shoes! And even after his selfishness has hastened the death of the good Jacques, his joy at awaking out of his fever in Pierrotte's house with Blue Eyes near by, is tenfold enhanced by the

discovery that the blind mother has escaped from Uncle Baptiste's and will become the most honored inmate of the foyer that will soon be inaugurated. No ideas of home! why the little idyl fairly breathes them on almost every page; even if it does close without making proper provision for the return from his peregrinations of " that Wandering Jew of Viniculture," that unfortunate commercial traveller, M. Eyssette, the father.

But not only is Le Petit Chose an idyl of hearth and home even though its scene is often laid in a garret; it is also as pure a story as one can well find in any literature. Daudet shows in it that it is perfectly possible to write even of Bohemian Paris without laying exclusive stress on its seamy side. If throughout his work he had shut his eyes to this side he would have fallen, of course, into many of the banalities of his English contemporaries; but there was time enough before him for Jack and Sapho, and it is a source of profit to himself and his readers that he should have felt the inclination to give his idyl a perfectly pure, clean setting. He could succeed well enough in his purpose of deterring ambitious young provincials from coming to Paris to publish poems on blue butterflies, without becoming a Virgil to conduct them through the Inferno of the great capital. Yet it must not be forgotten that he accomplished all this at the loss, as we have seen, of not a little strength and force, even if his story remains almost

without a blot save the unkind and unnecessary slur upon one of the truest and greatest of modern poets, Leconte de Lisle, author of that Bhagavat at which Little What's-His-Name made merry, not perhaps without an appreciable touch of jealousy. But it is time to conclude, although it is difficult to forbear calling attention to many a delightful feature of the story and of Daudet's way of writing it. Certainly as a specimen of what one may perhaps call intimate, confidential prose, it can have few rivals. Some of the touches simply demand quotation — as for example the description of the fate of the old family servant Annou who sickened in the foggy air of Lyons and had to be forcibly sent home to her beloved Midi, where "elle s'y maria de desespoir." Or, again, what more touching than the account of how the little Daniel, having tarried after school to play a game of prisoner's base {barres) returned home to find his mother gone to the bedside of his brother the Abb6, how Petit Chose in his despair kept exclaiming to himself — " Never, no never will I play any more prisoner's base when I get out of school." There are dozens of such passages and scenes, and the man who could write them was certain to do powerful work when once his spirit should be awakened by the strenuous events of life. In Le Petit Chose, it is necessary to repeat, we have the idyllic element ever present, even \t^hen Daudet is holding most closely to the facts of his sad early experience. But the

idyllic and the tragic do not often mix well, and yet the great complex life of modern times requires in part the tragic treatment, Daudet was not able to give this on any considerable scale in 1868; hence the description of the fate of the struggling young poet who sold only one copy of his poems—not an exaggerated incident, by the way, for there is a similar English case well authenticated — would be almost amusing but for the sentimental, not tragic interest given to the unselfish death of la mere Jacques. But while some of us may amuse ourselves by wondering what sort of a story Daudet would have made, had he told it himself, instead of using Daniel as a spokesman, and ended it with a real suicide in the old gymnasium at Alais, the majority of readers will do well not to be hypercritical about sentimentalism or any other faults to be found in this work of a writer not yet thirty, and to enjoy to the full one of the purest and most exquisite stories of youthful experience to be found in French or in any other literature.

BOOK: The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet
13.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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