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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alphonse Daudet (1840–1897)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Augustin Filon (1841–1916)
 
FORTY years have now elapsed since a lad of seventeen, shivering under his light summer dress in a cold misty morning, was waiting, with an empty stomach, for the opening of a “dairy” in the Quartier Latin. Young as he was, he looked still younger: a pale, eager, intellectual face, with flashing eyes, delicately carved features, and a virgin forest of dark hair falling low on his brow. He had been an usher for a twelvemonth at a small college in the South of France, and he had just arrived in Paris after a two-days’ journey in a third-class railway carriage, during which time he had tasted no food and no drink except a few drops of brandy from the flask of some charitable sailors. And there he was, with two francs left in his pocket, and an unlimited supply of courage, cheerfulness, and ambition, fully determined to make the whole world familiar with the obscure name of Alphonse Daudet.  1
  We all know how well he has succeeded in winning for himself a foremost place in the ranks of French contemporary literature, and indeed of literature in general. There is no doubt that he was admirably equipped for the great struggle on which he was about to enter; but it may be also remarked that he had not to fight it out alone and with his own solitary resources, but found at the very outset useful and strong auxiliaries. He was to have a powerful though somewhat selfish and indolent patron in the famous Duke of Morny, who admitted him among his secretaries before he was twenty years old. Then he had the good fortune to attract the attention and to take the fancy of Villemessant, the editor of the Figaro, who at first sight gave him a place in his nursery of young talents. He had a kind and devoted brother, who cheerfully shared with him the little money he had to live upon, and thus saved him from the unspeakable miseries which would inevitably attend a literary début at such an early age and under such inauspicious circumstances. Later on, he was still more fortunate in securing a loving and intelligent wife, who was to be to him, in the words of the holy Scriptures, “a companion of his rank,” a wife who was not only to become a help and a comfort, but a literary adviser, a moral guide, and a second conscience far more strict and exacting than his own; a wife who taught him how to direct and husband his precious faculties,—how to turn them to the noblest use and highest ends.  2
  But before that was to come, the first thing was to find a publisher; and after long looking in vain for one throughout the whole city, he at last discovered the man he wanted, at his door, in the close vicinity of that Hôtel du Sinat, in the Rue de Tournon, where the two brothers Daudet had taken up their abode. That publisher was Jules Tardieu, himself an author of some merit (under the transparent pseudonym of J. T. de St. Germain): a mild, quiet humorist of the optimistic school, a Topffer on a small scale and with reduced proportions.  3
  And thus it happened that a few months after the lad’s arrival in Paris an elegant booklet, with the attractive title ‘Les Amoureuses’ (Women in Love) printed in red letters on its snow-white cover, made its appearance under the galeries de l’Odéon, where in the absence of political emotions, the youth of the Quartier was eagerly looking for literary novelties, and where Daudet himself had been wandering often, in the hope of an occasional acquaintance with the great critics and journalists of the day who made the galeries their favorite resort.  4
  I have read that the book was a failure; that the young author was unable to pay the printer, and was accordingly served with stamped paper at the official residence of Morny, where he was then acting as secretary; that the duke, far from showing any displeasure at the occurrence, was delighted to find his secretary in hot water with the bailiffs, and that he arranged the matter in the most paternal spirit. This may be a pretty little story, but I fear it is a “legend.” I cannot reconcile it with the fact that four years after the first publication, the same publisher gave the public another edition of ‘Les Amoureuses’ and that the young poet dedicated it to him as a token of respect and gratitude. The truth is that Daudet’s little volume not only did not pass unnoticed, but received a good deal of attention, chiefly from the young men. Many thought that a new Musset was born in their midst, only a few months after the real one had been laid down to his last sleep in the Père Lachaise, under the trembling shadow of his favorite willow-tree. Young Daudet alluded to the unfortunate poet—
  “… mort de dégoût, de tristesse, et d’absinthe;”—
and he tried to imitate the half cynical, half nostalgic skepticism which had made the author of ‘Les Nuits’ so powerful over the minds of the new generation and so dear to their hearts.
  5
  But it did not seem perfectly genuine. When Daudet said, “My heart is old,” no one believed it, and he did not believe it himself, for he entitled the piece ‘Fanfaronnade’; and in fact it was nothing more than a fanfaronnade. The book was full of the freshness, buoyancy, and frolicsome petulance of youth. Here and there a few reminiscences might be traced to the earliest poets of the sixteenth century, more particularly to Clément Marot. A tinge of the expiring romanticism lingered in ‘Les Amoureuses’ with a much more substantial admixture of the spirit of an age which made pleasure-hunting its paramount occupation. The precocious child could modulate the ‘Romance à Madame’ as well as the page of Beaumarchais, if not better; but he could also laugh it down in Gavroche’s sneering way; he could intersperse a song of love with the irony of the boulevard or the more genial humor of his native South. He was at his best in the tale of ‘Les Prunes’—
  “Si vous voulez savoir comment
Nous nous aimâmes pour des prunes”—
That exquisite little piece survived long the youthful volume of ‘Les Amoureuses.’ In those days, when Coquelin’s monologues and saynètes were yet unknown, the brothers Lionnet, then in the height of their vogue, delighted the drawing-rooms with the miniature masterpiece.
  6
  Still, those who had prophesied the advent of a new poet were doomed to disappointment. Every one knows what Sainte-Beuve once said about the short-lived existence, in most of us, of a poet whom the real man is to survive. Shall we say that this was the case with Daudet, who never, as far as the world knows, wrote verses after twenty-five? No; the poet was not to die in him, but lived on and lives still to this day. Only he has always written in prose.  7
  After his successful début, Daudet felt his way in different directions. In collaboration with M. Ernest Lepine, who has since made a reputation under the name of Quatrelles, he had a drama, ‘The Last Idol,’ performed at the Odéon theatre,—at that same Odéon which in his first days of Paris seems to have been the center of his life and of his ambitions. But he more frequently appeared before the public as a journalist and a humorist, a writer of light articles and short stories. Nothing can give a more true, more vivacious, and on the whole more favorable impression of the Daudet of the period than the ‘Lettres de Mon Moulin’ (Letters from My Windmill). They owe their title to an old deserted windmill where Alphonse Daudet seems to have lived some time in complete seclusion, forgetting, or trying to forget, the excitement of Parisian life. The preface, most curiously disguised under the form of a mock contract which is supposed to transfer the ownership from the old proprietor to the poet, and professes to give the état de lieux or description of the place, is an amusing parody of legal jargon. The next chapter describes the installation of the new master in the same happy vein, with all the odd circumstances attending it.  8
  Throughout the rest of the volume, Daudet disappears and reappears, as his fancy prompts him to do. Now he lets himself be carried back to past memories and distant places; now he gives us a mediæval tale or a domestic drama of to-day compressed into a few brief pages, or a picture of rural life, or a glimpse of that literary hell from which he had just escaped and to which he was soon to return. He changed his tone and his subject with amazing versatility, from the bitterest satire to idyllic sweetness, or to a pleasant kind of clever naïveté which is truly his own. We see him musing among the firs and the pine-trees of his native Provence, or riding on the top of the diligence under the scorching sun and listening, in a Sterne-like fashion, to the conversation which took place between the facetious baker and the unhappy knife-grinder, or chatting familiarly with Frédéric Mistral, who takes him into the confidence of his poetical dreams. Then, again, we see him sitting down at the table of an Algerian sheik; or wandering on the gloomy rocks where the Semillante was lost, and trying to revive the awful tragedy of her last minutes; or shut up in a solitary light-house with the keepers for weeks and weeks together, content with the society and with the fare of those poor, rough, uncultivated men, cut off from the whole world, alone with the stormy winds and his stormy thoughts. Wherever his morbid restlessness takes him, whatever part he chooses to assume, whether he wants to move us to laughter or to tears, we can but follow him fascinated and spell-bound, and in harmony with his moods. Daudet when he wrote those letters was already a perfect master of all the resources of the language. What he had seen or felt, he could make us see and feel. He could make old words new with the freshness, ardor, and sincerity of the personal impressions which he was pouring into them unceasingly.  9
  The ‘Letters from My Mill’ had been scattered here and there through different newspapers, and at different times. They were reprinted in the form of a book in 1868. The year before he had given to the public ‘Le Petit Chose’ (A Little Chap), which is better known, I believe, to the English-speaking races under the rather misleading title of ‘My Brother Jack.’ ‘Le Petit Chose’ was a commercial success, but it is doubtful whether it will rank as high among Daudet’s productions as the ‘Lettres de Mon Moulin.’ He began to compose it in February 1866, during one of those misanthropic fits to which he was subject at periodical intervals, and which either paralyzed altogether, or quickened into fever, his creative faculties. He finished the work two years later in a very different mood, immediately after his marriage. As might have been expected, the two parts are very dissimilar, and it must be confessed greatly unequal. ‘Le Petit Chose’ has reminded more than one reader of ‘David Copperfield’; and it cannot be denied that the two works bear some resemblance both as regards manner and matter. But though Dickens was then widely read and much admired in France, plagiarism is out of the question. If there is a little of Dickens about ‘Le Petit Chose,’ there is a great deal more of Daudet himself in it. Young Eyssette, the hero of the novel, starts in life as Daudet had done and at the same period of life, in the quality of an usher at a small provincial college. Whether we take it as a fiction, with its innumerable bits of delicate humor, lovely descriptions of places and glimpses of characters in humble life, or whether we accept it as an autobiography which is likely to bring us into closer acquaintance with the inner soul of a great man, the first part is delightful reading. But we lose sight of him through all the adventures, at once wild and commonplace, which are crowding in the second part, to culminate into the most unconvincing dénouement. Even when speaking of himself, Daudet is sometimes at a disadvantage, perhaps because, as he justly observed, “it is too early at twenty-five to comment upon one’s own past career.” Only the old man is able to look at his former self through the distance of years and to see it as it stood once, in its true light and with its real proportions.  10
  ‘Tartarin of Tarascon’ saw the light for the first time in 1872. Strange to say, the readers of the Petit Moniteur, to whom it was first offered in a serial form, did not like it. In consequence of their marked disapproval, the publication had to be abandoned and was then resumed through the columns of another newspaper. This time the mistake was entirely on the side of the public. For—apart from the fact that the immortal Tartarin was not yet Tartarin, but answered to the much less typical name of Chapatin—the general outlines of the character were already visible in all their distinctness from the beginning, as all those who have read the introductory chapters will readily admit. And the same lines were to be followed with an undeviating fixity of artistic purpose and with unfailing verve and spirit to the last. ‘The Prodigious Adventures of Tartarin,’ ‘Tartarin on the Alps,’ and ‘Port-Tarascon,’ form a trilogy; and I know of no other example in modern French literature of so long and so well sustained a joke. How is it then that we never grow tired of Tartarin? It is probably because beneath the surface of Daudet’s playful absurdity there underlies a rich substratum of good commonsense and keen observation. Since ‘Don Quixote’ was written, no caricature has ever been more human or more true than Tartarin.  11
  Frenchmen are not, as is frequently asserted by their Anglo-Saxon critics, totally unfit to appreciate humor, when it is mingled with the study of man’s nature and seasoned with that high-spiced irony of which they have been so fond at all times, from the days of Villon to those of Rochefort. Still, Daudet would never have acquired such a complete mastery over the general public in his own country, if he had not been able to gratify their taste for that graphic and faithful description of manners and characters, which in other centuries put the moralists into fashion. Realism never disappears altogether from French literature: it was at that moment all-powerful. Zola was coming to the front with the first volumes of the well-known ‘Rougon-Macquart,’ and Daudet in 1874 entered on the same path, though in a different spirit, with ‘Fromont Jeune et Risler Aîné.’ The success was immediate and immense. The French bourgeoisie accepted it at once as a true picture of its vices and its virtues. The novel might, it is true, savor a little of Parisian cockneyism. Fastidious critics might discover in it some mixture of weak sentimentalism, or a few traces of Dickensian affectation and cheap tricks in story-telling. Young men of the new social school might take exception to that old-fashioned democracy which had its apotheosis in Risler senior. Despite all those objections, it was pronounced a masterpiece of legitimate pathos and sound observation. Even the minor characters were judged striking, and Delobelle’s name, for instance, occurs at once to our mind whenever we try to realize the image of the modern cabotin.  12
  ‘Jack,’ which came next, exceeded the usual length of French novels. “Too much paper, my son!” old Flaubert majestically observed with a smile when the author presented him with a copy of his book. As for George Sand, she felt so sick at heart and so depressed when she had finished reading ‘Jack,’ that she could work no more and had to remain idle for three or four days. A painful book, indeed, a distressing book, but how fascinating! And is not its wonderful influence over the readers exemplified in the most striking manner by the fact that it had the power to unnerve and to incapacitate for her daily task that most valiant of all intellectual laborers, that hardest of hard workers, George Sand?  13
  The lost ground, if there had been any lost at all, was soon regained with ‘Le Nabab’ (The Nabob) and ‘Les Rois en Exil’ (Kings in Exile). They took the reader to a higher sphere of emotion and thought, showed us greater men fighting for greater things on a wider theatre than the middle-class life in which Fromont and Risler had moved. At the same time they kept the balance more evenly than ‘Jack’ had done between the two elements of human drama, good and evil, hope and despair, laughter and tears. But a higher triumph was to be achieved with ‘Numa Roumestan,’ which brought Daudet’s literary fame to its zenith.  14
  ‘Tartarin’ had not exhausted all that the author had to say of meridional ways and manners. The Provençal character has its dramatic as well as its comic aspect. In ‘Numa Roumestan’ we have the farce and the tragedy blended together into a coherent whole. We have a Tartarin whose power over man and woman is not a mockery but a reality, who can win love and sympathy and admiration, not in little Tarascon, mind you, but in Paris; who sends joy abroad and creates torture at home; a charming companion, a kind master, a subtle politician, a wonderful talker, but a light-hearted and faithless husband, a genial liar, a smiling and good-natured deceiver; the true image of the gifted adventurer who periodically emerges from the South and goes northward finally to conquer and govern the whole country.  15
  As Zola has remarked, the author of ‘Numa Roumestan’ poured himself out into that book with his double nature, North and South, the rich sensuous imagination, the indolent easy-going optimism of his native land, and the stern moral sensitiveness which was partly characteristic of his own mind, partly acquired by painful and protracted experience. To depict his hero he had only to consult the most intimate records of his own lifelong struggle. For he had been trying desperately to evince Roumestan out of his own being. He had fought and conquered, but only partially conquered. And on this partial failure we must congratulate him and congratulate ourselves. He said once that “Provençal landscape without sunshine is dull and uninteresting.” The same may be said of his literary genius. It wants sunshine, or else it loses half its loveliness and its irresistible charm. ‘Roumestan’ is full of sunshine, and there is no other among his books, except ‘Tartarin,’ where the bright and happy light of the South plays more freely and more gracefully.  16
  The novel is equally strong if you examine it from a different standpoint. Nothing can be artistically better and more enchanting than the Farandole scene, or more amusing than Roumestan’s intrigue with the young opera singer; nothing can be more grand than old Le Quesnoy’s confession of sin and shame, or more affecting than the closing scene where Rosalie is taught forgiveness by her dying sister. Other parts in Daudet’s work may sound hollow; ‘Numa Roumestan’ will stand the most critical scrutiny as a drama, as a work of art, as a faithful representation of life. Daudet’s talents were then at their best and united in happy combination for that splendid effort which was not to be renewed.  17
  In ‘Sapho’ Daudet described the modern courtesan, in ‘L’Évangéliste’ a desperate case of religious madness. In ‘L’Immortel’ he gave vent to his feelings against the French Academy, which had repulsed him once and to which he turned his back forever in disgust. The angry writer pursued his enemy to death. In his unforgiving mood, he was not satisfied before he had drowned the Academy in the muddy waters of the Seine, with its unfortunate Secrétaire-perpetuel, Astier-Réhu. The general verdict was that the vengeance was altogether out of proportion to the offense; and that despite all its brilliancy of wit and elaborate incisiveness of style, the satire was really too violent and too personal to give real enjoyment to unbiased and unprejudiced readers.  18
  At different periods of his career Daudet had tried his hand as a dramatist, but never succeeded in getting a firm foot on the French stage. Play-goers still remember the signal failure of ‘Lise Tavernier,’ the indifferent reception of ‘L’Arlésienne,’ or more recently, of ‘L’Obstacle.’ All his successful novels have been dramatized, but their popularity in that new form fell far short of the common expectation. As an explanation of the fact various reasons may be suggested. Daudet, I am inclined to think, is endowed with real dramatic powers, not with scenic qualities; and from their conventional point of view, old stagers will pronounce the construction of his novels too weak for plays to be built upon them. Again, in the play-house we miss the man who tells the story, the happy presence—so unlike Flaubert’s cheerless impassibility—the generous anger, the hearty laugh, the delightful humor, that strange something which seems to appeal to every one of us in particular when we read his novels. Dickens was once heard to say, on a public occasion, that he owed his prodigious worldwide popularity to this: that he was “so very human.” The words will apply with equal felicity to Daudet’s success. He never troubles to conceal from his readers that he is a man. When the critic of the future has to assign him a place and to compare his productions with the writings of his great contemporary and fellow-worker Émile Zola, it will occur to him that Daudet never had the steady-going indomitable energy, the ox-like patience, the large and comprehensive intellect which are so characteristic in the master of Médan; that he recoiled from assuming, like the author of ‘Germinal’ and ‘Lourdes,’ a bold and definite position in the social and religious strife of our days; that he never dreamt for a moment of taking the survey of a whole society and covering the entire ground on which it stands with his books.  19
  Such a task—the critic will say—would have been uncongenial to him. The scientist is careful to explain everything and to omit nothing; he aims at completeness. But Daudet is an artist, not a scientist. He is a poet in the primitive sense of the word, or, as he styled himself in one of his books, a “trouvère.” He has creative power, but he has at the same time his share of the minor gift of observation. He had to write for a public of strongly realistic tendencies, who understood and desired nothing better than the faithful, accurate, almost scientific description of life. Daudet could supply the demand, but as he was not born a realist, whatever social influences he had been subjected to, he remained free from the faults and excesses of the school. He borrowed from it all that was good and sound; he accepted realism as a practical method, not as an ultimate result and a consummation. Again, he was preserved from the danger of going down too deep and too low into the unclean mysteries of modern humanity, not so much perhaps by moral delicacy as by an artistic distaste for all that is repulsive and unseemly. For those reasons, it would not be surprising if—when Death has made him young again—Alphonse Daudet was destined to outlive and outshine many who have enjoyed an equal or even greater celebrity during this century. He will command an ever increasing circle of admirers and friends, and generations yet unborn will grow warm in his sunshine. He died December 16th, 1897.  20
 
 
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