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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Émile Erckmann (1822–1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826–1890)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Frédéric Loliée (1856–1915)
ERCKMANN-CHATRIAN is the joint name of two French novelists: Émile Erckmann, born at Pfalzburg in 1822, and Alexandre Chatrian, born in 1826 at Soldatenthal in the Meurthe department; whom constant collaboration, a completely similar bent of mind, grasp of things, observation, and style of writing, did, so to speak, blend into one and the same literary man. Their friendship and joint labor dated from their meeting in Alsace in 1845. At an early date they acquired that unity of style and conception which so long puzzled public opinion as to the double origin of their productions. Erckmann as a rule resided at Pfalzburg: as to Chatrian, he lived in Paris. The descriptions of the former were sketched in the Vosges country; those of the latter in the Seine department. But their conception was identical, the flight of their imagination similar; so that, being in close communion of ideas, the style of the one became that of the other. From afar they completed each other. This perfectly simultaneous collaboration, of which the de Goncourt brothers alone offer another instance, was unprecedented in literary history.  1
  Unnoticed and trying were the first attempts of our novelists. The special charm of their descriptions of the homes of middle-class people of the Rhine country was not at first appreciated as fully as it deserved to be; being, as they were, regular masterpieces as regards reality, feeling, and nicety of delineation. ‘L’Illustre Docteur Matheus’ (The Illustrious Doctor Matheus: 1859), whose exploits are performed in the misty spheres of the supernatural, constituted the first success of the novelists. The way now lay open before them. Ringing successes made them soon forget their disappointing beginnings.  2
  Erckmann and Chatrian, in twin, cultivated narrative poetry, the rustic and sentimental novel, the picture of country life,—having for preferred frame the quiet horizons which extend between the Rhine and the Mosel,—dismal and fantastic fancies after the manner of Hoffmann, the weird German dreamer; and lastly, the historical and political novel. Chiefly under this last form, as applied to the revolutionary epopee and to the wars of conquest of Napoleon I., did they make their names popular. Theirs was a personal and quite new conception of those episodical novels, to which they gave the title of “national,” and which however caused them to be twitted with anti-patriotism, for the reason that they represented war with the pen of philosophers rather than with the pencil of poets, and because they did not hesitate to show therein, with all the real horror pertaining to the subject, how through the frenzy of battles the fortune of a country runs out in blood, noise, and smoke.  3
  The twin authors had given up, or at least put aside for a while, their primitive manner. Getting tired of those quiet descriptions, they felt driven to mix the simple legends of the Vosges country and those of the Black Forest with more solid and broader ideas. They now no longer limned the peaceful scenes of ‘L’Ami Fritz’ (Friend Fritz), the vast beer-shops filled with the smoke of the long china pipes, the fair housewives surrounded by their fair offspring, the pensive maids of German lieder, or the country balls at which the waltz carries away, on a rocking rhythm, the betrothed couples. To their lovely and limited former pictures had now succeeded the tumult of the camps and the horrors of battle-fields, hospital and ambulance scenes, all the awful details which disclose the ambitious egotism of leaders, the hesitation, the confusion, the half-pluck of the soldiers, the smallness of great things. They had then marked their twin object, quite democratic in its inspiration, which was to set off the lustre of the campaigns fought under the Revolution for the defense of national soil, and to sap the prestige of the Napoleonic idol, dimmed as it is in clouds of blood. The essential aim they had in view was to point out to the young generations the emptiness of military glory, and to prove to them that one is never so happy as through peace, liberty, and toil.  4
  The public forthwith followed them in their evolution. In a short time, Erckmann-Chatrian’s works were eagerly read throughout France; aided by the currents of anti-governmental opposition, they soon acquired an immense popularity. Everybody was anxious to read the pages of ‘Madame Thérèse’ and ‘L’Histoire d’un Conscrit de 1813’ (The Story of a Conscript of 1813), where the conscript relates himself, with charming artlessness, the great military events in which he had been an actor, albeit indifferent and devoid of enthusiasm. Success unfortunately so increased their productiveness as to completely exhaust the happy vein they had discovered. They were constantly writing, without however varying their topic. It was always the same variation performed by clever virtuosi on an Alsatian political and social theme. The first works had been enthusiastically welcomed, the following delighted the readers, but the last only met with a lukewarm and indifferent reception from the public. When ‘Waterloo’ was published, people noticed that that book was inferior to ‘Le Consent.’ ‘Le Blocus’ (The Blockade) seemed still beneath ‘Waterloo.’ ‘L’Histoire d’un Homme du Peuple’ (The Story of a Man of the People) had more of the merits of the foregoing works; as to ‘L’Histoire d’un Paysan’ (The Story of a Peasant), it was but the last expression of a form which had come to be but a process of writing. Literary critics ceased to notice the new productions of Erckmann-Chatrian. True to say, each of these works represented an idea. They at times breathed a powerful air of justice and liberty. But the plot was monotonous; the various episodes were ill combined and ill arranged; the style had become heavy, and began to lack the fine simplicity which constituted the very talent of Erckmann-Chatrian: in short, the cohesion that marked their former works no longer existed in the latter; they were no longer books, but series of fragments.  5
  Possessed of rare perfection in their best passages, though not throughout equally good, the productions of Erckmann-Chatrian are like a poem in two canti. The military canto may grow obsolete; as to the more personal canto, that of the Vosgian legends, of sweet landscapes and picturesque manners, it is better assured of life.  6
  One may likewise detect in the twin authors’ talent two very distinct manifestations: the purely romantic one, rather weak as a rule, on account of the superabundance of the scenes and episodes which constantly break up the main plot; and the descriptive one, simply admirable. Their books, whose charm and merit chiefly consist in the finish of details, might be likened to a gallery of genre pictures. That is why anthologies—the aim of which is to pick only that which is excellent in an author’s productions—might easily be enriched with marvelous passages borrowed from the somewhat massive work of Erckmann-Chatrian. To make choice collections from them, one would have to search right and left in their poems, legends, fantastic visions, great military scenes, and lovely pictures of rural life. The most important share might be gathered from those calm and comforting provincial scenes of which they were so faithfully fond. As an instance of their style, one might likewise include that charming Alsatian idyl, ‘L’Ami Fritz,’ in which seems to revive the placid beauty of ‘Hermann und Dorothea,’ Goethe’s immortal masterpiece.  7

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