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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Edmond About (1828–1885)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
EARLY in the reign of Louis Napoleon, a serial story called ‘Tolla,’ a vivid study of social life in Rome, delighted the readers of the Revue des Deux Mondes. When published in book form in 1855 it drew a storm of opprobrium upon its young author, who was accused of offering as his own creation a translation of the Italian work ‘Vittoria Savorelli.’ This charge, undoubtedly unjust, he indignantly refuted. It served at least to make his name well known. Another book, ‘La Question Romaine,’ a brilliant if somewhat superficial argument against the temporal power of pope and priests, was a philosophic employment of the same material. Appearing in 1860, about the epoch of the French invasion of Austrian Italy, its tone agreed with popular sentiment and it was favorably received.  1
  Edmond François Valentin About had a freakish, evasive, many-sided personality, a nature drawn in too many directions to achieve in any one of these the success his talents warranted. He was born in Dreuze, and like most French boys of literary ambition, soon found his way to Paris, where he studied at the Lycée Charlemagne. Here he won the honor prize; and in 1851 was sent to Athens to study archæology at the École Française. He loved change and out-of-the-way experiences, and two studies resulted from this trip: ‘La Grèce Contemporaine,’ a book of charming philosophic description; and the delightful story ‘Le Roi des Montagnes’ (The King of the Mountains). This tale of the long-limbed German student, enveloped in the smoke from his porcelain pipe as he recounts a series of impossible adventures,—those of himself and two Englishwomen, captured for ransom by Hadgi Stavros, brigand king in the Grecian mountains,—is especially characteristic of About in the humorous atmosphere of every situation.  2
  About wrote stories so easily and well that his early desertion of fiction is surprising. His mocking spirit has often suggested comparison with Voltaire, whom he studied and admired. He too is a skeptic and an idol-breaker; but his is a kindlier irony, a less incisive philosophy. Perhaps, however, this influence led to lack of faith in his own work, to his loss of an ideal, which Zola thinks the real secret of his sudden change from novelist to journalist. Voltaire taught him to scoff and disbelieve, to demand “à quoi bon?” and that took the heart out of him. He was rather fond of exposing abuses, a habit that appears in those witty letters to the Gaulois which in 1878 obliged him to suspend that journal. His was a positive mind, interested in political affairs, and with something always ready to say upon them. In 1872 he founded a radical newspaper, Le XIXme Siècle (The Nineteenth Century), in association with another aggressive spirit, that of Francisque Sarcey. For many years he proved his ability as editor, business man, and keen polemist.  3
  He tried drama, too, inevitable ambition of young French authors; but after the failure of ‘Guillery’ at the Théâtre Française and ‘Gaétena’ at the Odéon, renounced the theatre. Indeed, his power is in odd conceptions, in the covert laugh and humorous suggestion of the phrasing, rather than in plot or characterization. He will always be best known for the tales and novels in that thoroughly French style—clear, concise, and witty—which in 1878 elected him president of the Société des Gens de Lettres, and in 1884 won him a seat in the Academy.  4
  About wrote a number of novels, most of them as well known in translation to English and American readers as to his French audience. The bright stories originally published in the Moniteur, afterward collected with the title ‘Les Mariages de Paris’ had a conspicuous success, and were followed by a companion volume, ‘Les Mariages de Province.’ ‘L’Homme à l’Oreille Cassée’ (The Man with the Broken Ear)—the story of a mummy resuscitated to a world of new conditions after many years of apparent death—shows his freakish delight in oddity. So does ‘Le Nez du Notaire’ (The Notary’s Nose), a gruesome tale of the tribulations of a handsome society man, whose nose is struck off in a duel by a revengeful Turk. The victim buys a bit of living skin from a poor water-carrier, and obtains a new nose by successful grafting. But he can nevermore get rid of the uncongenial Aquarius, who exercises occult influence over the skin with which he has parted. When he drinks too much, the Notary’s nose is red; when he starves, it dwindles away; when he loses the arm from which the graft was made, the important feature drops off altogether, and the sufferer must needs buy a silver one. About’s latest novel, ‘Le Roman d’un Brave Homme’ (The Story of an Honest Man), is in quite another vein, a charming picture of bourgeois virtue in revolutionary days. ‘Madelon’ and ‘La Vielle Roche’ (The Old School) are also popular.  5
  French critics have not found much to say of this non-evolutionist of letters, who is neither pure realist nor pure romanticist, and who has no new theory of art. Some, indeed, may have scorned him for the wise taste which refuses to tread the debatable ground common to French fiction. But the reading public has received him with less conscious analysis, and has delighted in him. If he sees only what any clever man may see, and is no profound psychologist, yet he tells what he sees and what he imagines with delightful spirit and delightful wit, and tinges the fabric of his fancy with the ever-changing colors of his own versatile personality, fanciful suggestions, homely realism, and bright antithesis. Above all, he has the great gift of the story-teller.  6
 
 
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