Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
On the Influence of Recent Northern Literature
By François Élie Jules Lemaître (1853–1914)
From ‘Les Contemporains’

ONCE more the Saxons and Germans, the Thracians and peoples of snow-covered Thule, have conquered Gaul: an important but not a surprising event.  1
  One of our most pardonable faults is acknowledged to be a certain coquettish yet generous intellectual hospitality. As soon as a Frenchman has succeeded in acquiring not alone national and classical culture, but European culture as well, it is marvelous to see how, at one stroke, he sets himself free from all literary chauvinism. At this point the most serious clasp hands, so to speak, with the most frivolous; with the class emancipated from prejudices in favor of clean linen, as well as with those who, to use an expression henceforth symbolical, are “laundered in London.”  2
  It is evident that Renan, for instance, who as a matter of fact understood only superficially contemporary French literature, was always dominated by German science and genius, and placed Goethe, and even Herder, above all that is best among us. Taine also concludes that we have nothing comparable not only to Shakespeare,—we must grant him this,—but to contemporaneous English poets and novelists.  3
  While in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the South—Spain and Italy—attracted us, for the past two centuries we have been captivated by the literature of the North.  4
  This attraction has had its accessions and its intervals; but our last attack of septentriomania shows itself particularly violent and prolonged, for it still endures. It began I think about a dozen years ago, in the revolution against the so-called “naturalist” brutalities and pretensions, and in the taste, now perhaps partially forgotten, for George Eliot.  5
  At this time M. Edmond Schérer and M. Émile Montégut vied with each other in demonstrating in profound and eloquent essays that George Eliot far surpassed all our realistic novelists.  6
  Since then M. de Vogüé has magnificently revealed to us Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; and compared with them, again, our poor romancers are but dust in the balance. All the world worshiped the Russian gospel, and set itself to “tolstoiser.” At the same time the “Théâtre Libre” set before us the dramas of Dostoyevsky. Finally Ibsen had his turn of apotheosis, and all his later plays were translated. We have seen at the theatres, beside the plays of these two writers, those of the Norwegian Björnson, the German Hauptmann, the Swede Strindberg, and the Belgian Maeterlinck. The fury and intolerance of admiration on the part of young men and certain women for these products of the North is hardly to be imagined. “Yes,” they say, “these polar souls truly speak to our souls; they penetrate them deeply; they stir them to their profoundest depths.” And I read with melancholy this page of M. de Vogüé, in the preface of his ‘Russian Romance’:—“There has been created in our day, wider than the preferences of coteries or national prejudice, a European spirit,—a fund of culture, ideas, and tendencies common to all intelligent societies. We find this spirit, the same in essence, the same in impressionability, in London, Petersburg, Rome, and Berlin. But as yet it eludes us; the literature and philosophy of our rivals make conquest of us but slowly: we are not imparting it, we are towed along by it more or less successfully. But to follow is not to guide;—the prevailing ideas which are transforming Europe no longer emanate from the French soul.”  7
  Possibly this may be because they issued from that soul fifty years ago!  8
  I must here premise that in speaking of the works of George Eliot, George Sand, and some other authors, it is necessarily from a somewhat remote reading of them, and from impressions immediately following that reading…. I shall consider solely on what ground these novelists stand; what are the dominating ideas, the guiding sentiments, what the substratum of their works….  9
  That which strikes us in these romances [of George Eliot], all of them being histories of conscience, is the constant moral preoccupation by which every page is marked, as well as the constant cordial and observant sympathy with the most humble and ordinary phases of human life. To consider, in passing, this second characteristic only: it is indubitably to be found, with a fullness that leaves nothing to be desired, in the works of George Sand…. Read ‘La Mare au Diable’ [The Devil’s Pool], ‘La Petite Fadette’ [Little Fadette], ‘François le Champi,’ you will find as much robust and charming good-nature, as sincere a liking for simple life and homely details, as much delight and skill in making us feel the essential interest and dignity of a human soul, its environment and social condition, as in the writings of the George beyond the Channel. There is no more, for that I believe to be impossible…. Let us pass on to Ibsen…. Save in two or three instances, where he seems to defy his own visions, and to jeer at them, the dramas of Ibsen are crises of conscience, histories of revolt, and struggles towards moral enfranchisement. That which he preaches or dreams is the love of truth, the hatred of falsehood. Sometimes it is the reaction of the pagan conception of life against the Christian conception; of the “joy of living,” as he terms it, against religious melancholy. It is, beyond and above all else, that which has been called individualism. It is the assertion of the rights of the individual conscience against written laws which do not provide for individual cases; against social conventions often hypocritical, and respecting appearances only. Often too it is the redemption and purification of suffering. It is, in our relations with others, the exercise of individual compassion, the pardon of certain sins which phariseeism never pardons. It is in marriage the perfect union of souls,—a union based only upon the liberty and absolute sincerity of husband and wife, and the entire understanding and appreciation each has of the other. It is, in short, the conformity of life to the ideal—an ideal which Ibsen rarely defines in set terms; in which is to be found something of antique naturalism, something of judicial and haughty evangelicism, of aristocratic dilettantism, and covering all, a film of pessimism.  10
  I can make these definitions no more precise than Ibsen himself does. But it is undeniably into a general sentiment of revolt that the elements of which his “dream” is composed resolve themselves. He is in fact a mighty rebel, a malcontent, at odds with his own genius. Now, in the work of these Northern men, is there not the very substance of the early romances of George Sand? If I name her anew, it is because she had a marvelous gift of receptivity, and because she reflected all the ideas and chimeras of her time. She had already told us, long before these others spoke, that marriage is an oppressive institution if it be not the union of two free wills, and if woman be not treated as a moral being. Already we had heard from her of the conflict of religious and civil law with that other and greater law, not inscribed on Tables of Stone. And already among us the rights of the individual had been declared to be opposed to those of society.  11
  We listened to these sayings as long ago as 1830, and I doubt if even then they were entirely new.  12
  I admit that I have not re-read the eighty volumes of George Sand, but I know their contents, and have been long imbued with their spirit. I open her first romance and I read the protest of Indiana. Indiana is Ibsen’s Nora. She flees from Colonel Delmare in the same mood that drives Nora out of Helmer’s house. That which Nora goes to seek, Indiana meets. Indiana espousing Ralph in the presence of Nature and of God is Nora after her flight finding the husband of her soul, and choosing him in her freedom….  13
  If Henrik Ibsen is not found complete, as to his ideas, in George Sand, it is in the dramas of Dumas fils—preceding, let it be remembered, those of the Norwegian writer—that we shall finally discover him.  14
  The protest of the individual against law, of the moral sentiments of the heart against the moral code and worldly conventionality,—this is the very soul of most of the dramas of M. Dumas. Only, while the revolts of Ibsen are against law and society in general, the insurrections of M. Dumas strike almost always at some particular article of the civil code or of social prejudice. And I do not see that this limitation is necessarily an inferiority….  15
  Let us go on to the Russian novelists, to Tolstoy and to Dostoyevsky. M. de Voguë tells us that they are distinguished from our realists by two traits:—  16
  “First, the vague, undefined Russian spirit draws its life from all philosophies and all vagaries. It pauses now in nihilism and pessimism. A superficial reader might sometimes confound Tolstoy and Flaubert. But Tolstoy’s nihilism is never accepted without revolt; this spirit is never impenitent; we constantly listen to its groanings and searchings, and it finally redeems and saves itself by love,—love more or less active in Tolstoy and Turgenev, in Dostoyevsky refined and introspective until it becomes a painful passion. Second, equally with sympathy the distinctive characteristic of these realists is the comprehension of that which lies beneath and surrounds life. In them the study of the real is pressed more closely than ever before. They seem imprisoned within its limits, and yet they meditate upon the invisible. Beyond the known, which they describe minutely, they accord a secret study to the unknown, which they suspect. The personages of their creation are disquieted concerning the universal mystery; and no matter how absorbed they may appear in the drama of the moment, they lend an ear to the murmur of abstract ideas—the ideas which people the profound atmosphere where breathe the creations of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky.”…  17
  “The things lying below life” of which these Russians talk—what is meant by these? Do they concern those obscure and fatal powers of the flesh, those hereditary and physiological instincts that govern us without our knowledge? But this constitutes nearly half of Balzac, and the whole of M. Zola. And “the environment of life”? Does this mean the influences of the domestic surroundings? Who has better known and expressed these than the author of the ‘Comédie Humaine,’ or the author of ‘Madame Bovary’? Or should we accord to these foreigners alone the privilege of knowing how to render “the environment of life”? Should we say that “while the French novelist selects, separates a character or an act from the chaos of beings and actions, to study the isolated subject of his choice, the Russian, dominated by the feeling of universal interdependence, does not sever the thousand ties which attach a man, a deed, a thought, to the total sum of the world, and does not forget that each is constituted by all”?  18
  I recognize and I admire the abounding fullness, almost equaling that of life itself, in that complex romance, ‘War and Peace’; but have we not novels corresponding to the complexities of the world, in which the interweaving of moral and material things answers to that of reality, and which also contain in an equal degree the all of life? I say, after due reflection, that all this is true of ‘Les Misérables,’ and perhaps more profoundly so of ‘L’Éducation Sentimentale.’ And after all, what is this disquietude of universal mystery, of which the honor of discovery is exclusively ascribed to the Slav novelists? This “mystery” can only be that of our destiny, of our souls, of God, of the origin and end of the universe. But who does not know that nearly all our writers, from 1825 to 1850 especially, professed themselves as disquieted over these things? Of this disquietude Victor Hugo is full; he overflows with it.  19
  If it is said that what is meant is less a philosophical disquiet than a feeling of the formidable unknown which surrounds us, a feeling which is perhaps evoked by some accidental sensation, I answer that I quite understand that there are moments when this thought alone—that one is in the world, and that the world exists, appears utterly incomprehensible and strikes us dumb. But in the first place, this astonishment at living, this sort of “sacred horror,” is inconsistent in its very nature with any expression at all except the briefest, and can be prolonged only by repeating itself. In the second place, we had assuredly experienced this mysterious shudder before we ever opened a Russian or Norwegian book. Tolstoy’s phrase “The eternal silence of infinite space affrights me,” is one which does not date from yesterday….  20
  If, then, all that we admire in the recent writers of the North was already ours, how does it happen that, visible in them, it appears to so many of us new and original? Is it because these writers are greater artists than ours, their literary form superior to that of our poets and novelists? The question seems to me insoluble: for he alone could discern the exact value of literary form who should comprehend all the languages of Europe as profoundly as he comprehends his own; that is, sufficiently to perceive in its most delicate shades that which constitutes the style of each writer. This, I imagine, can never be; for I find that the most learned and accomplished of foreign linguists never arrive at the power of feeling as we do the phrase of a Flaubert or a Renan. The incapacity is made evident by their classification of our authors, where they put together without discrimination the great and the inferior. In the same way the style of foreign writers must always to a great extent escape us. I am inclined to believe that a man may know several languages well, but only one profoundly. It is certain that neither Eliot, nor Ibsen, nor Tolstoy will ever afford to us that kind or degree of pleasure which is aroused in us by the literary form of our own great authors….  21
  Norway has interminable winters almost without day, alternating with short and violent summers almost without night:—marvelous conditions either for the slow and patient working out of one’s inner visions, or for the sudden and overpowering impulses of passion.  22
  London, compared with which Paris is but a pretty little town, is the capital of effort and will; and an English fog seems to me an excellent atmosphere for reflection. I have never seen a steppe; but to picture it to the eye of the mind, I multiply in my imagination the melancholy stretches of heath, the pools and woods of Sologne in winter.  23
  To understand their literature we must add to these physical characteristics the Past of Norway, England, and Russia; their traditions, their public and private manners, their religions, and the furrows traced by them all in the Norwegian, English, and Russian brain.  24
  Briefly, it may be said that the writers of the North return to us (and this is the secret of their charm) the substance of our own literature of forty or fifty years ago, modified, renewed, and enriched by its passage through minds notably different from our own. In rethinking our thoughts, they rediscover them for us.  25
  They have, it seems to me, less art than we, less knowledge of the rules of composition. Such works as ‘Middlemarch’ are discouraging by their prolixity. Eight days of constant reading are necessary for ‘War and Peace’; and such dimensions are in themselves inartistic….  26
  Furthermore, I am by no means persuaded that these writers have more emotion than ours: certainly they have no more general ideas. But they have to a greater degree than we the perception of the inner religious life.  27
  More patient than we; not perhaps more penetrating, but capable of greater persistence, if I may so say, in meditation and observation; more able than we to dispense with diversions,—they address themselves to readers who have less need than we of being amused. The long and monotonous conversations of Ibsen, his indefatigable accumulation of familiar details, at first overwhelm us, but little by little envelop us, and form around each of his dramas an atmosphere peculiar to itself, by which the appearance of truth in the characters is greatly augmented. We see them living their slow mysterious lives. They are intensely serious: and they exhibit this peculiarity,—that all the incidents of their existence stir their soul’s depths, and reveal these depths to us; that their domestic dramas become dramas of conscience in which their whole spiritual life is involved. A woman who finds that her husband does not understand her, or that her son is attacked by an incurable malady, instantly asks herself if Martin Luther was not too conservative, whether paganism or Christianity is really right, and if all our laws do not rest upon falsehood and hypocrisy.  28
  Perhaps the author forgets that these questions, absorbing when discussed by a great philosopher or poet, can be solved only in commonplace fashion by narrow townspeople and well-meaning clergymen. Perhaps too he surfeits us with the restless metaphysics of ordinary humanity, and its tendency to philosophize. But as it is really his own thought that he thus translates, it is possible after all to take in it a true and lively interest.  29
  One dominating idea in the romances of George Eliot is the idea of responsibility, accepted in its most rigid sense: the idea that no act is indifferent or inoffensive; that all have infinite consequences, and reverberations either within or without our own souls, and that thus we are always more responsible, or responsible for more, than we realize. The consequence of this idea is a moral surveillance constantly exercised by her characters over themselves, or by the author over her characters. Most of them hold the idea of sin, and of an inner life at least as fully developed as the life of their social relations. They make frequent examinations of conscience; they repent, they improve. Certainly all this is more rare in our romances, doubtless because it is more rare in our conduct. I have noticed, on the other hand, that George Sand’s heroes almost never repent. If Mauprat advances in goodness, it is in virtue of his love for Edmée, and not as the result of probing for his sins. Others learn the lessons of events, and grow better through experience. The nobler characters of Sand and Hugo dwell more upon the happiness of humanity than upon their own moral perfection. I grant at once that they are inconsequent persons, apt to begin at the wrong end of things, and that their gospel is often a gospel of revolution….  30
  I must of course admit that the realism of these foreigners is more chaste than ours has been. The deeds of the flesh hold small place in their works, for which I willingly praise them. I observe, however, that if the actual state of things in France is less unblushing than it is made to appear in some of our realistic novels, it is surely, throughout Europe, less refined than English and Russian romances would lead us to believe. We are more frank in these matters. I do not know that this is a mark of superiority; but our realism, more sensual perhaps, is also more disenchanting. Northern writers surely do not recoil from depicting the suffering, cruelty, and squalor of human life; but it cannot be denied that they diminish their own power by avoiding a certain class of infamies. They do not tell the whole truth. You will never find in them such pages as certain of those of Flaubert or Maupassant. They are well able to show us the world as infinitely sad and pitiful; but hesitate to exhibit it as simply disgusting, which nevertheless it often is. Their pessimism is never as radical as they pretend.  31
  This prudishness, this reserve, this incurable scrupulousness is explained by that religious spirit with which they are still impregnated; and thus we arrive at this truism, that the differences of literatures are rooted in the fundamental differences of race.  32
  The books of Ibsen and Eliot remain, in spite of the intellectual emancipation of these writers, Protestant books. For to abandon, after unrestricted examination, as Eliot and Ibsen have done, a religion of which unrestricted examination is an inherent attribute, is not, properly speaking, to abandon at all. Only that can be really thrown off which is really a yoke: insurrection is only veritably made against a religion which interdicts freedom of spirit. In the other religions one may remain by expanding them. It is only where prohibition is radical that schism can be absolute. That which Protestant liberty forbids is not intellectual enfranchisement, but if I may say so, enfranchisement of language and manner. Among Protestant peoples, where the faithful soul depends only upon his conscience, and allows no intermediary between himself and God, the universal habits of thought and discussion which result, cause a mingling of religious sentiment and anxiety in all their literature,—even profane,—and unbelievers retain at least the manner and tone of believers. On the contrary, among us emancipated Catholics—or even practicing Catholics whom sacramental confession absolves in part from the care of administering our own conscience—there is a religious or rather ecclesiastical literature with which we are but little acquainted, and a literature entirely profane and laic; each one playing its own part. To certain reflections on the inner nature of souls, certain bits of moral casuistry, certain effusions of religious sentiment, which strike us in Eliot and Ibsen, we could find analogous examples only in the works of priests and monks, whom we ignore, or in Bossuet, Lacordaire, or Veuillot, where it does not occur to us to look for them. Our two literatures do not mingle, and thereby the secular loses something of moral depth….  33
  Finally, we see in what measure these foreigners have been of service to us. We have welcomed their idealism through weariness or disgust with naturalism. It is true that they have led us to put more exactness and sincerity into the expression of ideas and sentiments which were formerly familiar to us; to give precision to our romanticism, and at the same time to moderate our realism.  34
  But once again, if we have heartily and readily accepted this foreign literature, is it not proved that in reality we possess, if not the cosmopolitan spirit, at least the cosmopolitan manners? An Englishman travels over the whole world, and remains everywhere an Englishman. We do not quit our own firesides; but from this corner we adapt ourselves without difficulty to the moods and manner of thought of all nations, even the most remote. Yes! ours are the writers whom I term the true cosmopolitans; for a cosmopolitan—that is to say, a European—literature should be common and intelligible to all the people of Europe, and can only become cosmopolitan by the order, symmetry, and lucidity which have for centuries been accepted as our national qualities. They are so still; as is proved by the large human sympathy which we are to-day supposing that we discover among foreigners, but which nevertheless has always been one of our most eminent characteristics. We love to approve; ours is perhaps the only nation disposed to prefer others to itself. But this very enthusiasm with which we have fostered and extolled the tender humanity of the Russian romance and the Norwegian drama—does it not prove that we ourselves possess the same quality, and that in them we have only recognized it?…  35
  These exchanges—this give-and-take of ideas between nations—have existed in all times, more especially since the closeness of commercial relations has involved that of intellectual relations as well. At times we have borrowed from other peoples, and have impressed upon that which we took a European character. Such are the appropriations of Corneille or Lesage from the Spaniards. At times, and oftener, being inquisitive and kindly, we have taken from them unconsciously that which we ourselves had previously loaned them. Thus, in the eighteenth century we discovered the novels of Richardson, who had imitated Marivaux. Thus we have found again in Lessing that which was in Diderot, and in Goethe much that was in Jean Jacques; and we have believed that we owed to the Germans and English the romanticism which we ourselves had originated. For is not romanticism more than mediæval decoration, or in the drama more than the suppression of the three unities, or the mingling of tragedy and comedy? It is the feeling for nature, the recognition of the rights of passion; it is the spirit of revolt, the exaltation of the individual: all, things of which the germs and more than the germs were in the ‘Nouvelle Héloïse,’ in the ‘Confessions,’ and in the ‘Lettres de la Montagne.’  36
  In this constant circulation of ideas, we are less and less certain to whom they belong. Each nation imposes upon them its own character, and each of the characters seems necessarily the most original and the best.  37
  It is only of the present moment that I write, and who knows how fleeting that may be? This restless septentriomania—how long will it endure? Does it not already begin to languish? And as to the rest,—to come to the regulating of this debit and credit account opened between races, does it not remain to be seen whether the pietism of George Eliot, the contradictory and rebellious idealism of Ibsen, the mystic fatalism of Tolstoy, are necessarily superior to the humanitarianism or the realism of French authors? Who can affirm that the ardor of our scientific faith and revolutionizing charity, moderately subjective as they are and inclined rather to social reform, do not compensate in the sight of God for the greater aptitude of the Northern races for meditation and subjective perfection? Who will swear that largely and humanly understood, the positive philosophy, to call it by its name,—the philosophy of Taine, that which is held to be responsible for the brutalities and aridities of naturalistic literature,—does not represent a more advanced moment in human development than Protestant and septentrional religiosity? Do not books like those of J. H. Rosny, to cite no others, presage the reconciliation of two sorts of intelligence which among us have been too often separated? And do we not recognize in them both the enthusiasm for science and the enthusiasm for moral beauty, and see already how these two religions accord and become fruitful? Who lives shall see! Meantime, make haste to enjoy these writers from regions of snows and fogs; enjoy them while they are in favor, while they are believed in, and while they can still influence you,—as it is best to avail one’s self of the methods in vogue, so long as they can cure.  38
  For it may be that a reaction of the Latin spirit is at hand.  39

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