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.
Charles Nodier (1780–1844)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
DURING the French Revolution, the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, an offshoot of the Paris Jacobins, sprang up at Besançon. M. Nodier, ex-mayor, and during the Terror a sad but inexorable public accuser, was one of its leaders. His son Charles, who was born at Besançon, April 28th, 1780, used to accompany his father to the meetings of the society, of which he became a member; and when he was twelve years old made his seniors an eloquent address full of republican principles. These he always retained, whether grumbling wittily at king, consul, or emperor, as was his way. His studies of political events in the ‘Souvenirs’ are more entertaining than reliable. He was not an active politician; but his youthful expression of opinion, by embroiling him with the authorities, influenced his whole career.  1
  About 1802 a satiric ode, ‘Napoléone,’ prompted by the proscription of the consulate, attracted attention. To rescue others from suspicion, Nodier boldly admitted its authorship. What followed is difficult to determine, as he and his friends bewail his sufferings, and others pronounce them a fabrication. He spent several years in exile, wandering through the Vosges mountains. During this time he made the friendship of Benjamin Constant, and also saw much of Madame de Staël, who may have inspired his love of German literature. German mysticism appealed strongly to his fanciful spirit, as did the rich folk-lore of Germany. Imaginative, a lover of nature, his early works—‘Les Meditations du Cloître,’ ‘Le Peintre de Salzburg,’ ‘Le Solitaire des Vosges,’ ‘Stella, ou les Proscrits’—express a quite Byronic self-indulgence in woe, with a tinge of Rousseau-like sentimentality.  2
  His ‘Dictionnaire des Onomatopées Françaises’ (1808) was an ingenious effort to establish the origin of languages from imitation of natural sounds. This many-sided Charles Nodier was perhaps primarily a scientist. He looked at life with microscopic eyes, and loved minute investigation. As a boy in his native town, his much older friend Chantras had aroused his interest in natural history; and his first work was a ‘Dissertation upon the Functions of Antennæ in Insects.’ He is said to have discovered the organ of hearing in insects. Now, just the fascination he found in a butterfly’s wing or a beetle’s nippers, he found too in the study of language. To find and fit the exact word gave him exquisite pleasure. Of all things he detested easy banality; and whatever he wrote had a piquant novelty of phrase which never seemed forced. This sweet-natured lover of fairies was familiar with the classics and foreign literature, erudite in the structure and usage of his mother tongue. In the mastery of words, which makes his style as “flexible as water,” he is a classicist. “Boileau would have admired him,” says a critic; and in his respect for form he belongs to the old régime. But he was modern too. His sympathies were not only for worldwide, world-old experience. His fancy wandered off into side tracks; and sought the bizarre, the exceptional, the mysterious. He admitted the personal element in art; wanted to express himself, Charles Nodier; and thus is a forerunner of romanticism. It is a pity that his successors forgot his lesson of moderation in inartistic excesses; for literary instinct kept his own venturesome spontaneity always within the domain of good taste.  3
  The slender white-browed man with his piercing eyes, his childlike enthusiasms, worked his way gradually to fame. In 1823 he was appointed librarian at the library of the Arsénal in Paris; where for more than twenty years, until his death in 1844, his salon was “a little Tuileries for young writers and the new school.” Here Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Dumas fils, de Musset, de Vigny, Sainte-Beuve, and many another young man with fame before him, listened respectfully to the Academician, the critic and teller of tales. Sainte-Beuve describes his lovable presence, his fascinating converse in which witty irony was so veiled with tact as never to wound. One day a young friend brought him a manuscript in which he had consciously tried to imitate the master’s style. “My dear boy,” said Nodier, “what you have brought me cannot be very good, for at first I thought it must be mine.”  4
  Nodier was a poet. He loved what he calls “the Muse of the Ideal, the elegant sumptuous daughter of Asia, who long ago took refuge under the fogs of Great Britain.” His small volume of lyric verse, published in 1827, has a melody and suggestive freakish grace which make one wish it larger.  5
  His stories are his best-known work, and in fiction his gifts are many. There is a lofty sentiment in his more introspective sketches which suggests Lamartine. In some moods he delights in elfland dream goblins, kindly fays—as in ‘Trilby, le Lutin d’Argaile,’ ‘La Fée aux Miettes,’ ‘Trésor des Fèves et Fleur des Pois,’ ‘Les Quatre Talismans.’ Sometimes he is akin to Hoffmann in his expression of psychologic mystery, in his eery enchantment. Of this, ‘Smana, or the Demons of Night’ is a good example. He is a mocker too; and in stories like ‘Les Marionettes,’ ‘The King of Bohemia and his Seven Castles,’ he satirizes with sparkling irony both himself and the world.  6

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.