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.
Paul Bourget (1852–1935)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Pierre Dareutiere de Bâcourt (1869–1924)
          “Traveler and student…. I may admire others with all my strength, it is with you I would choose to live.”
  Dedication to Paul Bourget of ‘Across the Plains’ by Robert Louis Stevenson.

PAUL BOURGET was born at Amiens, the former capital of the ancient province of Picardy. From his father Justin Bourget, a mathematician of note, he inherited his strong reasoning power, and he took after his mother, who had an Anglo-Saxon strain, in his cosmopolitan spirit. He studied first at the lycée of Clermont and later on in Paris at the College Ste. Barbe and at “l’École des Hautes Études” where his scholarship was rewarded by several prizes. He is however undoubtedly a self-taught writer; his wide reading, his travels, his introspective meditations did more for his ethical and intellectual development than scholastic training.  1
  Like many other novelists he began in a humble way; his first attempts appeared in ‘La Renaissance,’ an ephemeral sheet which enjoyed then some notoriety. At the same time he studied Parisian life as an impecunious young man may do in the cafés where the literary coteries gathered, on the boulevards, and in the theatres, where he could obtain a distant glimpse of the brilliant society which he was to portray so cleverly in after life.  2
  In 1874 he published his first book, ‘La Vie Inquiète’ (Restless Life), a collection of short poems of a delicate but halting inspiration, showing quite plainly the doubt and sadness that filled his refined and complex soul. In ‘Edel’ and ‘Les Aveux’ (Confessions), published respectively in 1878 and 1882, we find the same qualities and the same faults—fine thought elegantly but painfully expressed, too obvious influence of the masters the author loved, lack of poetic ardor, and a metre and rhythm always more or less artificial. The strict rules of poetry were too much for a mind overflowing with ideas, and did not lend themselves well to the intricacy of self-analysis.  3
  If Bourget had stopped there he would not have emerged from the crowd. When the ‘Essais de Psychologie Contemporaine’ appeared in 1883 the public were delighted with their original charm. Taking five authors whom he knew particularly—Baudelaire, Renan, Flaubert, Taine, and Stendhal, whom he always claimed as his master—he wrote “a brilliant, profoundly psychologic exposition of their minds and temperaments. The scientific explanation was fervid with his own emotion over these strong influences in his life and thus comes indirectly as an interpretation of himself.” These studies, which he calls “a few notes made to help the historian of the modern moral life in France during the latter half of the nineteenth century,” stand, as criticism, “between Brunetière’s formal structure and Lemaître’s appreciations.” They met with a great deal of success, and Bourget has since written another volume, ‘Nouveaux Essais de Psychologie Contemporaine’ (1885), and other books of critical sketches, ‘Études et Portraits’ (1888), in which he shows himself again much less a critic than a moralist and psychologist. ‘Sensations d’ltalie’ (1891), although intended to be a simple book of travel, is in reality an exposition of Bourget’s æsthetics, a keen analysis of the reactions of an oversensitive soul in the midst of the beauty and sensuous charm that pervade Italian cities. In ‘Outre-Mer,’ especially interesting to Americans as a study of the United States, which he visited in 1893, Bourget shows the same receptivity to new feelings and new ideas. The book is often ludicrously inaccurate and fundamentally incomplete in that it ignores the great middle class of our country, yet it is full of suggestive comments on American character.  4
  Bourget’s first novel, ‘L’Irréparable,’ was published in 1884; it is at best a promising book. ‘Cruelle Énigme’ (1885) evinces some of the qualities which were later characteristic of his talent. It is the story of a young and high-minded man who discovers that the woman he loves is unworthy, yet finds he loves her notwithstanding. “Why this love?” asks the author at the end of the book. “Why and whence does it come? The question is without an answer, and like the falsity of woman, like the weakness of man, like life itself, a cruel, cruel enigma.”  5
  In ‘Un Crime d’Amour’ (1886) and ‘André Cornélis’ (1887) it is possible to follow the development of the writer’s craftsmanship. ‘Mensonges’ (Lies) is one of the most brilliant examples of his peculiar process of searching and sometimes painfully accurate analysis:—A Parisian woman of Madonna-like beauty has a husband who blindly believes in her and an elderly lover who discreetly pays for the luxury which enhances her charms. She makes the acquaintance of René Vincy, a poet, who is as innocent as she is worldwise; he falls in love with her, and she with him. After a clever comedy of resistance and remorse, she becomes his mistress, and for a time succeeds in keeping from the altogether too simple young man the shame of her real life. After a while he discovers the hideous secret, and as, in spite of all, he loves her, he demands that she elope with him and give up her life of ease and elegance. Of course, she refuses, and he shoots himself, although not mortally. Some of the characters of this book have remained classic. Baron Desforges is an admirable although detestable type of modern epicurean. Claude Larcher, who holds the episodical and rather unnecessary part of confidant, and whom we are to find again in that series of curious essays, ‘Physiologie de l’Amour Moderne’ (1891), is evidently the spokesman of the author. It has been frequently said that he was the author himself, and that these two books were somewhat autobiographical. Far as this statement may be from the real truth, it is certain for those who knew Bourget at that period of his life that this young man, inoculated with all the vices of his time, unable to escape from their clutches but clear-sighted enough to follow with a quasi-disinterested eye the progress of the moral diseases that are slowly destroying his brilliant intellect, had a great deal in common in his views, if not in his ways, with the writer. ‘Mensonges’ is not a book for a ladies’ school, but it is a strong book and a good one. In it vice may be shown under alluring appearances, but the results are such as to inspire rather dread than desire.  6
  In ‘Le Disciple’ (too obviously inspired from the debates of the famous Chambige case), ‘Un Cœur de Femme,’ ‘Terre Promise,’ Bourget continues to study the evils of the present day without proffering any advice as to the possible cure. In ‘Cosmopolis’ (1893) we notice a slight modification in his attitude: he is no longer the indifferent spectator of this World’s Comedy; under the observer, the moralist begins to appear. This evolution becomes more and more noticeable in ‘Fantômes,’ ‘La Duchesse Bleue,’ ‘Drames de Famille,’ and ‘Un Homme d’Affaires.’  7
  In ‘L’Étape’ (1902), ‘Un Divorce’ (1904), d’Émigré’ (1907), ‘La Barricade’ (a play—1910), ‘Le Tribun’ (a play—1911), ‘Le Démon de Midi’ (1914), ‘Le Sens de la Mort’ (1915), we find at last the conclusions he draws from his long study of man under the conditions of modern life: salvation lies in the reversion to the old creeds in politics as well as in religion.  8
  In ‘L’Étape’ Bourget shows the danger to a family of a too rapid change of social condition and standing. Jean Monneron, son of a poor peasant, becomes through tireless energy and broad intelligence a professor. Without transition he passes from the working class into the bourgeoisie. The family considered as a unit had no time to adjust itself to a new life for which no traditions, no heredity had prepared it. The eldest son commits forgery in order to lead a life of pleasure; the daughter strays from the right path, and, abandoned by her lover, shoots him; the second son would be the consolation of the father but for his love for the daughter of the Catholic philosopher Ferrand, a man who holds ideas abhorrent to the free-thinker and Jacobin Monneron. But Ferrand is a generous opponent and Monneron thoroughly honest; the happiness of their children is paramount for them both, and there lies the crudest part of the tragedy. The favorite son abandons the ideas so dear to his father, who realizes that in spite of apparent success his life is a dismal failure.  9
  ‘Un Divorce’ is a forceful plea against divorce. A woman of religious tendencies, after years of misery with an alcoholic husband, divorces him and marries a man she loves, who is worthy of her affection but is an unbeliever; she has a son by the first marriage and a daughter by the second. The son falls in love with a girl, a fellow student, who, although scrupulously honest, professes the most advanced ideas. She has lived in free union with a scoundrel who has abandoned her with a child. The stepfather objects violently to what he considers a dishonorable union. “When you married my mother,” answers the son, “she had me, and my father was alive. As the intervention of a priest is for you without value, so is for me the intervention of a magistrate. All the morality of such an act lies in its motives. There will be no difference between my marriage and yours.” The first husband dies. The wife believes that there is the possibility of regularizing a state of things wholly contrary to her religious beliefs; the husband refuses a church marriage as being the condemnation of their former life. They live side by side wretched and miserable; their son is gone, their family is broken.  10
  ‘L’Émigré’ is a glorification of the principle of heredity considered as the fundamental basis of the family. In this book Bourget studies that rapidly dying-out species, the “grand seigneur”; he explains his prejudices, his enforced idleness, the reasons of his former strength and of his present weakness.  11
  In ‘La Barricade,’ given for the first time at the Vaudeville January 7th, 1910, the surroundings are totally different. We are in the midst of the great struggle between capital and labor. The different phases of a strike are depicted with painstaking accuracy; preliminary unrest before the uprising, fights between the strikers and the loyal employees, attempted arson and murder, the settlement, and so on. Every point is carefully considered. This drama, although intentionally one-sided, does not lack truth and forcefulness.  12
  The setting of the ‘Tribun’ (Vaudeville, March 11th, 1911) is in political circles. The thesis is again the superiority of the family to the individual considered as a unit. Portal, nicknamed ‘The Tribune’ for his wonderful eloquence, holds opinions which are quite the reverse of Bourget’s; the measures he supports in politics tend practically to the destruction of the family. But when the hour of trial comes, when he has to choose between his son and his theories, his fatherly love proves to be the stronger, and, converted to ideas he has up to then considered dangerous, he abandons his political career.  13
  ‘Le Sens de la Mort’ is a very short novel of a religious, even of a mystic trend. The War, as may be easily inferred from the date of publication (1915), has a part in it, but a small one; there is really no story. Its profound interest lies in the masterful analysis of the sentiments evoked by approaching death in the souls of the three heroes. Ortégue, a great surgeon, a free thinker, married to a woman twenty years his junior, is suffering from cancer. He conceals his pain from everyone, but knows only too well that the end is near. As he is slowly dying he is tortured by the thought that his wife, whose beauty is every day blooming more radiantly, may after his death love again. A fainting fit at the operating table discloses his true condition. Carried away by her feelings, realizing the moral tortures of her husband, the young woman decides that she will not survive him; they will commit suicide together. Then happens the only incident of the novel. Captain Le Gallic, a relative of Mme. Ortégue, who has all his life silently loved her, is brought mortally wounded to the hospital. He is a man of strong religious convictions, and his attitude in presence of imminent death deeply impresses his cousin. She is afraid of the great beyond. M. Ortégue, apprised of her feelings, considers that the pact she had entered into, out of pity and not out of love, is monstrous and must not be carried out. He reassures her as to his condition, promises that he will fight the disease, and, when she has gone, kills himself. When Mme. Ortégue hears of the death of her husband, she considers herself guilty, and again wishes to die. Captain Le Gallic proves to her that she must live for the salvation of the soul of her husband as well as of her own. Accordingly she devotes all her energies to the care of the wounded, and in her heart, unconsciously tormented by religious desire, germinate slowly the ideas sown by the Christian officer on his deathbed.  14
  ‘Le Démon de Midi,’ dæmonium meridianum of the Psalmist, is, for the monk tired by early prayers, the langor and sadness that overwhelm him at the heavy hour of noon. For the layman who has reached middle life and achieved success, it is that feeling of overconfidence and pride that leaves him weak and disarmed before the onslaught of his passions. The story of the hero of Bourget’s book is of a man, up to then blameless, who yields to an old but guilty love. He is cruelly punished through his son, whose death is caused by the father’s intrigue. The conclusion is: a man must live according to his principles; if he does not, his principles will soon accommodate themselves to his life.  15
  The War has inspired a number of articles by Bourget of a high historical value which appeared in l’Echo de Paris; they are to be published under the title ‘Les Leçons de la Guerre.’  16
  Bourget has composed several dramas; some were original, as ‘Le Luxe des autres’ (Odéon, 1903), ‘La Barricade’ and ‘Le Tribun,’ already mentioned; others were drawn from his novels, ‘Mensonges’ (Vaudeville, 1889), and ‘L’Émigré’ (Renaissance, 1908). But to try to differentiate his work as a dramatist from his work as a novelist would be at the same time useless and misleading; his plays are but a part of the whole.  17
  Bourget has written a number of short stories and novelettes, some of his books, ‘L’Envers du Décor,’ ‘Pastels,’ ‘Recommencements,’ being entirely composed of them. He is a past-master in this form of fiction, in which his qualities of force and logic show to the greatest advantage.  18
  Paul Bourget married Mademoiselle Pailleron, daughter of the well-known playwright, author of ‘Le Monde où l’on s’ennuie.’ He was elected a member of the Academy in 1894.  19
  Bourget’s work may be divided into three well defined periods. Between 1874 and 1888 he was feeling his way and trying different means of expression, for he had something to say and did not know yet the most appropriate way of saying it. Journalism did not attract him long, and he was too good a judge not to realize the weakness of his attempts at poetry. As a critic he succeeded beyond expectation, winning praise from the experts as well as from the public at large, but the scope of criticism was too limited for his aim. The novel and the theatre remained open to him; in selecting the former he was well inspired.  20
  It may be said that from the publication of ‘Mensonges’ Bourget had mastered the medium of his choice. Up to 1893 he describes the life of his contemporaries as he sees it; “for him the universe is incomprehensible, he stands baffled and passive with a tender sympathy, almost an envy for those who still have faith. He represents the tolerant, somewhat negative point of view of the man who has found no new creed, yet disbelieves the old.” It has been said, speaking of that period of his career, that he was suffering “from the atrocious modern uneasiness which is caused by regret that one can no longer believe and dread of the moral void.” But he thought that “a writer, worthy to hold a pen, has as his first and last requirement to be a moralist. The moralist is the man who shows life as it is, with its profound lessons of secret expiation which are everywhere imprinted. To show the rancor of vice is to be a moralist.”  21
  In all Bourget’s books we find sinners at the eve of a conversion; they are wavering, but there is little doubt as to their ultimate decision. A mind as clear as his could not stay long in that undecided state; willing or unwilling, he had to go to the logical conclusion of his tendencies. He loved order, rule, measure, certainty, stability. In this new world in the making he could find nothing but destruction, disorder, unfinished attempts, trials that appeared to him of a more or less experimental and dangerous nature, instability and the like. In the old he saw, or imagined that he saw, those characteristics that appealed most strongly to his inner self. The conclusion is evident. Having acquired the faith he formerly did not possess he began to indicate remedies for the evils he had been content merely to depict before.  22
  His plea in favor of a reversion to the ancient tradition, to the old faith, to the former political form of government, is masterful, but would be perhaps more convincing if it were not so passionate. However, Bourget, though one-sided, is not narrow-minded; he understands the reasons others may have for holding opinions in contradiction with his own; he esteems them for being consistent; like all extremely intelligent men, he admires intelligence wherever he sees it.  23
  Bourget is often hailed as the creator of the novel of analysis. He is not, and has frequently said so himself. He borrowed his procedure from Henri Beyle (Stendhal), the author of ‘La Chartreuse de Parme,’ ‘Le Rouge et le Noir,’ and other novels discussed under that name (see entry in the LIBRARY). Furthermore, although strongly opposed to the theories of the naturalistic school, he follows the same methods, but transposes them from the external to the moral plane.  24
  He has described a world to which at the start he did not belong, but unlike many other writers in that position he did not imagine it; he first studied it in its most intricate details, and then he built it up true to life. There is not one sentence of any of his characters which is not exactly what a person belonging to the same class or the same caste in life would have said under the same circumstances. The idea of absolute truth is so rooted in his mind that he will take any amount of trouble to verify the plausibility of an apparently insignificant detail. It is said that wishing to describe some phases of a certain disease he followed for more than four months the clinic of a prominent Parisian specialist; having to mention some of the after effects of tropical malarial fever he waited before finishing his chapter for the return of a young military surgeon who had been sent to Central Africa to study that special ailment, and he was at peace only after having read the notes of the young man and made sure that his description was scientifically flawless.  25
  Bourget has sometimes been reproached for having dwelt with too evident enjoyment on the niceties of the toilet or the interior decoration of a mansion. He is evidently fond of all social refinements and the moral struggles of fashionable men and women appear to be far more interesting to him than the heartaches of the working classes. For all that he is not a snob. A critic who went to interview him some days before the first presentation of ‘L’Émigré’ relates that as he (the critic) expressed some surprise at the heat Bourget displayed in defending the ideas of his hero Marquis de Clavier Grandchamps, the writer interrupted: “But for all my admiration I am a bourgeois, a plain bourgeois, and proud to be. As Louis Veuillot has said, ‘If I had to reorganize my country, I would create an aristocracy and omit my own name from the list!’”  26
  Bourget’s style has nothing of the peerless elegance of France’s or of the pictorial quality of Maupassant’s. It is a solid and heavy instrument of expression which may convince but does not charm. It has often been said that the greatest quality a novelist can possess is to be entirely absent from his book. Bourget is always present; it is he who discusses, argues, explains. In his presentation of the case there is something of the lawyer or even of the preacher. Nevertheless, he shows at times a pathos that grips the heart because he is himself deeply moved.  27
  Admirers of Paul Bourget have compared him to Balzac; but he lacks entirely the broad human quality that brought undying fame to the author of ‘La Comédie Humaine.’ On the other hand, to judge French society of the first half of the nineteenth century through Balzac’s novels would be, to say the least, misleading; his marvelous imagination and constructive power made him paint men of all time, but not specially of his own time. From this point of view, Bourget has all the advantage, and his work will remain as a wonderful collection of documents for the history of the French mind and soul at the beginning of the twentieth century.  28

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