Beyle and Balzac. A review of A History of the French Novel, to the Close of the Nineteenth Century, vol. II, by George Saintsbury
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48 ] Beyle and Balzac A review of A History of the French Novel, to the Close of the Nineteenth Century, vol. II, by George Saintsbury London: Macmillan, 1919. Pp. xxvi + 586. The Athenaeum, 4648 (30 May 1919) 392-93 Turning over the pages of the Preface to this Volume II, we respire an elegiac note. For Professor Saintsbury apparently says that he is not going to write any more Histories.1 Who will write them? for they will be written, and they will not be so readable as Mr. Saintsbury’s. They will be written by Professors, but not by such charming Professors as Saintsbury; they will be scholarly, but not more scholarly; they will be even more exhaustive, but they will not be capitalized by the scholarship of an Honorary Fellow of Merton College; they will flow from the Columbia University Press, and from the presses of provincial and colonial Universities; they will be the work of men not so capable of understanding a third-rate book as Mr. Saintsbury is of understanding a first-rate one, and not so capable of seeing the merit in a first-rate book as Mr. Saintsbury is of seeing the merit in a third-rate one. Mr. Saintsbury is a master of the literary history – a form of writing which demands qualifications of its own. The literary historian needs critical gifts, but his task is not that of the critic. He needs a sense of values, but he has little occasion to exercise it beyond the mere indication of the place of the great. He must not have any very pronounced theory or scheme and must not set out to prove anything very important; for if he does this he is bound to shape his material; and if he shapes his material he will leave somebody out; and his most important business is to read all the books that we do not want to read, and enjoy the books that we could not enjoy – to enjoy them, not because he imagines them to be any better than they are, but because they are books. And he must make us enjoy his enjoyment in enjoying the escape which he gives us from the necessity of reading them. These qualities would seem a chimerical ideal, if they were not lifted directly from the achievement of Mr. Saintsbury. [ 49 beyle and balzac Remembering these particulars of literary historianship, no one should experience surprise or express reproach at the fact that Mr. Saintsbury has assigned a short chapter to Flaubert, run Stendhal and Balzac together into one, and devoted the greater part of a long one to Paul de Kock. One must read Flaubert anyway, so the brief chapter is quite sufficient (and on the whole right); one enjoys reading Saintsbury on Paul de Kock, and is convinced that there is no longer any necessity or excuse for reading that author.2 Chateaubriand, admired of French critics and usually tedious to honest English readers, even Mr. Saintsbury cannot wholly absolve us from; but Feuillet, About, Feydeau, Ourliac, Borel and others we are grateful and satisfied to know about.3 But Mr. Saintsbury could not gracefully have omitted the two great writers, and he must in some degree be held accountable for what he says about them. At least, his admittance of Stendhal and Flaubert is useful in provoking a question which he does not seem aware of: why these two stand completely apart from all the rest, with the derivative exception of Maupassant.4 There is something that they have in common, which is deeper than style and is the cause of style; shared, too, with Turgenev, to a less extent with Hardy, Conrad, Hawthorne, James, hardly at all with our Victorian novelists. Mr. Saintsbury challenges the question by his violent incarceration of Stendhal in the same cell with Balzac, and by his evident taste for Balzac. The question rises more shrilly to our lips when he finally lets himself out to the length of a definition of “Balzacity,” of what, in fact, he really likes. This is the “constitution of Balzacity”: . . . the astonishing union of Imagination with Observation – two things which except in the highest poetry are apt to be rather strangers to each other – and by putting Imagination last he [i.e., Victor Hugo in speaking of Balzac] meant also doubtless that this was the dominating – the Masculine – element in the marriage.[167]5 And Mr. Saintsbury says later: For the fact is that...