restricted access Preface to Bubu of Montparnasse, by Charles-Louis Philippe. Trans. Laurence Vail
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[ 417 Preface to Bubu of Montparnasse, by Charles-Louis Philippe. Trans. Laurence Vail Paris: Crosby Continental Editions, 1932. Pp. 218; Preface, vii-xiv1 It is a good many years ago, it was in the year 1910, that I first read Bubu de Montparnasse, when I came first to Paris.2 Read at an impressionable age, and under the impressive conditions, the book has always been for me, not merely the best of Charles Louis Philippe’s books, but a symbol of the Paris of that time. Little known even now outside of France, Philippe was then none too well-known even within it, though he was already dead, and this book had been published ten years before. I imagine that the Paris of 1910 was more like the Paris of 1900 than like the Paris of 1932: certainly Montparnasse has changed more in these twenty-two years than it could have changed in the preceding ten. In a very much smaller way, to me Bubu stood for Paris as some of Dickens’ novels stand for London. The comparison suggested is between a very great novelist and a very limited one, but is not, I think, unprofitable. Had Dickens confined himself to the districts of Tom-all-alone’s and Fagin’s kitchen the comparison would be closer.3 Philippe is almost without humour, except such grim humour as is inherent in the behaviour of his characters, as when, at the end of this book, Big Jules says “permit me to roll a cigarette.”4 But he has an intense pity for the humble and oppressed, a pity still more akin to that of Dickens’ Russian disciple Dostoievski; and a pathos which as in Dickens and Dostoievski both, trembles on the edge of the maudlin.5 He differs from both of the greater men by the absence of any religious or humanitarian zeal: he is not explicitly concerned with altering things. And in that he is perhaps the most faithful to the point of view of the humble and oppressed themselves, is more their spokesman than their champion. You can look towards Christianity or towards communism, according to your predisposition, but Philippe is himself no propagandist. It is not the sort of people that Philippe knew best who become Christian zealots or revolutionists ; they simply toil and suffer, or take the easiest way out. I remember, some years ago, though not so long ago as 1910 – it was indeed after the War – asking my way, in a town of southern France, of a passing workman. He gave me my direction civilly enough, though with a glance of curiosity Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1932 418 ] at the foreigner; and in parting slapped himself on the chest, and added quite gratuitously, “Moi, je suis de la classe ouvrière: exploitée par les capitalistes .”6 When human beings awake to such a state of consciousness as that, they are far above the stratum which is Philippe’s proper material. Whether he is concerned, as in this book, with the prostitutes and mackerels of the Boulevard Sébastopol, or, as in more of his books, with the poorest class of decent-living provincial peasantry, it is with the inarticulate and underfed, those who are too depressed to be rebellious.7 His work, like that of many minor writers, is largely autobiographical. Knowing no more of his biography than I do, I find it easy to believe that he himself is the original of Pierre Hardy. The family of Pierre Hardy, toiling humbly and decently in their village in eastern France, that their son might become a Civil Servant in Paris, is very like the family that he depicts more autobiographically in Charles Blanchard and La Mère et l’Enfant.8 His great quality is not imagination: it is a sincerity which makes him a faithful recorder of things as they are, and of events as they happened, without irrelevant and disturbing comment. He had a gift which is rare enough: the ability not to think, not to generalise. To be able to select, out of personal experience, what is really significant, to be able not to corrupt it by afterthoughts, is as rare as imaginative invention. I am always impressed, in Philippe, by his fidelity to the powers that were given him; nearly always, even in his worst and most lachrymose moments, he is saying what he has to say, not writing a book. He was not un homme de lettres.9 I...