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Realism in France

Honoré de Balzac and an assessment of the importance of realism in French literature

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The connotations of the word “realism” in French literature are so varied that the magnitude of the subject is even greater than appears at first sight. In its later developments realistic literature presented a considerable problem, and a constant source of irritation, to the guardians of the academic portals to Fame. Wherefore, these gentlemen exercised a remarkable ingenuity in the art of evasion and denial, which is responsible very largely for the diversity of opinion as to what realism is, and when it made its appearance in France. When challenged by modern realism they evaded the issue by asserting that it was not modern, and by denying that it was realistic. Thus, as every textbook will show, it was serious’’’ argued that “the real French realists” were Racine, Moliere, Boileau, La Bruyere and Lesage. The rise of the Classical School in 1660 was described as a reaction against the Romantic period of the preceding half century. Then followed a didactic era, when theses and theories were the essential, and finally, after an interval of sterility, there came, with Chateaubriand, a renaissance of the imagination. The Romantic movement was born, and it dominated the literary scene until about the middle of the nineteenth century.

It is at this point that we encounter realism as it is understood today. Balzac, who died in 1850, is accepted by all parties to the controversy as the precursor of the movement which was to crystallize in the work of Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers, Emile Zola and the Naturalists. Balzac has been called “a realist in the observation of material facts,” but “a Romanticist in his invention of plot and incident,” and this dualism in his work accounts, I think, for the strange unanimity of such irreconcilable adversaries as ‘Brunetiere and Zola is greeting him as the founder of the Realistic Movement. The mandarins claimed him joyfully, because he served admirably to becloud the issue which the Goncourts, Flaubert and Zola were trying to force to a decision. Zola and his disciples were glad to invoke a venerable name when fighting for their literary lives against a criticism which never ceased to decry them until they died, or renounced their heresies.

Balzac, therefore, is the first name associated in modern French literature with realism, and his work provided material for the species of argument which, as I have said, involves the whole subject in a maze of qualified statements and contradictions. His successor Flaubert, after his death in 1880, was also drawn into the debate for the same purpose, namely to support the thesis of the conservative critics that the modern realists were neither realistic nor modern. Both writers were powerfully influenced by the Romantic Movement, and thus lent themselves to such interpretations as were placed upon them by the conflicting groups of their admirers. Flaubert, however, seemed more definitely to belong to the new school, for several reasons. In the first place, he did set himself deliberately to repress and finally to dominate that exuberant Romantic imagination which he shared with his age. He conceived Madame Bovary in a thoroughly realistic fashion and accomplished his task in strenuous obedience to a theory which was to become the dogma of Naturalism a generation later. In the second place, unlike Balzac, he enjoyed a clash with the official moralists, and at the outset of his career he acquired the halo without which, I suspect, no modern realist is authentic in the eyes of the average reader. When Flaubert was indicted for the immorality of Madame Bovary he was irrevocably committed to the company—since so numerous—of those who have made realism synonymous with what we euphemistically call in English “unpleasant.”

Flaubert, however, was acquitted; in due course his sins were forgiven, and he became a respectable figure, to be cited by the orthodox, together with Balzac, as an example of what decent realism should be. In this country where French literature is simultaneously suspected by the moralists of outrageous licentiousness, and credited by ingenuous youth with an ideal tolerance of the freedom of the artist, the fortunes of the realistic school from this point onwards are instructive. Balzac having been canonized, and Flaubert being accepted for his Romanticism tempered by realism, it might be imagined that the course of true literature ran smooth. It did not, however, for there continued an extraordinary confusion as to what a realist really was. Brunetiere actually discussed Rhoda Broughton in the same category as Flaubert, Zola and Maupassant, while Dickens, George Eliot and George Sand were — and still are — cited in every well-behaved literary manual in discussions of realism.

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that, when a generation arose with a literature corresponding exactly to what the outside world now understands by French realism, the battle of Madame Bovary was resumed with intense vigor. The protagonist of this struggle was, of course, Emile Zola, whose name and influence have loomed larger in America, England and Germany than those of any of his predecessors or contemporaries in the Realistic Movement. Nevertheless, amongst both will be found men who never wrote worse than he, and several whose craftsmanship was vastly superior to his.

Let us begin with his own avatars. As early as 1847 there was Champfleury’s Chien-Caillou, which was the first stone to be thrown at Romanticism by the actual pioneers in the campaign subsequently led by Zola. These pioneers were three gentlemen of whom I need name only one, since his fame in this connection has survived him, Edmond Duranty, whose best novel. La Cause du Beau Guillaume, has recently been republished in Paris. During the early years of the Second Empire Duranty and his friends published a periodical whose title, Le Realisme, was in itself a manifesto. When the first of its six numbers appeared in 1856, Flaubert had not yet published Madame Bovary, and the very name of realism was something challenging, heretical, diabolical. Duranty had little to offer except his belief that a new literary epoch was imminent, that Champflcury was its precursor, and that Romanticism was anathema.

When Zola was a young and unknown employee at the publisher Hachette’s he came in contact with Duranty, who published La Cause du Beau Guillaume with that firm in 1862, at a time when Zola himself had not even issued his Contes a Ninon. Later Zola paid a brief tribute to this interesting and neglected figure in the history of modern French fiction, citing from Le Realisme the formula which so largely anticipated the program of the Naturalists: “Realism aims at an exact, complete and honest reproduction of the social environment, of the age in which the author lives, because such studies are justified by reason, by the demands made by public interest and understanding, and because they are free from falsehood and deception. This reproduction should be as simple as possible so that all may understand it.” Zola accepts this definition of purpose, merely extending it to include all classes of society, for he contends that Duranty’s realism was too much restricted to the middle-classes. Champfleury, however, was not a writer of sufficient stature to bear the brunt of such a program, and by one of those ironies of literary history which are so delightful, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary received only a brief and not very appreciatory notice in Le Realisme, which thus died without being aware that it had witnessed the first serious breach in the ramparts it had attempted to storm.

Although Zola’s earliest fiction was too unorthodox for Hachette, who refused one of the stories in the Contes a Ninon, and although his first novel, La Confession de Claude, in 1865, outraged the pruderies of the Empire, he had not yet produced the great work which was to place him at the head of the realists, now christened Naturalists, in accordance with his scientific theories. That work was L’Assommoir, published in 1877, and the first big success of the twenty volumes of the Rougon-Macquart series. This is a date in Zola’s evolution, but in the history of French realism that date was anticipated by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt in 1865, when their Germinie Lacerteux appeared. They were the real successors of Flaubert, and they had actually formulated the whole doctrine of Naturalism when they wrote, in 1864: “The novel of today is composed from documents, received by word of mouth or taken direct from nature, just as history is composed from written documents. Historians write narratives of the past, novelists narratives of the present.”

Germinie Lacerteux contained a preface which is regarded as a document of historic importance, not only because it emphasizes the revolutionary character of the novel itself, but also because it lays down the theory of Naturalism. “The public like novels that are untrue. This is a true novel. They like books which seem to take them into society: this work comes from the streets. This is a clinical study of love. The public like harmless and comforting stories, adventures that end happily, ideas which disturb neither their digestion nor their peace of mind. Nowadays, when the novel has assumed the studies and the duties of science, it may claim the liberty and frankness of science.” When this manifesto appeared Zola was an obscure journalist, and in a provincial paper he wrote one of the earliest of the few favorable reviews which the book received. The comments were, in the main, exceedingly violent in their hostility. “Putrid literature,” cried one pundit, while a notorious pornographer described the book as “sculptured slime.” Flaubert, however, was enthusiastic, and declared that ‘”the great question of realism was never so frankly propounded.” Sainte-Beuve realized that a new aesthetic was needed to criticise the new literature.

However, he kept this opinion and his appreciation of the book for the private consumption of his friends, following the precedent he had set for himself in the more delicate affair of Les Fleurs du Mai. The result is that, to this day, the Goncourts are viewed with a cold eye in academic circles. Even in Professor Saintsbury’s enormous and catholic survey of the French novel they receive a few intolerant paragraphs, in which indignation takes the place of criticism and historical perspective. Zola himself, for some reason, escapes with milder censure, although his debt to the Goncourt brothers is obvious, the difference between the authors of Germinie Lacerfeux and the author of L’Assommoir being that the former were artists, whereas the latter was a reporter. The Goncourts had a style and an aesthetic. Zola’s style consisted in his having none, and for an aesthetic he substituted a scientific superstition.

Needless to say, it was Zola, not Edmond de Goncourt, who enjoyed the popular fame which for some years was the reward of the realistic novelists. To the end Goncourt, who outlived his brother Jules by a whole generation, was the object of an incredible vendetta. It seemed as if neither the mob nor its masters could pardon him for being a perfect man of letters, happily independent of the exigencies of his critics or his potential patrons. Zola, on the other hand, threw himself into the struggle which the Goncourts disdained. The critics wildly denounced each book of the Rougon-Macquart series as it appeared, as they had begun, in 1868, by fulminating against his earliest novel of importance, Therese Raquin. Alphonse Daudet was kindly treated, as the tame realist who managed to be so much more gentleman-like than his terrible friends and literary confreres, Zola, Huysmans, Paul Alexis, Henry Ceard and the Goncourts. But the strange fact remained that Zola’s readers surpassed those of Daudet in number, and the sales of such books as Nana and La Debacle were rivalled only by those of the estimable George Ohnet.

Everything tended to constitute Zola the leader and spokesman of what was now known as Naturalism. He came forward with his flock around him in 1880, when the celebrated collection of stories, Les Soirees de Medan, was published under the aegis of the master. In addition to that of Zola, some of the five other names in that volume are still remembered, such as Huysmans and Maupassant; Leon Hennique and Paul Alexis are forgotten, though George Moore re-told the one story of Alexis, La Fin de Lucie Pellegrin, which deserves to survive. Henry Ceard, who is a member of the Academy Goncourt, and one of the few remaining members of the original Goncourt circle, has never had the fame outside his own country to which that sardonic little masterpiece, Une Belle Journee, entitles him. It will soon be issued here in an English translation, and then we may see whether Ceard may yet be counted with Huysmans and Maupassant amongst those whom we in this country owe to the Medan group.

If only because, with Boule de Suif, it introduced Maupassant, Les Soirees de Medan contained enough to justify its existence, and to impose the new generation of realists upon the attention of public and critics alike. It presented six writers who were to play a considerable part in current French literature for a decade or more, and of whom two, Maupassant and Huysmans, outlived the merely transient fame attaching to the work of a challenging school. Moreover, the arrival of recruits was not delayed, and soon to those names were added Camille Lemonnier, Octave Mirbeau, J. H. Rosny, Paul Adam, Lucien Descaves and the brothers Margueritte, to mention a few which will be familiar to the general reader of today. These writers all gravitated around Zola, and the formula of the experimental novel, with its scientific observation of facts, its exact documentation, its objective study of social environment, seemed to be assured of success.

England and Germany were translating Zola, George Moore in London and Michael George Conrad in Munich were imitating him, and the upholders of morals and traditions at home and abroad were up in arms against this literary Antichrist. Not only did the professors like Brunetiere recoil in terror, but critics as urbane as Lemaitre and Anatole France were troubled. France, in particular, was desperately aggrieved by the lack of patriotism in Abel Hermant (now repentant and in turn the censor of that venerable radical), and deeply offended by the salaciousness and indecencies of such works as La Terre. All that suburban moralists abhor in the younger generation in America today was duly abhorred and castigated in Zola and his followers during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. With a virtuous indignation worthy of a contemporary Society of Authors holding its skirts aloof from a Dreiser or a Cabell, a group of schismatics in the ranks of Naturalism turned upon Zola, and provided us with one of the best jokes in the history of French literature.

In Le Figaro of the 18th August, 1887, shortly after the publication of La Terre, there appeared “The Manifesto of the Five”. The signatories were Paul Bonnetain, J. H. Rosny, Lucien Descaves, Paul Margueritte and Gustave Guiches, and they solemnly recorded their sternest disapproval of the master, whom they had weighed in the balance both of morals and aesthetics and found wanting. In order to appreciate the charm of their virtuous censure of Zola, one must know that Bonnetain had acquired fame as the author of a novel whose theme was onanism, J. H. Rosny had in that very year published L’Immolation, a novel of incest, Paul Margueritte was the author of a Lesbian masterpiece, entitled Tous Quatre, while neither Guiches nor Descaves could have been translated without considerable bowdlerization. However, they proceeded to a formal indictment of their literary progenitor, accusing him of having lowered the standard of Naturalism, of catering to large sales by deliberate obscenities, of being a morbid and impotent hypochondriac, incapable of taking a sane and healthy view of mankind. They freely referred to Zola’s physiological weaknesses and expressed the utmost horror at the crudeness of La Terre.

At the same time they did not ignore the literary side of their brief for the prosecution. His experimental novels based on documentation are described as the work of a man “armed with faked documents picked up at third hand, full of Hugoesque bombast ... and lapsing into perpetual repetition and stereotyped phrases.” The observation in La Terre is “superficial, its technique old-fashioned, and the narrative is vulgar and commonplace, while the filthiness is exaggerated ... the Master has descended to the lowest depths of dirtiness.” Therefore, they conclude, “we energetically repudiate this imposture on real literature . . . we repudiate these rhetorical mouthpieces, these gigantic, superhuman and incredible figures, devoid of all subtlety, projected brutally, in heavy masses, upon scenes viewed in chance glimpses from the windows of express trains ... we refuse to be parties to a shameful degeneration.”

Thus ended a glorious adventure in realism, perhaps the greatest deliberate effort of the school in any country to impose its aesthetic and to alter the course of literary evolution by violent effort. The Five formulated in their literary criticism the substance of our judgment today on the work of Zola and his disciples. The scientific notation of life is an illusion, and when an illusory theory is allied to an execrable style, the result is a foregone conclusion. It was left, however, to writers not one whit less improper, in the moralists’ sense, than those they attacked, to break the spell of Naturalism, not by producing “realistic” novels in the manner of Rhoda Broughton, but by throwing over the preposterous convention which was the real offence of Zola against literature. The names that will survive from that period, between the death of Balzac and the decline of Zola in the last years of the nineties, are those of writers like Flaubert, the Goncourts, and Maupassant, whose genius transcended the limitations of the realistic dogma.

Yet, it is still on moral and not upon aesthetic grounds that realism is impugned. In English-speaking countries the term is synonymous, in the popular mind, with literature that is unpleasant and more or less obscene. To such an extent is this convention accepted, even unconsciously, by those who theoretically know better, that a French work which is not avowedly realistic, which treats of psychological and spiritual rather than physical and material conditions, may with impunity emulate the strangest aberrations of the much decried Naturalists. Marcel Proust’s astonishing epic of sexual inversion, though not lacking in the crudest details, receives tributes of admiration from English and American critics who endorse the recent condemnation of Victor Margueritte’s La Gargonne. Yet, the latter is nothing more than a typical volume amongst many which have recently far exceeded its frankness in describing the sexual life of a certain type of woman. Let us recall that time, more than thirty years ago, when Paul Margueritte was seized with a moral fervor ostensibly as genuine, and inherently as ridiculous, as that of which the surviving brother is now the victim. These incidents have only the remotest concern with literature.

At the present time realism in French literature is in abeyance. Its exponents are chiefly the survivors of the Naturalistic period: Ceard, Victor Margueritte, Lucien Descaves and Paul Adam, to whom must be added the isolated creator of Jean Christophe. The younger men who may be counted as the continuators of the realistic tradition are not numerous, for they are separated from their literary forbears by the Symbolist generation, whose fiction cannot be called realistic, although Anglo-Saxon virtue would blush at the charming impudicity of Henri de Regnier’s novels, were he not protected by that unwrittenlaw in favor of those who have no specific purpose in exhibiting “human documents.” A few names deserve mention among the contemporary realists, Gaston Cherau, with his Champi-Tortu; Leon Werth with La Maison Blanche; Roger Martin du Gard with Les Thibault.

Realism, as it has thus evolved, more closely approximates to the English variety; it has shed its exuberances and modified its crudities, for it is no longer bemused by the pseudo-science of Zola. Such excesses as used to interrupt the easy flow of French fiction are disappearing, to make way for the very different experiments of impres-sionists like Jean Giraudoux and the fantastic adventures of Francis Carco, Andre Salmon and Pierre MacOrlan. Such incidents as the expulsion of Victor Margueritte from the order of the Legion of Honour have no literary significance. Only extreme innocence of the character of the works which have simultaneously passed unnoticed can account for the foreign comment upon La Gargonne. No legal proceedings, it will be noticed, have been instituted. We are far from the heroic period of Flaubert or even Zola. Realism, in that peculiar Anglo-Saxon connotation of the word, is a dead issue in France. That is why French critics who are aware of the real import of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu have wasted no inappropriate zeal in repudiating Victor Margueritte. Us en ont vu bien d’autres!