Page images
PDF
EPUB

imagination and reality. At first sight one can see nothing there but a kind of conventional fantasy, playing charmingly round impossible situations and queer delightful personages, who would vanish in a moment into thin air at the slightest contact with actual flesh and blood. But if Marivaux had been simply fantastic and nothing more, his achievement would have been insignificant; his great merit lies in his exquisite instinct for psychological truth. His plays are like Watteau's pictures, which, for all the unreality of their atmosphere, produce their effect owing to a mass of accurate observation and a profound sense of the realities of life. His characters, like Watteau's, seem to possess, not quite reality itself, but the very quintessence of rarefied reality—the distilled fragrance of all that is most refined, delicate, and enchanting in the human spirit. His Aramintes, his Silvias, his Lucidors, are purged of the grossnesses of existence; their minds and their hearts are miraculously one; in their conversations the subtleties of metaphysicians are blended with the airy clarities of birds. Le Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard is perhaps the most perfect example of his work. Here the lady changes places with her waiting-maid, while the lover changes places with

[merged small][ocr errors]

his valet, and, in this impossible framework of symmetrical complications, the whole action spins itself out. The beauty of the little piece depends upon the infinitely delicate art which depicts each charmingly absurd, minute transition in the process of delusion, misunderstanding, bewilderment, and explanation, with all the varieties of their interactions and shimmering personal shades. It would be difficult to find a more exquisite example of tender and discriminating fidelity to the loveliest qualities in human nature than the scene in which Silvia realises at last that she is in love and with whom. “Ah! je vois clair dans mon coeur!” she exclaims at the supreme moment; and the words might stand as the epitome of the art of Marivaux. Through all the superfine convolutions of his fancies and his coquetries he never loses sight for a moment of the clear truth of the heart.

While Marivaux, to use Voltaire's phrase for him, was "weighing nothings in scales of gossamer,” a writer of a very different calibre was engaged upon one of the most forcible, one of the most actual, and one of the hugest compositions that has ever come from pen of man. The DUC DE SAINT-SIMON had spent his youth and middle life in the thick of the Court during the closing years of Louis XIV and the succeeding period of the Regency; and he occupied his old age with the compilation of his Mémoires. This great book offers so many points of striking contrast with the mass of French literature that it falls into a category of its own; no other work of the same outstanding merit can quite be compared to it; for it was the product of what has always been, in France, an extremely rare phenomenon-an amateur in literature who was also a genius. Saint-Simon was so far from being a professional man of letters that he would have been shocked to hear himself described as a man of letters at all; indeed, it might be said with justice that his only profession was that of a duke. It was as a duke

or, more correctly, as a Duc et Pair that, in his own eyes at any rate, he lived and moved and had his being. It was round his position as a duke that the whole of his active existence had revolved; it was with the consciousness of his dukedom dominating his mind that he sat down in his retirement to write his memoirs. It might seem that no book produced in such circumstances and by such a man could possibly be valuable or interesting. But, fortunately for the world, the merit of books does not depend upon the enlightenment of authors. Saint-Simon was a man of small intellect, with medieval ideas as to the structure of society, with an absurd belief in the fundamental importance of the minutest class distinctions, and with an obsession for dukedoms almost amounting to mania: but he had in addition an incredibly passionate temperament combined with an unparalleled power of observation; and these two qualities have made his book immortal.

Besides the intrinsic merits of the work, it has the additional advantage of being concerned with an age, which, of enthralling interest on its own account, also happened to be particularly suited to the capacities of the writer. If Saint-Simon had lived at any other time, his memoirs would have been admirable, no doubt, but they would have lacked the crowning excellence which they actually possess. As it was, a happy stroke of fortune placed him in the one position where he could exercise to the full his extraordinary powers: never, before or since, has there been so much to observe; never, before or since, so miraculous an observer. For, at Versailles, in the last years of Louis, Saint-Simon had before hím, under his very eyes, as a daily and hourly spectacle, the whole accumulated energy of France in all its manifestations; that was what he saw; and that, by the magic of his pen, is what he makes us see. Through the endless succession of his pages the enormous panorama unrolls itself, magnificent, palpitating, alive. What La Bruyère saw with the spiritual gaze of a moralist rushed upon the vision of Saint-Simon in all the colour, the detail, the intensity, the frenzy,

of actual fact. He makes no comments, no reflections or, if he does, they are ridiculous; he only sees and feels. Thus, though in the profundity of his judgment he falls so infinitely below La Bruyère, in his character-drawing he soars as high above him. His innumerable portraits are unsurpassed in literature. They spring into his pages bursting with life

individual, convincing, complete, and as various as humanity itself. He .excels in that most difficult art of presenting the outward characteristics of

persons, calling up before the imagination not only the details of their physical appearance, but the more recondite effects of their manner and their bearing, so that, when he has finished, one almost feels that one has met the man. But his excellence does not stop there. It is upon the inward creature that he expends his most lavish care-upon the soul that sits behind the eyelids, upon the purpose and the passion that linger in a gesture or betray

« PreviousContinue »