Books and Persons.
(AN OCCASIONAL CAUSERIE.)
A GOOD deal of interesting matter is being published about two French writers recently deceased, both well known and fairly well appreciated in England: J. K. Huysmans and François Coppée. There is a small but ardent cult of Huysmans in England. All people who understand what style means, and who have a deep knowledge of French, appreciate Huysmans, and most of them appreciate him too highly, for after all he was only a petit maître. Among his enthusiastic admirers in England looms the tall figure of Mr. Barry Pain. (By the way, I wonder when the Columbus of letters, Dr. Robertson Nicoll, will discover the singular distinction of Mr. Barry Pain’s style.) For several weeks past, a regular serial about Huysmans, by Mm. Céard and de Caldain, has been appearing in the "Revue Hebdomadaire," but it is not sensational enough; it is in fact somewhat tedious. A much more agreeable affair is an article "In Memory of J. K. Huysmans," by Madame Myriam Harry, in the "Revue de Paris." Madame Harry is about as good a novelist as a woman can be (this is not a sneer, and I am in favour of enfranchising the sex of Sappho), and she formed her style on Huysmans.
She wished to present a copy of one of her novels to Huysmans, but a friend said: "Don’t you know he’s turned monk? Moreover, he has a horror of women, and particularly of their literature!" However, she sent the book, and presently she and the monk were sufficiently intimate for the monk to be talking to her in this strain (apropos of the award of the Académie Goncourt prize to an unknown novelist, Antoine Nau):— "He’s quite young, and very poor, it seems. He couldn’t find a publisher, and ran into debt in order to publish this first book himself. And what’s more, he didn’t approach us in any way. He lives in a dream, and probably hasn’t even heard of our Academy! It needed all the indefatigable energy of Descaves to ferret out his address in some hole in the South. Ah! Won’t he be happy, won’t he be happy, the beggar! Two hundred quid, think of it, dropping like that out of the sky. I’d give something to see his phiz when he gets the telegram telling him the good news! He’s capable of not believing it!" "Caressing the bookcase with his back, Huysmans rubbed his hands together joyously." This is a very pleasing glimpse of an excessively gloomy personality. Those who are unnerved by the unconventionality of the language should read Huysman’s earlier books, such as "Les Soeurs Vatard" — if they can! This very able and truthful novel is a most bizarre literary experiment, being written chiefly in slang. Any Englishman who can understand 75 per cent. of it may flatter himself on his French.
Here is something strange: "Sometimes we talked of love. Thus I came to know the past sorrows of Huysmans and his present unassuaged yearning. One evening . . .we forgot to talk. The shadows already floated in the room. I saw the glitter of the gilt of book-bindings, and of the enamel of Delft vases — and suddenly, down the waxen cheeks of my teacher, two heavy tears dropping slowly. I got up, disconcerted. Then his head fell on the table and in the crepuscular silence sobbed. . . "
But the most highly curious passage in the whole article is this (Huysmans was ill in bed with a malignant herpes): "He must have suffered severely. Even his voice was changed. He told me how he had worked without ceasing, and had finished, in that melancholy year, "Les Foules de Lourdes." But, once the copy had gone to the publisher, he had been suddenly struck down by this mysterious evil which bewildered the doctors and prevented him from correcting his proofs. His own explanation of the disease was that it was a warning from the Virgin, who was displeased with certain passages in the book." This extraordinary belief in the length and power of the Virgin’s arm is further hinted at in a letter written by Huysmans, so that it cannot be dismissed as a misconception on the part of Madame Harry.
The surprising thing about the obituaries of François Coppée is the warmth of his post-mortem reception by the younger schools. Even "Vers et Prose," the most advanced literary periodical in France, is very kind to the memory of this second-rate talent who was the favourite poet of the bourgeoisie. The explanation is to be found in an article by Octave Uzanne. "The fact is," says M. Uzanne, "Coppée was a man of letters and a Parisian to the marrow. This Academician remained a Bohemian till past fifty. One met him in Montmartre. . . . In the Latin Quarter, during many years, all the young ladies of the Bullier Ball and the serving wenches in the brasseries had in him a familiar. He remained a student, a chaffer, amusing, fond of broad talk, and highly-spiced tales. His language was deliberately local, slangy, of a high Rabelaisian flavour, and his wit of the best French growth." If the excellent bourgeois ever read the literary press — improbable! — they must have been startled by these shocking disclosures concerning their pious and impeccably correct Muse. One of the disadvantages of the fundamental decency of English journalism is that some of the truly interesting and lovable details about dead greatness are never printed.