On J. H. Rosny

Let us transport ourselves in fancy a few years into the future. . . . The tendencies that are now beginning to assert themselves in education have definitely triumphed. Polite letters are banished from the course of instruction. The study of the dead languages has been abandoned by a society that has no time to lose. Classic literature has been utterly repudiated by the very men whose mission it was to initiate youth into its beauties. The university has realized its ambition of being modern. It has been reformed in accordance with the views of those profound thinkers who rule our municipal affairs. It marches with the times. The present has broken all those heavy fetters which bound it to the traditions of the past. In all that relates to art and literature, the rising generation has entered upon a world in which its eyes are no longer saddened by any vestiges of antiquity. Everything dates from yesterday.
Let us not fancy, however, that these are days of ignorance; on the contrary, the average man has never been’ so learned. On leaving college he knows everything. The university examinations are more heavily weighted than at the period when we were already beginning to fear lest they should crack beneath their load. All the sciences are included in them, for there is no such thing as a useless science. Each year, therefore, the examinations grow in direct ratio with the new discoveries. The brain of every French citizen has become an encyclopaedia; he is a complete repertory of scientific formulas, a storehouse of positive facts. Humanity has made a great forward move; she is entering, with all sails spread, upon an era of positivism and utilitarianism, in which science and democracy rule the day.
In a society thus reared upon its true foundations, shall we go on making books? It is to be feared we may, as perfection is an ideal for which poor humanity may strive, but which it will never attain. So literary vanity has still a great future before it. But what are the books we shall write in this period which is approaching so rapidly? Let us assume that we possess writers endowed with the finest talents, gifted with observation, blessed with imagination, laborious, conscientious in their use of the pen, haunted by noble dreams. Let us admit that they may even write novels, what will those novels be?
The question is not an idle one, and in order to solve it we are not reduced to hypotheses. We have an easy means of answering it with tolerable precision. We need only consult the novels of M. J. H. Rosny. It is a little less than ten years since M. Rosny published his first book, “Nell Horn.’’ Let us recall for a moment the varied movements of thought, the currents of emotion, all the myriad influences that have contributed to the literary atmosphere of the last ten years. At that date, naturalism was already on the decline. It was perishing through the very excess of its narrowness and vulgarity. A taste was reviving for problems of the soul, and it was by its complexity that the modern soul attracted, while it perplexed, the most subtle analysts. These analysts were scrutinizing, with a mixture of hardihood and refinement, the eternally baffling problem of love. A wind of sadness, blowing from every quarter of the real world and of the world of dreams, had withered men’s hearts. They were without impulse to action, having lost the support of faith. In despair at believing nothing, men tried to understand everything; they sought pastime in the play of their own ideas, and in the infinitely varying spectacle of their own contradictions. But scepticism and dilettantism are only phases of weariness, and equally transitory.
The spirit of our time, having refreshed itself by a return to the gospel narrative, became infused once more with tenderness, charity, and pity. M. Rosny has remained outside of all these influences; they have been for him as if they were not, and have left no trace on his work. He is as far removed from the psychologists as from the dilettantes, from the neo-Christians as from the aesthetes. All that preoccupies the minds of our men of letters, all that charms them, all that tortures their souls, is for him non-existent. The atmosphere that he breathes” is not ours. Nature and education alike have made him impenetrable, as it were, to the droppings of our sensibility. Inversely, when we take up his books, we have the sensation, the dizziness I may almost call it, of a journey into the unknown. The types we encounter, the questions we hear, the fashions of thought, the language, all disconcert us; we have a very acute and even painful impression of the distance that may separate men of the same period. We may have reached the same moment of intellectual development, we may live in the same city, and yet be so far apart!
M. Rosny, although he has already written much, is little known; and his books, full as they are of talent, have few readers. Some of the most fervent admirers of his work regard this indifference as the greatest injustice of modern times, and reproach us for our frivolity.
It is only just to recognize, however, that M. Rosny has done nothing to conciliate an easypopularity. He has not stooped to any of those arts by which certain authors of the day insure the sale of their books. And since probity has become a virtue that we must salute when we encounter it in the world of letters, we compliment M. Rosny on his probity. la the same spirit he has disdained to take advantage of the latest refinement in the art of advertising. He does not relate himself in the newspapers. He does not regale the public with indiscretions as to his personality. We barely know that this personality is a double one. J. H. Rosny is a single author in two persons; his books are the product of the “collaboration” of two brothers, who have reached such a degree of intellectual sympathy that, a subject being chosen and the ideas settled on, they can set to work, each in turn, writing the same page. Beside such a fraternity as this, that of the Goncourts was, as we perceive, a mere fraternity of “freres ennemis.” Such reserve is too much to be respected for us to seek to penetrate the sort of mystery in which M. Rosny wraps himself. I shall therefore content myself with looking into his books for what they may reveal of his intellectual development.
What strikes us at once is that the author of these books has, I will not say a scientific mind, but a taste for science. Almost all the characters that he brings on the scene are, if not actual scientists, at least half or quarter scientists. One man is a physicist, one woman a student of medicine; other characters are vaguely chemists. They are all writers, one having penned a formidable treatise on “The Elimination of the Norseman Type from the Aryan Family,” another “A History of Modern Migrations.” If they are not all dreaming of some work on the “Metaphysics of Animals,” it is because they are already absorbed in a project for “ Reformed Legislation.”
Each, according to his aptitudes or his tastes, has attempted to appropriate some scraps of universal knowledge. One among them, better endowed or with more audacity than the rest, tries to assimilate at once the whole sum of human knowledge. This is the young telegrapher, Marc Fane. He has acquired only a professional education, when he conceives the modest project of making the human race happy. Persuaded that everything holds together in the history of ideas, and that to lead humanity a step in its upward progress it is necessary to know all the needs of the modern world, he undertakes to complete his studies. He accordingly lays out a programme for himself, beside which that of Pico della Mirandola was mere child’s play. All the sciences are represented, and each has its ration of time allowed it. “The ration of certain branches amounted to only five minutes a week. Such were drawing, astronomy, and music. Gradually the scale rose until it reached ten hours of politics and twenty hours of sociology.”
Naturally, the sciences that especially attracted Marc Fane were the most incomplete; those which have least of the certainty and most of the apparatus of science. He thus acquires all the elements of learning pell-mell, without order, without guide, without criticism, hurriedly and doggedly at the same time. He constructs for himself a system in which method is superseded by good-will.
After a while he reaches a state of mind which it is not without interest to note: —
“On certain days he instinctively took to chewing a little rubber ball, while an order of thoughts relating to electricity connected themselves in his mind with the mastication of this ball. He was, in fact, much occupied with electricity, closely allied as it is to life, to the human flesh, to the struggle between the organic and the inorganic, and leading finally to the abyss of ontology. . . . The telegrapher had a profound inquisitiveness in regard to his own person, an intense desire to classify himself, not only as a power, but as a physical form with its personal idiosyncrasies. At first he satisfied this curiosity by studying his physical structure in detail, the cubic measurement of the cranium, chiromancy, and the like, thirsting to find analogies between himself and such and such a great man. Does his facial angle equal Cuvier’s? the weight of his brain Cromwell’s?”
Such are the direful results of over-study!
I am careful not to confound M. Rosny with his personages, or to believe that he is building up their biography out of fragments of his own. I remark merely that all the sciences inscribed on Marc Fane’s programme of studies have left some trace in the novels of M. Rosny. Astronomy, for instance, occupies a great place. Constellations, planets, stars, are called familiarly by name. Is a lover dreaming of the caprices of his beloved? He docs not forget to inform us that Rigel and Procyon are gliding across the firmament, that the Virgin is near Berenice’s Hair, and the Arctic Circles are revolving around the axis of the earth.
Geology, paleontology, anthropology, ethnology, zoology, and a few annexed sciences supply the repertory of M. Rosny’s figures of speech. These figures are so unexpected to us, and yet flow so spontaneously from the writer’s pen, that we are enlightened thereby as to his habitual preoccupation.
Does he wish to describe to us the chamber where a man on his death-bed is recalling his past meditations, this chamber gives him the impression of being “coeval with the origin of the race, sister to those caves in which are found the skeletons of prehistoric animals, as here the skeletons of his meditations.”
Does he chance to meet a bone-setter, in the course of his walks about the fields, a sudden association of ideas evokes before him “long-past ages, the geological chaos in which the plesiosaurus and the iguanodon wandered about amidst stone arrow-heads and cave-dwellers.”
So familiar is M. Rosny with prehistoric times that he makes himself a contemporary of the cave-dwellers without the slightest effort. While our timid glances confine themselves to a corner of society, or a corner of the soul, he is circulating with ease in a past of twenty thousand years ago, or in a future that has no limits. Taking but a feeble interest in the individual, he is passionately attracted by questions of race and species. If he depicts a husband gazing upon a beloved wife in her sleep how does he fancy him occupied? In taking measurements of her skull!
Physiology, with its most recent theories, is brought under contribution. Here is a little discourse addressed by a dying man to his own body: —
“Already your cells are taken by assault, already the victorious microbes are swarming, already all is turned over to the profit of infinite myriads. The mortgage is taken; every drop of blood pays its tribute to the victorious atoms.”
Persons who have the taste rather than the habits of science have a tendency to take its formulas for explanations, and delight themselves in the mysteries of its terminology. As, for instance, the law of “reaction equal to action,” the right of “self because it is self,” the philosophy of error, the doctrine of probabilities, the rule of the minimum of chance. They rejoice in noting certain remote analogies that escape the sight of the ignorant. For most of us a piece of bread is a piece of bread. Look at it more closely and you will perceive, “straits, little egg-shaped hollows, irregular chasms, a tunnel, a cavern with ivory dome, whence hang capillary stalactites. It is the building up of a world, a system of cavities caused by the expansion of interior gases when the dough was still soft, an origin, in short, analogous to that of our terrestrial crust.”
How many things in a mouthful of bread! There are no fewer in a cup of coffee. “Bent over his cup, he examined the gyration of globules, their collection in nebulous masses, and the accelerating speed of the aerolites rushing toward their centre.”
This is the triumph of the object-lesson! From the same point of view M. Rosny looks at social questions, — natural rights, the division of labor, the re-division of wealth, the laws of inheritance, Malthusianism, population, depopulation, and repopulation. Science presents to him even the question of the Seventh Commandment under an aspect which, for not being the aspect of sentiment and passions whereto ordinary romance-writers confine themselves, has all the more chance of being the true one. That which we call guilty love, or simply love, is, in short, only “the indomitable instinct that demands a renewal of selection.” Starting from this principle, a husband about to be false to his wife puts the case of his innocence or guilt thus: —
“Where is the crime in seeking what nature so eagerly desires, in obeying this instinct of irresistible, magnificent, and prolific polygamy?”
This may sound unpleasing to our ears, but it is because we have neither the taste nor the habit of truth. This worship of science is essential and fundamental with M. Rosny. To this all his theories are subordinated; through it he approaches literature, and from it his whole system of aesthetics proceeds. What he proposes, in fact, is to find “in the wide domain of human progress, amid the acquisitions of science and philosophy, more complex elements of beauty than the past affords, more adapted to our advanced civilization!”
He believes that the great discoveries of the end of the century are in the highest degree susceptible of being transmuted into literary material. To evolve from the scientific achievements of this era the elements of literature which it contains, such is the task he has assigned himself, and to this he tries to subject the novel.
His moral theories, like his literary ones are based on science. This solid basis is what is wanting, he thinks, to Christian morality; therefore, we must turn away resolutely from an ideal that has had its day. We must no longer make virtue reside in humility. The new ideal should proceed from a more complex conception of life and evolution. The gospel idea should be replaced by a more rational form of altruism. In this comprehensive morality the supreme good should be a means of more fully developing a race of superior beings. Ideas of intelligence, of strength, of conflict, must all enter into the idea of goodness. To the abstract conception of absolute good succeeds the idea of an organic, experimental good in course of evolution. Such is the “morality of species,” which contemporary philosophy is trying to create. This morality, independent of dogmas, cultivated outside of churches, has, nevertheless, its own sacred enthusiasm. This new Goodness, with her mysticism, her beautiful and subtle means of grace, her rewards, her superior harmony, will tempt the “powerful minds of our epoch and subdue the commonplace ones. Imperious she may he, but not through priestly terrors, nor through the nihilism of the down-trodden. She will not preach the destruction of the good for the profit of the bad; she will be stoical for the lofty joy of stoicism, modest for the lowly power of modesty, but always active, dominant, happy”… owing no duty to any religion, she shall be a religion unto herself; but, instead of locating her heaven in some far-away, super-terrestrial region, beyond this life, she will place it here below, in the progressive amelioration of life. For the worship of God she will substitute the worship of Humanity.
There is a great deal of farrago in all this; but it is not for me to let daylight in upon this obscurity, and I have the less occasion to dispute these theories, since they are not the exclusive possession of M. Rosny. He has gleaned them in the course of his reading. Besides, in matters of art, theories are of no consequence except for the work that is built on them; and doctrines take on different shades of meaning according to the differing minds through which they pass. Even science lends herself to the most opposite interpretations. According to the tendencies of our nature, or the inclination of our minds, we draw from her a lesson of pride or of humility, a counsel of optimism or a verdict of despair, and our imagination can draw from her either the most arid theme or one of dazzling splendor.
Thus from the dry doctrines of Epicurus, Lucretius could weave a poem glowing with enthusiasm, wrath, and pity. Whatever be the means that an author employs in his work, what we look for is the sentiment he has poured into it, and the light of his own he has thrown on the shifting scenes of life.
To paint contemporary manners in their environment, to set before the eyes of the reader a picture copied as closely as possible from reality, this is what M. Rosny has undertaken to do, not without success, in his first series of novels.
“Nell Horn” is a story of London life. The adventures of the heroine, Nelly, the daughter of the detective Horn, serve chiefly as a pretext for a set of sketches of the London populace. We are introduced to meetings of the Salvation Army, where we listen to eloquent preaching, and catch glimpses of a dark background. We are shown into the noisy dwelling of the Horns, where an uproar prevails, made up of the brutalities of the drunken father, the hysterical ravings of the mother, the sobs of Nelly, and the frightened outcries of the children. Then follows a long sojourn in a hospital, with its nights of agonized struggle with death, the cure, the slow convalescence. Then come episodes of studio-life, street-life, home-life, and finally the descent through the lowest circles of English poverty and misery. Amid these scenes, move pale forms, passive waifs, floating at the mercy of every current of circumstance.
Between Justus and Nelly a drama of desertion is enacted, almost in spite of themselves, and through a sort of fatality. Justus has promised himself that he will not make Nelly his mistress, that he will not incur the responsibility or the remorse of such an act; consequently he does become Nelly’s lover, and when she is the mother of his child, he abandons her and the infant, as men have abandoned women before, not through deliberate perversity, but with death in his heart. Nelly had dreamed of fidelity to one only love. She is by nature virtuous, brave, and industrious; she would willingly live in poverty in order to remain worthy of esteem. But from all sides there come to her the same evil counsels, dissolving her energy, stifling her scruples, and breaking down her power of resistance. To be pretty, and made for love, and yet to intrench oneself behind a sullen austerity, of which she is herself the chief victim, is to play the part of a dupe, they tell her. In vain she stops her ears; she must end by listening to the tempter’s voice. These melancholy things are told with a sort of restrained emotion and veiled sadness. A little of the tenderness of the author of “Jacks” has touched the disciple of M. Zola.
In the “Bilateral” we turn from London to Paris, — the Paris of the Faubourgs and the eccentric quarters, of the outer boulevards from the Lion of Belfort to the Salle Griffard, and from Montrouge to Montmartre. The world into which we are introduced is that populous quarter which is forever haunted by the longing for a great social overturn. The Utopia-makers, the dreamers of universal and immediate felicity, the prophets of Edens for everybody, the inventors of panaceas and explosives, the partisans of a general propaganda by word and act; those who counsel calmness and those who preach an immediate revolt, revolutionists and evolutionists, politicians of the extreme left, socialists, anarchists, grumblers, haters, fanatics, — all these file before us an obscure and menacing throng. Theories hurtle through the dusky precincts of the back-shop, and hang like smoke-clouds in the murky atmosphere of the popular club.
The author has a gift for handling the masses; and he groups these masses before us in some vivid and animated scenes. He shows them to us as they are, — violent, terrible, whether engaged in executing a traitorous comrade, or in holding the police at bay in a riot at Pere Lachaise. Whether reformers or mere rioters, what characterizes all these poor reasoners is their total incapacity for seeing more than one side of a question.
The personage whom they call the “Bilateral” can see both sides; hence his surname! and it is this quality which makes him an object of suspicion to his mates.
The same atmosphere prevails in “Marc Fane,” with a repetition of the same scenes and the same discussions; but whereas, in the former novel, the interest was dispersed among a crowd of supernumeraries, here it is concentrated on a few leading figures. It unveils to us the rivalry of two party-leaders. We are present at the debut of the orator of the Practical party, are made witnesses of his studies, his trials, his alternatives of success and failure. We listen to a record of the dreams, the hopes, the errors, of Marc Fane. Marc believed that ‘‘revolutionary collectivism would withdraw into the background at the not distant hour when Homogeneity of material interests, under the State, would oppose no obstacle to that Heterogeneity of individuals, that originality, so indispensable to a high civilization.” He believed all this, Marc Fane! It is evident therefore that he must have understood it.
All these books are those of a good disciple of the naturalist school. The same may be said of “Immolation,” a study of peasant life, that reminds us of the most brutal of Maupassant’s short stories.
“Termite” is a study of literary society, the most downright detestable, to my mind, of the author’s books; at once pretentious and heavy; laden with theories which the characters are powerless to put into action; leading ns, through a maze of furious discussions, to this somewhat flat conclusion: “We are all small fry — very small fry indeed.”
“Vamireh, a pre-historic novel,” in spite of its title and sub-title, is merely a novel composed according to the formulas of the “human document” school. There is the same rage for description, the same propensity for dragging into the story notes culled from scientific manuals and the works of specialists. It matters little that the scene is laid some twenty thousand years ago, amid the Dolicephalous races of Europe and the Brachycephalous races of Asia, with an escort of sloths and ant-eaters. It is only another kind of dough, poured into the same “waffle-irons.” The discipline of naturalism has weighed heavily upon M. Rosny. It was imposed on him of necessity, from the start; for, destitute as he was of an adequate literary culture, and his horizon therefore bounded by contemporary productions, he was forced to write according to the methods which he saw employed around him, not suspecting, in fact, the existence of any others. For the same reason, he had great difficulty in disengaging himself from this school; and, despite a signal rupture, he has never regained complete freedom. Even in his latest books we find the same fashion of introducing his characters, the same descriptions, the same tendency to ‘‘faire le morceau.”
The naturalist writers have remained his masters in the art of writing. Nevertheless, his last series of novels, “Daniel Valgraive,” “L’Imperieuse Bonte,”[1]“L’Indomptee,”[2] “Le Renouveau,”[3]“L’Autre Femme,”[4] are of a somewhat different order. They are more within our grasp and that of mankind in general; they have a wider human interest and a more accessible form, and are altogether less repellent, or, as their author would say, less horror-striking. Though the execution still leaves much to be desired, we can at least discern through it the writer’s moral ideal, which is not without grandeur and a certain austere poetry.
Daniel Valgraive suddenly learns that he is condemned by the physicians, and has not a year to live. Without vain self-pity, without faltering or weakness, he devotes the short space of time left him to accomplishing the greatest good within his power. He resolves to insure the happiness of those dearest to him, and to carry away the hitter consolation of feeling that they will be happy without him, almost in despite of him. He therefore brings together his wife and his best friend Hugues, in order that they may learn to love each other, and that this new love may stifle and supersede the love his wife bears to him. Little by little, at the price of what tortures of jealous affection, he sees his plan succeeding! It remains for him to conquer the last revolt of his breaking heart, on the day when, perfect master of himself, without a tremor in his voice, he can resign in favor of another that which is dearer to him than life, saying: “I give to you, Hugues, my wife and my child, trusting you to be their safeguard in this world, and by your love to protect the one from its miseries and snares, and the other from the common fate of orphans.”
This fervor of stoical virtue, this shadow of death brooding over the story, the firmness of design, the sobriety of detail, of which M. Rosny has, for once, shown himself capable, give to this book a place apart in his work. Elsewhere we can indeed divine the theories which M. Rosny has sought to express; namely, “that goodness should be made up of intelligence and energy; that virtue should never lose heart; that life reserves unlooked-for compensations for those who do not despair.” These ideas are neither vulgar nor trite; the trouble is that we are reduced to divining them.
We touch here upon a serious flaw in M. Rosny’s work, and one which it is impossible to pass over without condemnation; to wit, the complete absence of all sense of form, — a sort of monstrosity of style. That form has a value of its own, that beauty is a “joy forever,” that art has within itself a reason for being, and has in its very essence something enduring, which triumphs over change and survives ruin, — this he does not even suspect.
“No subject,” he asserts, “no method, no language, can resist the ordeal of time. Chateaubriand, Balzac, Hugo, and we who are writing to-day, will all be Barbarians at some future day. We have not yet abdicated the pride of becoming the admiration of all the ages, of building indestructibly. It is this pride that leads us to repel the innovator. It is this which, under myriad forms, in the name of a host of sentiments, each more sacred than the other, is forever disinterring Homer, Racine, Shakespeare.”
Beyond doubt, the law of a perpetual revival does indeed reign in literature. But no one proposes to recommence Homer and Shakespeare. We only affirm that they will never cease to be admired as long as the human intellect has not abdicated.
This absence of the aesthetic sense makes itself cruelly apparent in the way M. Rosny constructs his novels. They are marvels of the rambling and irrelevant in plot; everything goes at haphazard. The subject, or one of the subjects, appears only to be instantly abandoned. We barely begin to follow a trail before we recognize it as a false one. Episodes succeed one another in a happy-go-lucky fashion, without connecting link, without reason, without appreciable utility, and are dwelt upon in inverse ratio to their importance. There is neither order nor symmetry, choice nor taste. The emphasis is always laid where it is not needed; and everywhere there is a profusion of detail, a luxury of digression, and an accumulation of raw material.
These are novels that begin all over again at every page; so that one is in constant fear of their never ending, and the shortest of them seems interminable. And withal, there is a primitive awkwardness that is not, as in the case of some of our contemporaries, the refinement of artifice, but a genuine mixture of clumsiness and naïveté.
Whenever an author is accused of writing badly, he is sure to retort that he has the right to create his own language, and that new sensations demand a new mode of expression. The argument is too convenient for M. Rosny not to be the hundredth one to employ it: “To new orders of sensation correspond new varieties of form. Whether the terms we employ are those of science or architecture, physics or painting, what matters it? The same process has gone on through the ages, — enriching art with all that time produces, multiplying the elements of beauty by seeking them out in all domains of human activity. Where is the vaunted French clearness of style’! Is it found in Rabelais, so obscure, diffuse, and pedantic, so worshipped by all the pedants of to-day? In Racine, whose every phrase is a model of contortions and far-fetched images?”
For the sake of argument, let us admit M. Rosny’s premises, and assume that we understand his development of them. Let us take Racine and Rabelais for geniuses of the same order, examples that may be evoked in support of the same line of reasoning. Let us furthermore concede to M. Rosny his scientific terms, and allow him to talk of entelechy and palingenesis, odynamy and osmose, since he experiences a visible satisfaction in the use of these vocables, and their syllables afford him keen delight. Let it be agreed that for his novels, and his alone, we shall always have the Universal Dictionary of Sciences within reach of our hand; it is the least we can do to take a little trouble to pay for our pleasures. Let us forgive him the use of such rare words as “abstème, pertinace, compétées.” Let us even accept such fashions of speech as he has learnt from the Goncourts: “All the occult of the Nocturnities worked upon his soul, and made itself intimate with his sufferings” — “All these reasons, after appearing to class themselves, fled through his mentality” — “He extinguished the beacon-lights of ratiocination.” Let us refrain from asking what is meant by “documentary extravasation,” and pretend that we feel a secret charm in the adjective “Soiral.” Let us admire as we ought these extraordinary images, of which Racine himself would never have thought. “His Shoshone head, his eye of a scout, and autocratic lip had assumed at Faugeraye’s words the calm of torrid ravines when autumn comes,” — “They were penetrated with the darkness as with a parabola, at once stellar and microbian.” Let us regard the following remark as a gem, and not a piece of nonsense: “When she rose from her chair, Grace rose with her.” But why must we encounter among the neologisms of M. Rosny such words as “ressurgissements;” which, whatever he may say, does not exist, and for the simple reason that it cannot exist? Why does he employ words in an opposite sense to the true one, or use one for another, as for instance, “his adventure can be abridged,” meaning “summed up”? Why do we see, blooming forth in his style, expressions which, by whatever pompous name he may choose to call them, are merely incorrect vulgarisms? M. Rosny writes off-hand: “Ils dissolvèrent, ils poignèrent.” — We might just as well say, if the fancy took us: “Je me cassis le bras,” or “Je me prendrais la tête entre les mains.” Foreigners who speak “French as it is taught in Twenty-five Lessons” are sure to do so; only they do not pretend to be enriching the language — they are simply massacring it.
M. Rosny, who is so familiar with the sciences, knows better than we, that language is an organism, the laws of which we cannot violate with impunity. If, then, he violates these laws, it is. because he is ignorant of them. This puts us on our guard, and disinclines us to indulgence for his many eccentricities, to which we might otherwise have resigned ourselves. Decidedly, if his style is incoherent, rugged, bristling with difficulties, these are not to be regarded as so many merits.
These defects doubtless arise, in part, from the quality of M. Rosny’s mind; but they result also from his neglect to initiate himself into the traditions of our language. His writings remind us of the conversation of a man of slow and labored speech, whose thought, obscure in itself, is rendered still more so by his hesitating and constrained utterance. Confusion of thought thus becomes denser through incorrectness of expression. I hasten to state that these defects have become rarer in M. Rosny’s latest books. As he attains, by degrees, to a clearer consciousness of his ideal, he finds, at the same time, more appropriate forms in which to clothe it.
I repeat — in case I may not have said it clearly enough before, and in order that there may be no misunderstanding of my purpose in this study — that I hold his talent in high esteem. I do not pay him the poor compliment of comparing him with certain novelists who have a much larger audience, and whose success is the reward of their mediocrity and their adroitness. I insist upon his merits, — his sincerity and good faith, the enthusiasm of his convictions, the nobleness and richness of his ideas, his concern for morality, and a certain sturdy vigor and turbid power. His qualities are entirely his own, while, doubtless, the fashion of his intellectual training did not depend upon himself. It may be that he will succeed in freeing his thought from the shackles that impede it, and will yet write books which we can admire unreservedly.
But, even as it stands to-day, his work has its significance, its reason for being. It may be one of the brightest ornaments of that epoch we predicted above, when what was once a high intellectual culture has suffered shipwreck. Thus the poem of Abbon[5]rises like a fragment of rude art in a barbarous age.
It is for this reason that we have followed with a sympathetic curiosity the novels of M. Rosny. They reveal the future of fiction under a reign of enlightened Barbarism, when art and literature have been put to flight before an all-triumphant Sociology.
Source: Contemporary French Novelists, by René Doumic, translated by Mary D. Frost (1899): 313-338.

[1] J. H. Rosny, “L’Impérieuse Bonté” (Imperious Kindness).
[2]L’Indomptée” (The Undaunted).
[3] “Le Renouveau” (Spring-time).
[4] L’Autre Femme” (The Other Woman).
[5] Abbon, a French monk, author of a poem on the siege of Paris by the Northmen, written Ad. 885.
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.