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Alphonse Daudet

1898


It is sweet to talk decorously of the dead who are part of our past, our
indisputable possession. One must admit regretfully that to-day is but a
scramble, that to-morrow may never come; it is only the precious
yesterday that cannot be taken away from us. A gift from the dead, great
and little, it makes life supportable, it almost makes one believe in a
benevolent scheme of creation. And some kind of belief is very
necessary. But the real knowledge of matters infinitely more profound
than any conceivable scheme of creation is with the dead alone. That is
why our talk about them should be as decorous as their silence. Their
generosity and their discretion deserve nothing less at our hands; and
they, who belong already to the unchangeable, would probably disdain to
claim more than this from a mankind that changes its loves and its hates
about every twenty-five years--at the coming of every new and wiser
generation.

One of the most generous of the dead is Daudet, who, with a prodigality
approaching magnificence, gave himself up to us without reserve in his
work, with all his qualities and all his faults. Neither his qualities
nor his faults were great, though they were by no means imperceptible. It
is only his generosity that is out of the common. What strikes one most
in his work is the disinterestedness of the toiler. With more talent
than many bigger men, he did not preach about himself, he did not attempt
to persuade mankind into a belief of his own greatness. He never posed
as a scientist or as a seer, not even as a prophet; and he neglected his
interests to the point of never propounding a theory for the purpose of
giving a tremendous significance to his art, alone of all things, in a
world that, by some strange oversight, has not been supplied with an
obvious meaning. Neither did he affect a passive attitude before the
spectacle of life, an attitude which in gods--and in a rare mortal here
and there--may appear godlike, but assumed by some men, causes one, very
unwillingly, to think of the melancholy quietude of an ape. He was not
the wearisome expounder of this or that theory, here to-day and spurned
to-morrow. He was not a great artist, he was not an artist at all, if
you like--but he was Alphonse Daudet, a man as naively clear, honest, and
vibrating as the sunshine of his native land; that regrettably
undiscriminating sunshine which matures grapes and pumpkins alike, and
cannot, of course, obtain the commendation of the very select who look at
life from under a parasol.

Naturally, being a man from the South, he had a rather outspoken belief
in himself, but his small distinction, worth many a greater, was in not
being in bondage to some vanishing creed. He was a worker who could not
compel the admiration of the few, but who deserved the affection of the
many; and he may be spoken of with tenderness and regret, for he is not
immortal--he is only dead. During his life the simple man whose business
it ought to have been to climb, in the name of Art, some elevation or
other, was content to remain below, on the plain, amongst his creations,
and take an eager part in those disasters, weaknesses, and joys which are
tragic enough in their droll way, but are by no means so momentous and
profound as some writers--probably for the sake of Art--would like to
make us believe. There is, when one thinks of it, a considerable want of
candour in the august view of life. Without doubt a cautious reticence
on the subject, or even a delicately false suggestion thrown out in that
direction is, in a way, praiseworthy, since it helps to uphold the
dignity of man--a matter of great importance, as anyone can see; still
one cannot help feeling that a certain amount of sincerity would not be
wholly blamable. To state, then, with studied moderation a belief that
in unfortunate moments of lucidity is irresistibly borne in upon most of
us--the blind agitation caused mostly by hunger and complicated by love
and ferocity does not deserve either by its beauty, or its morality, or
its possible results, the artistic fuss made over it. It may be
consoling--for human folly is very _bizarre_--but it is scarcely honest
to shout at those who struggle drowning in an insignificant pool: You are
indeed admirable and great to be the victims of such a profound, of such
a terrible ocean!

And Daudet was honest; perhaps because he knew no better--but he was very
honest. If he saw only the surface of things it is for the reason that
most things have nothing but a surface. He did not pretend--perhaps
because he did not know how--he did not pretend to see any depths in a
life that is only a film of unsteady appearances stretched over regions
deep indeed, but which have nothing to do with the half-truths,
half-thoughts, and whole illusions of existence. The road to these
distant regions does not lie through the domain of Art or the domain of
Science where well-known voices quarrel noisily in a misty emptiness; it
is a path of toilsome silence upon which travel men simple and unknown,
with closed lips, or, maybe, whispering their pain softly--only to
themselves.

But Daudet did not whisper; he spoke loudly, with animation, with a clear
felicity of tone--as a bird sings. He saw life around him with extreme
clearness, and he felt it as it is--thinner than air and more elusive
than a flash of lightning. He hastened to offer it his compassion, his
indignation, his wonder, his sympathy, without giving a moment of thought
to the momentous issues that are supposed to lurk in the logic of such
sentiments. He tolerated the little foibles, the small ruffianisms, the
grave mistakes; the only thing he distinctly would not forgive was
hardness of heart. This unpractical attitude would have been fatal to a
better man, but his readers have forgiven him. Withal he is chivalrous
to exiled queens and deformed sempstresses, he is pityingly tender to
broken-down actors, to ruined gentlemen, to stupid Academicians; he is
glad of the joys of the commonplace people in a commonplace way--and he
never makes a secret of all this. No, the man was not an artist. What
if his creations are illumined by the sunshine of his temperament so
vividly that they stand before us infinitely more real than the dingy
illusions surrounding our everyday existence? The misguided man is for
ever pottering amongst them, lifting up his voice, dotting his i's in the
wrong places. He takes Tartarin by the arm, he does not conceal his
interest in the Nabob's cheques, his sympathy for an honest Academician
_plus bete que nature_, his hate for an architect _plus mauvais que la
gale_; he is in the thick of it all. He feels with the Duc de Mora and
with Felicia Ruys--and he lets you see it. He does not sit on a pedestal
in the hieratic and imbecile pose of some cheap god whose greatness
consists in being too stupid to care. He cares immensely for his Nabobs,
his kings, his book-keepers, his Colettes, and his Saphos. He vibrates
together with his universe, and with lamentable simplicity follows M. de
Montpavon on that last walk along the Boulevards.

"Monsieur de Montpavon marche a la mort," and the creator of that unlucky
_gentilhomme_ follows with stealthy footsteps, with wide eyes, with an
impressively pointing finger. And who wouldn't look? But it is hard; it
is sometimes very hard to forgive him the dotted i's, the pointing
finger, this making plain of obvious mysteries. "Monsieur de Montpavon
marche a la mort," and presently, on the crowded pavement, takes off his
hat with punctilious courtesy to the doctor's wife, who, elegant and
unhappy, is bound on the same pilgrimage. This is too much! We feel we
cannot forgive him such meetings, the constant whisper of his presence.
We feel we cannot, till suddenly the very _naivete_ of it all touches us
with the revealed suggestion of a truth. Then we see that the man is not
false; all this is done in transparent good faith. The man is not
melodramatic; he is only picturesque. He may not be an artist, but he
comes as near the truth as some of the greatest. His creations are seen;
you can look into their very eyes, and these are as thoughtless as the
eyes of any wise generation that has in its hands the fame of writers.
Yes, they are _seen_, and the man who is not an artist is seen also
commiserating, indignant, joyous, human and alive in their very midst.
Inevitably they _marchent a la mort_--and they are very near the truth of
our common destiny: their fate is poignant, it is intensely interesting,
and of not the slightest consequence.

Joseph Conrad