Sept. 23, 1892. La Déb�cle.
To what different issues two men will work the same notion! Imagine this world to be a flat board accurately parcelled out into squares, and you have the basis at once of Alice through the Looking-Glass and of Les Rougon-Macquart. But for the mere fluke that the Englishman happened to be whimsical and the Frenchman entirely without humor (and the chances were perhaps against this), we might have had the Rougon-Macquart family through the looking-glass, and a natural and social history of Alice in parterres of existence labelled Drink, War, Money, etc. As it is, in drawing up any comparison of these two writers we should remember that Mr. Carroll sees the world in sections because he chooses, M. Zola because he cannot help it.
If life were a museum, M. Zola would stand a reasonable chance of being a Balzac. But I invite the reader who has just laid down La Déb�cle to pick up Eugénie Grandet again and say if that little Dutch picture has not more sense of life, even of the storm and stir and big furies of life, than the detonating Déb�cle. The older genius
“Saw life steadily and saw it whole”
–No matter how small the tale, he draws no curtain around it; it stands in the midst of a real world, set in the white and composite light of day. M. Zola sees life in sections and by one or another of those colors into which daylight can be decomposed by the prism. He is like a man standing at the wings with a limelight apparatus. The rays fall now here, now there, upon the stage; are luridly red or vividly green; but neither mix nor pervade.
I am aware that the tone of the above paragraph is pontifical and its substance a trifle obvious, and am eager to apologize for both. Speaking as an impressionist, I can only say that La Déb�cle stifles me. And this is the effect produced by all his later books. Each has the exclusiveness of a dream; its subject–be it drink or war or money–possesses the reader as a nightmare possesses the dreamer. For the time this place of wide prospect, the world, puts up its shutters; and life becomes all drink, all war, all money, while M. Zola (adaptable Bacchanal!) surrenders his brain to the intoxication of his latest theme. He will drench himself with ecclesiology, or veterinary surgery, or railway technicalities–everything by turns and everything long; but, like the gentleman in the comic opera, he “never mixes.” Of late he almost ceased to add even a dash of human interest.
Mr. George Moore, reviewing La Déb�cle in the Fortnightly last month, laments this. He reminds us of the splendid opportunity M. Zola has flung away in his latest work.
“Jean and Maurice,” says Mr. Moore, “have fought side by side; they have alternately saved each other’s lives; war has united them in a bond of inseparable friendship; they have grasped each other’s hands, and looked in each other’s eyes, overpowered with a love that exceeds the love that woman ever gave to man; now they are ranged on different sides, armed one against the other. The idea is a fine one, and it is to be deeply regretted that M. Zola did not throw history to the winds and develop the beautiful human story of the division of friends in civil war. Never would history have tempted Balzac away from the human passion of such a subject….”
But it is just fidelity to the human interest of every subject that gives the novelist his rank; that makes–to take another instance–a page or two of Balzac, when Balzac is dealing with money, of more value than the whole of l’Argent.
Of Burke it has been said by a critic with whom it is a pleasure for once in a way to agree, that he knew how the whole world lived.