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The Realistic Novel
by [?]

The realistic novel, we know from Zola, that apostle of insufficient insight, is based on “human documents,” and “human documents” are made up of “facts.” But in human life there are no facts.

This is not a paradox, but a “fact.” Life is in the eye of the observer. The humour or the pity of it belongs entirely to the spectator, and depends upon the gift of vision he brings. There are no facts, like bricks, to build stories with. What, pray, in the realm of human life is a fact? By no means a stubborn thing, as the proverb pretends. On the contrary, a most pliant, shifting, chameleon-coloured thing, as flexible as figures in the hands of the statistician. What is commonly called a fact is merely a one-sided piece of information, a dead thing, not the series of complex, mutually inter-working relations that constitutes a fact as it exhibits itself to the literary vivisectionist. I walked with a friend in a shabby district of central London, a region that had once been genteel, but was now broken up into apartments. Squalid babies, with wan, pathetic faces, pullulated on the doorsteps; they showed from behind dingy windows at the breasts of haggard women. The fronts of the houses were black, the plaster had crumbled away, the paint had peeled off. It was the ruins of a minor Carthage, and, like Marius, I was lost in mournful reverie; my companion remarked, “These houses are going up; they now pay 7 per cent.” He was perfectly justified. There are a hundred ways of looking at any fact. The historian, the scientist, the economist, the poet, the philanthropist, the novelist, the anarchist, the intelligent foreigner,–each would take away a different impression from the street, and all these impressions would be facts, all equally valid, all equally true, and all equally false. Life, I repeat, is in the eye of the observer. What is farce to you is often tragedy to the actual performer. The man who slips over a piece of orange peel, or chases his hat along the muddy pavement, is rarely conscious of the humour of the situation. On the other hand, you shall see persons involved in heartrending tragedies to whom the thing shows as farce, like little children playing in churchyards or riding tombstones astride. To the little imps of comedy, who, according to Mr. Meredith, sit up aloft, holding their sides at the spectacle of mankind, to the

Spirit of the world,
Beholding the absurdities of men,
Their vaunts, their feats, …

human life must be a very different matter from what we poor players on the scene imagine it; we are cutting a very different figure, not only from that which faces us from the mirror of vanity, but from that which is “as ithers see us.” Not only, then, may our tragedy be comedy; our comedy may be tragedy. The play of humour at least suggests these alternatives. Life is Janus-faced, and the humourist invests his characters with a double mask; they stand for comedy as well as for tragedy; Don Quixote wears the buskin as well as the sock. Humour, whose definition has always eluded analysis, may, perhaps (to attempt a definition currente calamo), be that subtle flashing from one aspect to another, that turning the coin so rapidly that one seems to see simultaneously the face and the reverse, the pity and the humour of life, and knows not whether to laugh or weep. Humour is, then, the simultaneous revelation of the dual aspects of life; the synthetical fusion of opposites; the gift of writing with a double pen, of saying two things in one, of showing shine and shadow together. This is why the humourist has always the gift of pathos; though the gift of pathos does not equally imply the gift of humour. The tragic writer must always produce one-sided work, so must the “funnyman” who were only a “funny man” and not a humourist (though this is rarer). Each can only show one side of life at a time; the humourist alone can show both. Great novels of romance and adventure, great works of imagination, great poems, may be written by persons without humour; but only the humourist can reproduce life. Milton is great; but the poet of life is Shakespeare. Thus the whole case of “realism” falls to the ground. There being no “facts,” Zola’s laborious series is futile; it may be true to art, but it is not true to life. His vision is incomplete, is inexhaustive; it lacks humour, and to the scientific novelist the lack of humour is fatal. He is the one novelist who cannot succeed without it. Leave out humour, and you may get art and many other fine things, but you do not get the lights and shadows or the “values” of life.