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The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

From The Home Monthly, 7 (February 1898):  12.

Old Books and New.

So Alphonse Daudet is dead; most charming and tender of the modern novelists of France! Now out in the Pere-La-Chaise, that rich harvest field of death where France lays her great men to sleep, in that white and silent city beyond the glittering lights of Paris, there is another of those graves which Balzac said made the passer-by dream. His funeral was one of those dramatic occasions which occur in but one city in the world. With honors such as other nations pay only to kings he was borne through the streets of Paris, that same Paris to which be came forty years ago with a bundle of manuscript and forty sous in his pocket.

Daudet has been called the "French Dickens" and I suppose no other French novelist, Victor Hugo excepted, is so popular in English speaking countries. His "Jack" and "Kings in Exile" are read everywhere in America, and whoever has not read them has a keen pleasure yet untested. And the great life of the man! It reads almost like one of his own charming stories. He has told himself how he first went to Paris cooped up in a third-class railway carriage with a lot of sailors with but forty sous in his pocket; how be dared not spend one of them for a lunch as the long journey and was finally driven to accept a drink of the brandy the sailors offered him. When he reached Paris he rented a little attic is the Hotel du Senat where a crowd of gay youths from the South starved and worked and dreamed. Gambetta himself was one of them. It was from this garret that, when he had neither fire nor breakfast and the city was wrapped in the dull fogs of autumn, Daudet used to steal out to see the great dome of the Odeon emerge slowly from the mists, or at night to hang about its lighted doors and watch the gay crowd surge in, that same Odeon in which the audience was one day to rise when he entered. It was from that garret, too, that he made his first entrance into society, when for the first time he put on a dress coat and went to a reception of the famous actress, Augustine Brohan. He has told in his "Thirty years of Paris" what agonies of bashfulness he suffered upon that occasion and how in spite of his gnawing hunger he did not dare display his awkwardness by trying to eat, and when trying to get a drink of water he had the misfortune to smash a decanter and a tray of glasses. After this embarrassing accident he made his escape as soon as possible and trudged home through the snow without an overcoat and with the wind frisking with the tails of his sacred new dress cost. Before he reached his lodging he went into a market and sitting down among the fishmongers and vegetable sellers drank a bowl of hot cabbage soup which cost a penny. Years afterward when the great critic Sarcey tried to recall the incident to Mme. Brohan, she declared that it must be a mistake and said she only knew Daudet through his books. The long-haired Provencal youth who broke her glasses she had forgotten.

*   *   *

Daudet's was a picturesque career throughout. Consciously or unconsciously he lived romances as he wrote them. When his first play was produced at the Odeon, in 1862, he had been ordered out of France for his health and on the night of its first production was at the further end of Algeria, living with a couple of Arabs in a tent under a clump of dwarf palms, watching the southern stars through the open flap and wondering what fate had befallen his piece. The telegram announcing its wonderful success was brought to him by a red-coated horseman galloping across the desert.

From that time his fame grew rapidly. Then came his marriage with one of the most beautiful and gifted women in Paris and his long, sunny life, made glorious by unceasing endeavor, made beautiful by his kindness and gentleness. And now he is dead, but his work will live as long as the French tongue is spoken, and the world is richer by one genius the more.

*   *   *

Daudet's death recalls the universal sorrow which fell upon the world not many years ago when it was known that Victor Hugo had joined the innumerable caravan of the unforgotten dead. We read the old books too seldom. After a book has become a classic we take its merits for granted and put it on the highest shelf of the bookcase and let the dust gather on it. How many people really read Shakespeare and Milton? We prate of them daily in broad generalizations and yet to most of us they are strangers. Victor Hugo's works have shared the same fate and have become too standard to be read. I suppose that at some time or another almost every one reads "Les Miserables," or a part of it, but the rest of his books we usually accept at the general opinion and pass them by. If they were being brought out now and were to be had only in expensive editions we would have them by hook or crook, but because we can get them anywhere for twenty-five cents we do not desire them. I think we are all quite excusable in the case of "The man who Laughs," or, as it is sometimes called, " By Order of the King." We scarcely owe it to any author to really suffer on his account, and even Hugo's warmest admirers find it hard to forgive him the gratuitous unpleasantness of that book. But let us take, for instance, "The Hunch-Back of Notre Dame," or, as the title should properly be translated "Notre Dame." Do you want to know what it was like to live in the Paris of the fifteenth century, when the grim superstitions of the Dark Ages dominated human thought like a shadow, when good living was not considered a part of religion, and men prayed, then went out and murdered and pillaged and returned to the cathedral and prayed again? Then read "Notre Dame." It will give you the living picture of that period as no history in the world can do. It is a perfect representation of Gothic art and of the life which fed the roots of that art. You begin to understand, as you read, how out of that weltering chaos of wickedness, lawlessness, superstition and fear, the great cathedrals reared their towers of impregnable stone, like the very fortresses of God. And this perspective is kept throughout the story: Over this lawless Paris, over this mad crowd of tricksters who live by their wits, ruffians who live by their swords, priests who live by their cunning, this motley world of princes, beggars, knights, cut-throats and monsters, towers always the cathedral of Notre Dame, the only stronghold of succor left to desperate humanity. It was there at last that Claude and Esmerelda and even poor Quasimodo found shelter.

*   *   *

No book written in a foreign tongue ever swept over the continent with greater swiftness and force than Henryk Sienkiewicz's "Quo Vadis." Sienkiewicz has shared the common fate of becoming best known through his least meritorious. A few years ago half-a-dozen wonderful books were translated from Polish into English by Mr. Curtin; "With Fire and Sword," "The Deluge," "Pan Michael," "Without Dogma," and several others. They attracted the attention of the few people who read widely and these few people raved over them or wrote learned essays about them according as they were enthusiastic or erudite, but they failed to become generally popular. The crowd turned them over on the counters and saw that they were bulky volumes by a man with an unpronounceable name and passed on. Finally Sienkiewicz decided to play to the gallery. He wrote a "popular" melodramatic novel; colossal in conception, brilliant in treatment, but still melodramatic and below his own standard. Immediately his name was on the tongues of all nations.

Taken in itself and without reference to the author's better work, "Quo Vadis" is a powerful, a remarkable book. It deals with a period of history doubly critical, a time that was heavy with the pangs of birth and death, the death of the greatest of ancient civilization and the birth of a new faith that was to revolutionize the world. And how magnificently Sienkiewicz has painted that awful dance of death, that riotous empire staggering to its doom, clad in purple, to the music of trumpets; that debauch of power which lasted for centuries. Certainly one of the finest scenes in the book is the feast of Nero, that unfortunate Nero who at seventeen was called to rule the world. The whole gaudy pageant of Roman life is painted in that feast, it suggests the history of three hundred years. The whole book suggests an immensity of which we who boast of civilization know nothing; colossal expenditures, colossal achievements, colossal follies. And the end of it all was madness, the insanity of universal power which drove men to think themselves gods. In speaking of that period a great French author wrote: "Our world of to-day is puny indeed beside the antique world; out banquets are mean, niggardly, compared with the appalling sumptuousness of the Roman patricians and the princes of ancient Asia. Their ordinary reports would in these days be regarded as frenzied orgies, and a whole modern city could subsist eight days upon the leavings of one supper given by Lucullus to a few of his intimate friends." And at last over this wilderness of magnificence fell the tranquil shadow of the cross. From out the shouts of the victors, the groans of the slaves, the roar of the amphitheatre, the cries of the gladiators, the shouts of the mob, the songs of impure priestesses, the babble of vain philosophers, as the still voice out of the whirlwind and the fire, came that solemn question, "Quo Vadis, Domine!" Down under the city in the darkness of the catacombs the new history of Rome began and the martyr held in his head the empire of the future.