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THE SCIENCE OF FICTION.
N the following lines I will endeavour to explain the views I
have formed upon the Art of Fiction during the twenty years i have practised that art. My first novel, which, thank Heaven, is still unpublished, dates from 1871, and was called, Without God. It was a very profound study of the connection between Atheism and emotion, for at that age we are not perplexed by any kind of doubt. In those days it would have given me infinitely less trouble than it does now to write this article. Like all beginners, I had a theory, complete in all its parts, upon the subject of romantic literature. Now I have merely tastes and hypotheses. I know well enough what I like in works of fiction, but I also know that I care nothing for many of those works which asthetically are superior to others on which I dote. When we have reached this point it is awkward work to dogmatise seriously. Here, however, are some general observations which may at least serve as a contribution, as you say in England, to the discussion of the subject under consideration.
In the present day, when we speak of the Art of Fiction, we refer especially to the novel. For the last hundred years that kind of fiction has in fact absorbed all the others. Epic poetry has nearly disappeared. Theatrical productions go on diminishing in every country. Lyrical genius is rarely displayed. Novelists, good, bad, and indifferent swarm, on the other hand, in endless numbers, and their works multiply in every direction. For the modern novel admits of infinitely varied treatment and consequently attracts the most diversified minds, another sign of the vitality of this class of writing. To confine myself merely to examples in France, whenever a writer distinguished in one branch of literature has turned to another, he has always gone to the novel. Benjamin Constant, the statesman, produces Adolphe ; M. Taine, the philosopher, produces Graindorgé ; Fromentin, the painter and historian of art, produces Dominique ; Sainte-Beuve, the critic, produces Volupté ; Jules Vallès, the revolutionary and pamphleteer, produces Jacques Vengtras. Poets like Hugo, Musset, Gautier, Lamartine, Vigny, also turned to the novel with a natural impulse when they wished to rest from poetry in prose, and Les Miserables, L'Enfant du Siècle, La Morte Amoureuse, Graziella, Cinq-Mars, show the marvellous flexibility of a form of literature in which intellects the most diversified move with complete freedom. If we add to the list of these occasional novelists the professional novelists, we find that in France alone three generations of writers have been engaged almost exclusively in this work without exhausting it. In one we find masters like Balzac, Stendhal, Georges Sand, Mérimée. In another, Flaubert, Octave Feuillet, the brothers Goncourt, shine out brilliantly. In the third we find writers of vigorous talent like Zola, Daudet, Maupassant, Loti. In work of this extent and this variety how are we to distinguish the common characteristic, that which while serving as a definition of the form, will at the same time allow, if possible, its most essential laws to be discerned ?
This common characteristic exists, however, and thus, Les Trois Mousquetaires and Adolphe, Madame Bovary and René, despite the marvellous difference that exists between them, can yet be classed under the same name in a library. In every novel the primary condition is, that it must be an imaginative fragment of human life. Vague as this formula may appear, it suffices at once to distinguish romantic from historical literature. Confessions, memoirs, monographs, resemble novels. They are not novels for this simple reason, that the author has no need to prove to us the existence of his personages. We know them to be real, and he can relate the most contradictory, the most inconsistent, anecdotes about them, while the novelist who wishes his creations to appear real, which we know to be imaginary, is fettered by the logic of consistency. The actions and the sentiments of his personages must be not only VOL. IV.-NO. 23.
possible or probable, but necessary. This, without knowing it, is what we constantly recognise when, in speaking of some occurrence
ave witnessed, we say :“ It would not be believed if introduced into a novel.” This very commonplace remark expresses one of the most indisputable and least known laws of the Art of Fiction. On the other hand, by the formula already given, the novel is distinguished from psychology pure and simple. La Bruyère in his Caractères, La Rochefoucauld in his Maximes, differ from the novelist merely by lacking this colour of life. They have observation, profound or comic touches, everything, indeed, except the power of painting human beings as they act or feel.
Yes, human beings, for the very word “life" is only an abstraction. Life has no existence in itself. Living creatures alone exist, and the faculty of the novelist is to create them. The Art of Fiction is, therefore, the art of imagining and depicting persons. Here we seem to have a principle capable of marking a line of separation between two classes of novelists. To delineate a character the writer may in fact employ two methods. The first consists in effacing himself behind his hero, so that his own impression does not influence the reader's; his own views are not mixed up with his narrative; he is like a watchmaker who has made a watch. Whether that watchmaker was merry or sad, fair or dark, young or old, the watch does not tell us. Its function is to tell the time. In the same manner the personages of the novel should, according to this method, come and go, live and breathe, without revealing anything respecting him who has thus manufactured them.
Thus it is, say the partisans of this method, in the actual world. You meet a man in the train, at a table d'hôte, or in a drawing-room.
This man speaks and acts before you; you judge him by his words and acts. It is for the novelist to present people to us in the same manner by their words and acts. This is somewhat pedantically called the objective system. Flaubert, Mérimée, Turguenieff have followed it in all its rigour. There is another method which consists in the writer explaining what his characters are while delineating them. He makes them act before us, and he comments upon their acts. He studies them, and he communicates to us the reflections thereby suggested. Stendhal, Georges Sand, Balzac proceed in this manner. The novelists of the former school are generally very severe upon those of the latter, and the curious reader of discussions of this sort will find in the letters of Flaubert many pages devoted to this theory of impersonal art to which the author of Madame Bovary appears to have attached a deceptive importance. A little reflection is sufficient to show that in this there is only a mere wordy quibble which does not touch the root of the matter ; for on the one hand the novelists, the most fanatically devoted to this impersonal art, reveal themselves throughout their works by the choice of their subjects, by their manner of dealing with their characters, by their style—that undeniable confession of our feeling—by their accent in this or that episode. Their pretended effacement is, therefore, only a literary artifice, just as the subjectivity of the others does not prevent them, if they really see their characters, from bringing them before us in full relief; witness Le Rouge et le Noir, La Petite Fadette, or François le Champi, and all the works of Balzac. No other author has surrounded his heroes with more digressions, general ideas, commentaries; no other author has created a world richer and more abounding in immortal types. said, indeed, that notwithstanding the pretension of the objective novelists to a greater resemblance to reality, the method of the subjective novelists is more in conformity with what actually takes place in life. Every occurrence which is related implies a narrator who, in relating it, experiences certain emotions. It is only by design and by a voluntary effort that this narrator succeeds in dissimulating them. There is nothing more artificial, for instance, than the method employed by a novelist who is nevertheless a man of genius-I mean Tolstoi. It consists in constructing novels without any central character, under the pretext that the events of life succeed each other without coherence. He does not reflect that those events would not be the subject of a narrative if they were not known, and that they can only be known by the intellect which classifies them in becoming acquainted with them. Hence is derived that great principle which the classical masters have never disregarded, the subordination of the characters, and the central position given to one of them, from whose point of view all the others are seen.
If we wish to have a more exact classification of the novelists we should rather, it seems to me, group them according to the number and the choice of the personages they are capable of conceiving. Some do not know how to deal easily with several heroes, their dialogue consequently is weak, their action often imperfect; on the other hand, when they devote themselves to the study of the minutely diversified qualities of the human mind, they penetrate to its very depths. Just as the savant who places a tissue under the microscope perceives fibrils of infinite tenuity,so these novelists excel in resolving a passion into its cellular elements, as it were. They are akin to the psychologist but are distinguished from him by that vital faculty which enabled Benjamin Constant and Sainte-Beuve to create human beings and not abstractions. This first-named group is that of the analytical novelists. They have as antithesis the novelists of action and the novelists of manners. The last-named possess, on the other hand, the faculty of seeing many characters at once and of seeing them in movement. They are impressed by the human conflict around them, by the influence of will over will, or they note the analogies and the contrasts between individuals, their identity, or their divergence, according to their surroundings. They compose works of intrigue and dramas, or they paint social pictures. Both methods are attended by great dangers. The analytical novelists, intent as they are upon minute differences, often drift into the exceptional, into subtlety, and into mannerism. The novelists of action, intent, above all things, upon the interest of the story, are too apt to neglect causes. The novelists of manners, intent upon painting general habits, confine themselves only too frequently to the study of comonplace characters because they more closely resemble so many others, and express the ordinary triteness of daily life.
It sometimes happens, however, that the faculty of seeing far down into the depths of the human mind and the capacity for prolific creation are met with in the same writer. It is then that we have the superior novelist and that the Art of Fiction attains its most powerful form in the novel of character. It is distinguished from the analytical novel by admitting action, and from the novel of manners by its surroundings, especially affording the opportunity of offering resistance to those surroundings. It more closely resembles nature,