Nominally Daudet, with the Goncourts and Zola, formed a trio representing Naturalism in fiction. He adopted the watchwords of that school, and by private friendship, no less than by a common profession of faith, was one of them. But the students of the future, while recognizing an obvious affinity between the other two, may be puzzled to find Daudet’s name conjoined with theirs.
Decidedly, Daudet belonged to the Realistic School. But, above all, he was an impressionist. All that can be observed — the individual picture, scene, character — Daudet will render with wonderful accuracy, and all his novels, especially those written after 1870, show an increasing firmness of touch, limpidity of style, and wise simplicity in the use of the sources of pathetic emotion, such as befit the cautious Naturalist. Daudet wrote stories, but he had to be listened to. Feverish as his method of writing was — true to his Southern character he took endless pains to write well, revising every manuscript three times over from beginning to end. He wrote from the very midst of the human comedy; and it is from this that he seems at times to have caught the bodily warmth and the taste of the tears and the very ring of the laughter of men and women. In the earlier novels, perhaps, the transitions from episode to episode or from scene to scene are often abrupt, suggesting the manner of the Goncourts. But to Zola he forms an instructive contrast, of the same school, but not of the same family. Zola is methodical, Daudet spontaneous. Zola works with documents, Daudet from the living fact. Zola is objective, Daudet with equal scope and fearlessness shows more personal feeling and hence more delicacy. And in style also Zola is vast, architectural; Daudet slight, rapid, subtle, lively, suggestive. And finally, in their philosophy of life, Zola may inspire a hate of vice and wrong, but Daudet wins a love for what is good and true.
Alphonse Daudet was born in Nimes, Provence, May 13, 1840. His father had been a well-to-do silk manufacturer, but, while Alphonse was still a child, lost his property. Poverty compelled the son to seek the wretched post of usher (pion) in a school at Alais. In November, 1857, he settled in Paris and joined his almost equally penniless brother Ernest. The autobiography, ‘Le Petit Chose’ (1868), gives graphic details about this period. His first years of literary life were those of an industrious Bohemian, with poetry for consolation and newspaper work for bread. He had secured a secretaryship with the Duc de Morny, President of the Corps Legislatif, and had won recognition for his short stories in the ‘Figaro’, when failing health compelled him to go to Algiers. Returning, he married toward that period a lady (Julia Allard, born 1847), whose literary talent comprehended, supplemented, and aided his own. After the death of the Duc de Morny (1865) he consecrated himself entirely to literature and published ‘Lettres de mon Moulin’ (1868), which also made his name favorably known. He now turned from fiction to the drama, and it was not until after 1870 that he became fully conscious of his vocation as a novelist, perhaps through the trials of the siege of Paris and the humiliation of his country, which deepened his nature without souring it. Daudet’s genial satire, ‘Tartarin de Tarascon’, appeared in 1872; but with the Parisian romance ‘Fromont jeune et Risler aine’, crowned by the Academy (1874), he suddenly advanced into the foremost rank of French novelists; it was his first great success, or, as he puts it, “the dawn of his popularity.”
How numberless editions of this book were printed, and rights of translations sought from other countries, Daudet has told us with natural pride. The book must be read to be appreciated. “Risler, a self-made, honest man, raises himself socially into a society against the corruptness of which he has no defence and from which he escapes only by suicide. Sidonie Chebe is a peculiarly French type, a vain and heartless woman; Delobelle, the actor, a delectable figure; the domestic simplicity of Desiree Delobelle and her mother quite refreshing.”
Success followed now after success. ‘Jack (1876); Le Nabab (1877); Les Rois en exil (1879); Numa Roumestan (1882); L’Evangeliste (1883); Sapho (1884); Tartarin sur des Alces (1886); L’Immortel (1888); Port Tarascon (1890); Rose et Ninette (1892); La petite Parvisse (1895); and Soutien de Famille (1899)’; such is the long list of the great life-artist. In Le Nabab we find obvious traces of Daudet’s visits to Algiers and Corsica-Mora is the Duc de Morny. Sapho is the most concentrated of his novels, with never a divergence, never a break, in its development. And of the theme — legitimate marriage contra common-law — what need be said except that he handled it in a manner most acceptable to the aesthetic and least offensive to the moral sense?
L’Immortel is a satire springing from personal reasons; L’Evangeliste and Rose et Ninette — the latter on the divorce problem — may be classed as clever novels; but had Daudet never written more than ‘Fromont et Risler’, ‘Tartarin sur les Alces’, and ‘Port Tarascon’, these would keep him in lasting remembrance.
We must not omit to mention also many ‘contes’ and his ‘Trente ans de Paris (A travers ma vie et mes livres), Souvenirs d’un Homme de lettres (1888), and Notes sur la Vie (1899)’.
Alphonse Daudet died in Paris, December 16, 1897
LECONTE DE LISLE
de l’Academie Francaise.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07