There can be no doubt in the mind of the judicial critic that in the pages of “A Love Episode” the reader finds more of the poetical, more of the delicately artistic, more of the subtle emanation of creative and analytical genius, than in any other of Zola’s works, with perhaps one exception. The masterly series of which this book is a part furnishes a well-stocked gallery of pictures by which posterity will receive vivid and adequate impressions of life in France during a certain period. There was a strain of Greek blood in Zola’s veins. It would almost seem that down through the ages with this blood there had come to him a touch of that old Greek fatalism, or belief in destiny or necessity. The Greek tragedies are pervaded and permeated, steeped and dyed with this idea of relentless fate. It is called heredity, in these modern days. Heredity plus environment — in these we find the keynote of the great productions of the leader of the “naturalistic” school of fiction.
It has been said that art, in itself, should have no moral. It has been further charged that the tendencies of some of Zola’s works are hurtful. But, in the books of this master, the aberrations of vice are nowhere made attractive, or insidiously alluring. The shadow of expiation, remorse, punishment, retribution is ever present, like a death’s -head at a feast. The day of reckoning comes, and bitterly do the culprits realize that the tortuous game of vice is not worth the candle. Casuistical theologians may attempt to explain away the notions of punishment in the life to come, of retribution beyond the grave. But the shallowest thinker will not deny the realities of remorse. To how many confessions, to how many suicides has it led? Of how many reformed lives has it been the mainspring? The great lecturer, John B. Gough, used to tell a story of a railway employee whose mind was overthrown by his disastrous error in misplacing a switch, and who spent his days in the mad-house repeating the phrase: “If I only had, if I only had.” His was not an intentional or wilful dereliction. But in the hearts of how many repentant sinners does there not echo through life a similar mournful refrain. This lesson has been taught by Zola in more than one of his romances.
In “A Love Episode” how poignant is this expiation! In all literature there is nothing like the portrayal of the punishment of Helene Grandjean. Helene and little Jeanne are reversions of type. The old “neurosis,” seen in earlier branches of the family, reappears in these characters. Readers of the series will know where it began. Poor little Jeanne, most pathetic of creations, is a study in abnormal jealousy, a jealousy which seems to be clairvoyant, full of supernatural intuitions, turning everything to suspicion, a jealousy which blights and kills. Could the memory of those weeks of anguish fade from Helene’s soul? This dying of a broken heart is not merely the figment of a poet’s fancy. It has happened in real life. The coming of death, save in the case of the very aged, seems, nearly always, brutally cruel, at least to those friends who survive. Parents know what it is to sit with bated breath and despairing heart beside the bed of a sinking child. Seconds seem hours, and hours weeks. The impotency to succour, the powerlessness to save, the dumb despair, the overwhelming grief, all these are sorrowful realities. How vividly are they pictured by Zola. And, added to this keenness of grief in the case of Helene Grandjean, was the sense that her fault had contributed to the illness of her daughter. Each sigh of pain was a reproach. The pallid and ever-paling cheek was a whip of scorpions, lashing the mother’s naked soul. Will ethical teachers say that there is no salutary moral lesson in this vivid picture? To many it seems better than a cart-load of dull tracts or somnolent homilies. Poor, pathetic little Jeanne, lying there in the cemetery of Passy — where later was erected the real tomb of Marie Bashkirtseff, though dead she yet spoke a lesson of contrition to her mother. And though the second marriage of Helene has been styled an anti-climax, yet it is true enough to life. It does not remove the logical and artistic inference that the memory of Jeanne’s sufferings lingered with ever recurring poignancy in the mother’s heart.
In a few bold lines Zola sketches a living character. Take the picture of old Mere Fetu. One really feels her disagreeable presence, and is annoyed with her whining, leering, fawning, sycophancy. One almost resents her introduction into the pages of the book. There is something palpably odious about her personality. A pleasing contrast is formed by the pendant portraits of the awkward little soldier and his kitchen-sweetheart. This homely and wholesome couple one may meet any afternoon in Paris, on leave-of-absence days. Their portraits, and the delicious description of the children’s party, are evidently studies from life. With such vivid verisimilitude is the latter presented that one imagines, the day after reading the book, that he has been present at the pleasant function, and has admired the fluffy darlings, in their dainty costumes, with their chubby cavaliers.
It is barely fair to an author to give him the credit of knowing something about the proper relative proportions of his characters. And so, although Dr. Deberle is somewhat shadowy, he certainly serves the author’s purpose, and — well, Dr. Deberle is not the hero of “An Episode of Love.” Rambaud and the good Abbe Jouve are certainly strong enough. There seems to be a touch of Dickens about them.
Cities sometimes seem to be great organisms. Each has an individuality, a specific identity, so marked, and peculiarities so especially characteristic of itself, that one might almost allow it a soul. Down through the centuries has fair Lutetia come, growing in the artistic graces, until now she stands the playground of princes and the capital of the world, even as mighty Rome among the ancients. And shall we object, because a few pages of “A Love Episode” are devoted to descriptions of Paris? Rather let us be thankful for them. These descriptions of the wonderful old city form a glorious pentatych. They are invaluable to two classes of readers, those who have visited Paris and those who have not. To the former they recall the days in which the spirit of the French metropolis seemed to possess their being and to take them under its wondrous spell. To the latter they supply hints of the majesty and attractiveness of Paris, and give some inkling of its power to please. And Zola loved his Paris as a sailor loves the sea.
C. C. STARKWEATHER.
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