to boast of having, indeed, created local colour. “But,” said he, “the process was so simple, so easy, that I came at last to doubt the value of local colour itself, and forgave Racine for having clothed with civilisation the savage heroes of Sophocles and Euripides.”
Toward the end of his life, he avoided resolutely the acceptance of all theories; they were, in his opinion, good only to work on the credulity of philosophers and as a means of livelihood for professors. He accepted and repeated only anecdotes and small facts of observation in philology; for instance, the exact date when one ceases to meet in Old French the two cases derived from the Latin declension. By dint of his craving for certainty, knowledge came to be to him but a withered plant, a stalk devoid of blossoms. In no other way can we explain the lifelessness of his historical essays, Don Pedro, The Cossacks, The False Demetrius, The Social War, The Conspiracy of Catiline, studies vigorous, exhaustive, well-maintained and well-developed, but whose characters are not alive, probably because he did not care to give them life. For in another work, The Experiments of an Adventurer, he has caused the sap to return to the plant, so that it may be seen successively under its two aspects, dull and rigid in the historical herbarium, fresh and green in the work of art. In placing his Spaniards of the nineteenth century as the contemporaries of Sylla in this herbarium, they were as clearly seen by his inner vision, no doubt, as was his adventurer; at any rate, this would have been no more of a tax upon his mental retina. He was reluctant, however, to permit us to see them thus, conceding only facts which could bear the test of proof, refusing to give his own assumptions rather than authentic occurrences, critical to the impairment of his own work, severe to the point of suppressing the best part of himself, and of placing his imagination under the ban.
In his artistic works the critic still rules, but in this case his office is usually one of service, to control and to direct his talent like a spring which is confined within a pipe that it may gush forth in a stream slender and compressed. Certain gifts were his by nature which no amount of application can bestow, and which were never possessed by his master, Stendhal—the talent for scenic effect, for dialogue, for humorous situations. He knew the art of introducing two characters, and by their conversation alone of bringing them in strong relief before the vision of the reader. Like Stendhal, moreover, he understood personal peculiarities, and was a skilful story-teller. These clever powers he subjected to a severe training, and, by a double strain, endeavoured to compel them to yield the best results from the smallest material.
From the very first he had delighted in the Spanish drama, which is overflowing with vigour and action; and he borrowed a number of its situations to compose, under a fictitious name, some short pieces of deep purport and modern significance; and, a thing unique in the history of literature, many of these imitations—The Crisis and Perichole, for example—are superior to his original stories. Nowhere else do the characters stand out so distinctly and so energetically as in his comedies. In The Conspirators, and in The Two Heirs, each personage, according to Goethe, resembles one of those perfect watches of transparent crystal, in the face of which is visible, not only the exact time, but also the action of the entire interior mechanism. All the minutest details are burdened with significance.
It is the attribute of great masters of painting in five or six strokes of the crayon to sketch in a face which, once seen, can never be forgotten. Even in his less popular comedies—for example, in The Spaniards in Denmark—there are characters, like the Lieutenant Charles Leblanc and his mother, the spy, who will remain forever in the human memory.
If, indeed, so confirmed a sceptic had deigned to have any moral sensibility, he would have explained, I fancy, that to a good judge of mankind every individual is reduced to three or four essential qualities, which manifest themselves completely in a few significant actions; all else is but acquired, and therefore unimportant, to exhibit which is but a waste of time. Intelligent readers will take this for granted, and it is for intelligent readers only that one should write. Leave idle chatter to chatterers; deal with vital points only, and these exemplify by none but convincing actions. To condense, to curtail, to summarise life, is the purpose of art.
Such, at any rate, was his, which he realises even better in his romances than in his comedies, where the requirements of stage effect and of humorous situations can not fail to exaggerate incidents, to caricature truth, and to conceal behind a theatrical mask the living face. The novelist, less hampered by restrictions and with wider resources at his command, may draw his characters with a more accurate and also a freer hand. Many of these novels are masterpieces, and we may believe that they will continue in the future to be held as classics.
For this assumption there are several reasons: In the first place, they have lived already for thirty or forty years, and Carmen, The Taking of the Redoubt, Colomba, Matteo Falcone, The Abbé Aubain, Arsène Guillot, The Venus of Ille, The Game of Backgammon, Tamango, even The Etruscan Vase, and The Double Mistake, are almost all little structures that stand now as firmly as the day they were erected. This is explained by the fact that they are built of carefully selected stone, not of stucco and other popular materials. Here we find none of those descriptions which pass out of fashion after half a century, and which to-day we consider so tiresome in the romances of Walter Scott; we see none of those reflections, disquisitions, interpretations, which we think so tedious in the novels of Fielding; nothing but action, and action never fails to be instructive. This is all the more striking inasmuch as important action only is introduced, intelligible alike to readers of another country and another century. In the works of Balzac and of Dickens, where this precaution was not observed, many minute details of local or technical significance will be lost, like a plastered wall which crumbles away, or they will be serviceable only to commentators in their commentaries.
A second reason for their endurance is the brevity of these romances, the longest of them consuming but half a volume, while one is but six pages. All, however, stand out clearly and are carefully developed, the interest centred around a single action and a single purpose. Now we must consider posterity in the light that we do a foreigner, in that it does not exercise the forbearance of contemporary readers, and that it does not tolerate tediousness; for how many persons to-day will submit to the eight volumes of Clarissa Harlowe? We must remember, in short, that human attention overtaxed ends invariably in bankruptcy; it is prudent, therefore, when after a century its consideration is still sought, to speak in language concise, clear, and open.
It is wise, moreover, in addressing posterity to choose interesting subjects and to treat them in an interesting way. Interesting subjects: that would exclude events essentially tame or commonplace, characters essentially colourless or ordinary. To treat these in an interesting way: which means situations and passions of sufficient vitality, after the lapse of a century, to have them serve actual conditions. The types chosen by Mérimée were sincere, strong, and original. We may compare them to medallions of durable metal, in bold relief, set in an appropriate frame