The Counterfeiters III : Edouard Explains His Theory of the Novel

Notwithstanding first appearances, and though each of them did his best, Uncle Edouard and Bernard were only getting on together fairly well. Laura was not feeling satisfied, either. How should she be? Circumstances had forced her to assume a part for which she was not fitted; her respectability made her feel uncomfortable in it. Like those loving and docile creatures who make the most devoted wives, she had need of the proprieties to lean on, and felt herself without strength now that she was without the frame of her proper surroundings. Her situation as regards Edouard seemed to her more and more false every day. What she suffered from most and what she found unendurable, if she let her mind dwell on it, was the thought that she was living at the expense of this protector—or rather that she was giving him nothing in exchange—or more exactly, that Edouard asked nothing of her in exchange, while she herself felt ready to give him everything. “Benefits,” says Tacitus, through the mouth of Montaigne, “are only agreeable as long as one can repay them”; no doubt this is only true of noble souls, but without question Laura was one of these. She, who would have liked to give, was on the contrary continually receiving, and this irritated her against Edouard. Moreover when she went over the past in her mind, it seemed to her that Edouard had deluded her by awakening a love in her which she still felt strong within her and then by evading this love and leaving it without an object. Was not that the secret motive of her errors—of her marriage with Douviers, to which she had resigned herself, to which Edouard had led her—and then of her yielding so soon after to the solicitations of the springtime? For she must needs admit it to herself, in Vincent’s arms it was still Edouard that she sought. And as she could not understand her lover’s coldness, she accused herself of being responsible for it, and imagined that she might have vanquished him, had she had more beauty or more boldness; and as she could not succeed in hating him, it was herself she upbraided and depreciated, denying herself all value, and refusing to allow herself any reason for existing or the possession of any virtue.

Let us add further that this camping-out style of life, necessitated by the arrangement of the rooms, though it might seem amusing to her companions, hurt her delicacy in many sensitive places. And she could see no issue to the situation, which yet was one it would be difficult to prolong.

The only scrap of comfort and joy Laura was able to find in her present life, was by inventing for herself the duties of godmother or elder sister towards Bernard. The worship of a youth so charming touched her; the adoration he paid her prevented her from slipping down that slope of self-contempt and loathing which may lead even the most irresolute creature to the extremest resolutions. Bernard, every morning that he was not called off before daybreak by an expedition into the mountains (for he loved early rising), used to spend two good hours with her reading English. The examination he was going up for in October was a convenient excuse.

It cannot be said that his secretarial duties took up much of his time. They were ill-defined. When Bernard undertook them he imagined himself already seated at a desk, writing from Edouard’s dictation, or copying out his manuscripts. Now Edouard never dictated, and his manuscripts, such as they were, remained at the bottom of his trunk; Bernard was free every hour of the day; but it only lay with Edouard to make more calls upon Bernard, who was most anxious to have his zeal made use of, so that Bernard was not particularly distressed by his want of occupation, or by the feeling that he was not earning his living—which, thanks to Edouard’s munificence, was a very comfortable one. He was quite determined not to let himself be embarrassed by scruples. He believed, I dare not say in Providence, but at any rate in his star, and that a certain amount of happiness was due to him, as the air is to the lungs which breathe it; Edouard was its dispenser in the same way as the sacred orator, according to Bossuet, is the dispenser of divine wisdom. Moreover Bernard considered the present state of affairs as merely temporary, and was convinced that some day he would be able to acquit his debt, as soon as he could bring to the mint the uncoined riches whose abundance he felt in his heart. What vexed him more was that Edouard made no demand upon certain gifts which he felt within himself and which it seemed to him Edouard lacked. “He doesn’t know how to make use of me,” thought Bernard, who thereupon checked his self-conceit and wisely added: ‘Worse luck!”

But then what was the reason of this uncomfortable feeling between Edouard and Bernard? Bernard seems to me to be one of those people who find their self-assurance in opposition. He could not endure that Edouard should have any ascendancy over him and, rather than yield to his influence, rebelled against it. Edouard, who never dreamed of coercing him, was alternately vexed and grieved to feel him so restive and so constantly on the alert to defend—or, at any rate, to protect—himself. He came to the pitch of doubting whether he had not committed an act of folly in taking away with him these two beings, whom he seemed only to have united in order that they should league together against him. Incapable of penetrating Laura’s secret sentiments, he took her reserve and her reticence for coldness. It would have made him exceedingly uncomfortable if he had been able to see more clearly; and Laura understood this; so that her unrequited love spent all its strength in keeping hidden and silent.

Tea-time found them as a rule all assembled in the big sitting-room; it often happened that, at their invitation, Mme. Sophroniska joined them, generally on the days when Boris and Bronja were out walking. She left them very free in spite of their youthfulness; she had perfect confidence in Bronja and knew that she was very prudent, especially with Boris, who was always particularly amenable with her. The country was quite safe; for of course there was no question of their adventuring on to the mountains, or even of their climbing the rocks near the hotel. One day when the two children had obtained leave to go to the foot of the glacier, on condition they did not leave the road, Mme. Sophroniska, who had been invited to tea, was emboldened, with Bernard’s and Laura’s encouragement, to beg Edouard to tell them about his next novel—that is, if he had no objection.

“None at all; but I can’t tell you its story.”

And yet he seemed almost to lose his temper when Laura asked him (evidently a tactless question) what the book would be like?

“Nothing!” he exclaimed; then, immediately and as if he had only been waiting for this provocation: “What is the use of doing over again what other people have done already, or what I myself have done already, or what other people might do?”

Edouard had no sooner uttered these words than he felt how improper, how outrageous and how absurd they were; at any rate they seemed to him improper and absurd; or he was afraid that this was how they would strike Bernard.

Edouard was very sensitive. As soon as he began talking of his work, and especially when other people made him talk of it, he seemed to lose his head.

He had the most perfect contempt for the usual fatuity of authors; he snuffed out his own as well as he could; but he was not unwilling to seek a reinforcement of his modesty in other people’s consideration; if this consideration failed him, modesty immediately went by the board. He attached extreme importance to Bernard’s esteem. Was it with a view to conquering this that, when Bernard was with him, he set his Pegasus prancing? It was the worst way possible. Edouard knew it; he said so to himself over and over again; but in spite of all his resolutions, as soon as he was in Bernard’s company, he behaved quite differently from what he wished, and spoke in a manner which immediately appeared absurd to him (and which indeed was so). This might almost make one suppose that he loved Bernard?… No; I think not. But a little vanity is quite as effectual in making us pose as a great deal of love.

“Is it because the novel, of all literary genres, is the freest, the most lawless,” held forth Edouard, “… is it for that very reason, for fear of that very liberty (the artists who are always sighing after liberty are often the most bewildered when they get it), that the novel has always clung to reality with such timidity? And I am not speaking only of the French novel. It is the same with the English novel; and the Russian novel, for all its throwing off of constraints, is a slave to resemblance. The only progress it looks to is to get still nearer to nature. The novel has never known that ‘formidable erosion of contours,’ as Nietzsche calls it; that deliberate avoidance of life, which gave style to the works of the Greek dramatists, for instance, or to the tragedies of the French XVIIth century. Is there anything more perfectly and deeply human than these works? But that’s just it—they are human only in their depths; they don’t pride themselves on appearing so—or, at any rate, on appearing real. They remain works of art.”

Edouard had got up, and for fear of seeming to give a lecture, began to pour out the tea as he spoke; then he moved up and down, then squeezed a lemon into his cup, but, nevertheless, continued speaking:

“Because Balzac was a genius, and because every genius seems to bring to his art a final and conclusive solution, it has been decreed that the proper function of the novel is to rival the état-civil.1 Balzac constructed his work; he never claimed to codify the novel; his article on Stendhal proves it. Rival the état-civil! As if there weren’t enough fools and boors in the world as it is! What have I to do with the état-civil? L’état c’est moi! I, the artist; civil or not, my work doesn’t pretend to rival anything.”

Edouard, who was getting excited—a little factitiously, perhaps—sat down. He affected not to look at Bernard; but it was for him that he was speaking. If he had been alone with him, he would not have been able to say a word; he was grateful to the two women for setting him on.

“Sometimes it seems to me there is nothing in all literature I admire so much as, for instance, the discussion between Mithridate and his two sons in Racine; it’s a scene in which the characters speak in a way we know perfectly well no father and no sons could ever have spoken in, and yet (I ought to say for that very reason) it’s a scene in which all fathers and all sons can see themselves. By localizing and specifying one restricts. It is true that there is no psychological truth unless it be particular; but on the other hand there is no art unless it be general. The whole problem lies just in that—how to express the general by the particular—how to make the particular express the general. May I light my pipe?”

“Do, do,” said Sophroniska.

“Well, I should like a novel which should be at the same time as true and as far from reality, as particular and at the same time as general, as human and as fictitious as Athalie, or Tartuffe or Cinna.”

“And … the subject of this novel?”

“It hasn’t got one,” answered Edouard brusquely, “and perhaps that’s the most astonishing thing about it. My novel hasn’t got a subject. Yes, I know, it sounds stupid. Let’s say, if you prefer it, it hasn’t got one subject … ‘a slice of life,’ the naturalist school said. The great defect of that school is that it always cuts its slice in the same direction; in time, lengthwise. Why not in breadth? Or in depth? As for me I should like not to cut at all. Please understand; I should like to put everything into my novel. I don’t want any cut of the scissors to limit its substance at one point rather than at another. For more than a year now that I have been working at it, nothing happens to me that I don’t put into it—everything I see, everything I know, everything that other people’s lives and my own teach me.… ”

“And the whole thing stylized into art?” said Sophroniska, feigning the most lively attention, but no doubt a little ironically. Laura could not suppress a smile. Edouard shrugged his shoulders slightly and went on:

“And even that isn’t what I want to do. What I want is to represent reality on the one hand, and on the other that effort to stylize it into art of which I have just been speaking.”

“My poor dear friend, you will make your readers die of boredom,” said Laura; as she could no longer hide her smile, she had made up her mind to laugh outright.

“Not at all. In order to arrive at this effect—do you follow me?—I invent the character of a novelist, whom I make my central figure; and the subject of the book, if you must have one, is just that very struggle between what reality offers him and what he himself desires to make of it.”

“Yes, yes; I’m beginning to see,” said Sophroniska politely, though Laura’s laugh was very near conquering her. “But you know it’s always dangerous to represent intellectuals in novels. The public is bored by them; one only manages to make them say absurdities and they give an air of abstraction to everything they touch.”

“And then I see exactly what will happen,” cried Laura; “in this novelist of yours you won’t be able to help painting yourself.”

She had lately adopted in talking to Edouard a jeering tone which astonished herself and upset Edouard all the more that he saw a reflection of it in Bernard’s mocking eyes. Edouard protested:

“No, no. I shall take care to make him very disagreeable.”

Laura was fairly started.

“That’s just it; everybody will recognize you,” she said, bursting into such hearty laughter that the others were caught by its infection.

“And is the plan of the book made up?” enquired Sophroniska, trying to regain her seriousness.

“Of course not.”

“What do you mean? Of course not!”

“You ought to understand that it’s essentially out of the question for a book of this kind to have a plan. Everything would be falsified if anything were settled beforehand. I wait for reality to dictate to me.”

“But I thought you wanted to abandon reality.”

“My novelist wants to abandon it; but I shall continually bring him back to it. In fact that will be the subject; the struggle between the facts presented by reality and the ideal reality.”

The illogical nature of his remarks was flagrant—painfully obvious to everyone. It was clear that Edouard housed in his brain two incompatible requirements and that he was wearing himself out in the desire to reconcile them.

“Have you got on far with it?” asked Sophroniska politely.

“It depends on what you mean by far. To tell the truth, of the actual book not a line has been written. But I have worked at it a great deal. I think of it every day and incessantly. I work at it in a very odd manner, as I’ll tell you. Day by day in a note-book, I note the state of the novel in my mind; yes, it’s a kind of diary that I keep as one might do of a child.… That is to say, that instead of contenting myself with resolving each difficulty as it presents itself (and every work of art is only the sum or the product of the solutions of a quantity of small difficulties), I set forth each of these difficulties and study it. My note-book contains, as it were, a running criticism of my novel—or rather of the novel in general. Just think how interesting such a note-book kept by Dickens or Balzac would be; if we had the diary of the Education Sentimentale or of The Brothers Karamazof!—the story of the work—of its gestation! How thrilling it would be … more interesting than the work itself.… ”

Edouard vaguely hoped that someone would ask him to read these notes. But not one of the three showed the slightest curiosity. Instead:

“My poor friend,” said Laura, with a touch of sadness, “it’s quite clear that you’ll never write this novel of yours.”

“Well, let me tell you,” cried Edouard impetuously, “that I don’t care. Yes, if I don’t succeed in writing the book, it’ll be because the history of the book will have interested me more than the book itself—taken the book’s place; and it’ll be a very good thing.”

“Aren’t you afraid, when you abandon reality in this way, of losing yourself in regions of deadly abstraction and of making a novel about ideas instead of about human beings?” asked Sophroniska kindly.

“And even so!” cried Edouard with redoubled energy. “Must we condemn the novel of ideas because of the groping and stumbling of the incapable people who have tried their hands at it? Up till now we have been given nothing but novels with a purpose parading as novels of ideas. But that’s not it at all, as you may imagine. Ideas … ideas, I must confess, interest me more than men—interest me more than anything. They live; they fight; they perish like men. Of course it may be said that our only knowledge of them is through men, just as our only knowledge of the wind is through the reeds that it bends; but all the same the wind is of more importance than the reeds.”

“The wind exists independently of the reed,” ventured Bernard. His intervention made Edouard, who had long been waiting for it, start afresh with renewed spirit:

“Yes, I know; ideas exist only because of men; but that’s what’s so pathetic; they live at their expense.”

Bernard had listened to all this with great attention; he was full of scepticism and very near taking Edouard for a mere dreamer; but during the last few moments he had been touched by his eloquence and had felt his mind waver in its breath; “But,” thought Bernard, “the reed lifts its head again as soon as the wind has passed.” He remembered what he had been taught at school—that man is swayed by his passions and not by ideas. In the mean time Edouard was going on:

“What I should like to do is something like the art of fugue writing. And I can’t see why what was possible in music should be impossible in literature.… ”

To which Sophroniska rejoined that music is a mathematical art, and moreover that Bach, by dealing only with figures and by banishing all pathos and all humanity, had achieved an abstract chef d’œuvre of boredom, a kind of astronomical temple, open only to the few rare initiated. Edouard at once protested that, for his part, he thought the temple admirable, and considered it the apex and crowning point of all Bach’s career.

“After which,” added Laura, “people were cured of the fugue for a long time to come. Human emotion, when it could no longer inhabit it, sought a dwelling place elsewhere.”

The discussion tailed off in an unprofitable argument. Bernard, who until then had kept silent, but who was beginning to fidget on his chair, at last could bear it no longer; with extreme, even exaggerated deference, as was his habit whenever he spoke to Edouard, but with a kind of sprightliness, which seemed to make a jest of his deference:

“Forgive me, sir,” said he, “for knowing the title of your book, since I learnt it through my own indiscretion—which however you have been kind enough to pass over. But the title seemed to me to announce a story.”

“Oh, tell us what the title is!” said Laura.

“Certainly, my dear Laura, if you wish it.… But I warn you that I may possibly change it. I am afraid it’s rather deceptive.… Well, tell it them, Bernard.”

“May I?… The Counterfeiters,” said Bernard. “But now you tell us—who are these Counterfeiters?”

“Oh dear! I don’t know,” said Edouard.

Bernard and Laura looked at each other and then looked at Sophroniska. There was a long sigh; I think it was drawn by Laura.

In reality, Edouard had in the first place been thinking of certain of his fellow novelists when he began to think of The Counterfeiters, and in particular of the Comte de Passavant. But this attribution had been considerably widened; according as the wind blew from Rome or from elsewhere, his heroes became in turn either priests or free-masons. If he allowed his mind to follow its bent, it soon tumbled headlong into abstractions, where it was as comfortable as a fish in water. Ideas of exchange, of depreciation, of inflation, etc., gradually invaded his book (like the theory of clothes in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus) and usurped the place of the characters. As it was impossible for Edouard to speak of this, he kept silent in the most awkward manner, and his silence, which seemed like an admission of penury, began to make the other three very uncomfortable.

“Has it ever happened to you to hold a counterfeit coin in your hands?” he asked at last.

“Yes,” said Bernard; but the two women’s “No” drowned his voice.

“Well, imagine a false ten-franc gold piece. In reality it’s not worth two sous. But it will be worth ten francs as long as no one recognizes it to be false. So if I start from the idea that …”

“But why start from an idea?” interrupted Bernard impatiently. “If you were to start from a fact and make a good exposition of it, the idea would come of its own accord to inhabit it. If I were writing The Counterfeiters I should begin by showing the counterfeit coin—the little ten-franc piece you were speaking of just now.”

So saying, he pulled out of his pocket a small coin, which he flung on to the table.

“Just hear how true it rings. Almost the same sound as the real one. One would swear it was gold. I was taken in by it this morning, just as the grocer who passed it on to me had been taken in himself, he told me. It isn’t quite the same weight, I think; but it has the brightness and the sound of a real piece; it is coated with gold, so that, all the same, it is worth a little more than two sous; but it’s made of glass. It’ll wear transparent. No; don’t rub it; you’ll spoil it. One can almost see through it, as it is.”

Edouard had seized it and was considering it with the utmost curiosity.

“But where did the grocer get it from?”

“He didn’t know. He thinks he has had it in his drawer some days. He amused himself by passing it off on me to see whether I should be taken in. Upon my word, I was just going to accept it! But as he’s an honest man, he undeceived me; then he let me have it for five francs. He wanted to keep it to show to what he calls ‘amateurs.’ I thought there couldn’t be a better one than the author of The Counterfeiters; and it was to show you that I took it. But now that you have examined it, give it back to me! I’m sorry that the reality doesn’t interest you.”

“Yes, it does”; said Edouard, “but it disturbs me too.”

“That’s a pity,” rejoined Bernard.


Tuesday evening.—Sophroniska, Bernard and Laura have been questioning me about my novel. Why did I let myself go to speak of it? I said nothing but stupidities. Interrupted fortunately by the return of the two children. They were red and out of breath, as if they had been running. As soon as she came in Bronja fell into her mother’s arms; I thought she was going to burst into sobs.

“Mamma!” she cried, “do scold Boris. He wanted to undress and lie down in the snow without any clothes on.”

Sophroniska looked at Boris, who was standing in the doorway, his head down, his eyes with a look in them of almost hatred; she seemed not to notice the little boy’s strange expression, but with admirable calm:

“Listen, Boris,” she said. “That’s a thing you mustn’t do in the evening. If you like we’ll go there to-morrow morning; first of all you must begin with bare feet …”

She was gently stroking her daughter’s forehead; but the little girl suddenly fell on the ground and began rolling about in convulsions. It was rather alarming. Sophroniska lifted her and laid her on the sofa. Boris stood motionless, watching the scene with a dazed, bewildered expression.

Sophroniska’s methods of education seem to me excellent in theory, but perhaps she miscalculates the children’s powers of resistance.

“You behave,” said I, when I was alone with her a little later (after the evening meal I had gone to enquire after Bronja, who was too unwell to come downstairs), “as if good were always sure to triumph over evil.”

“It is true,” she said, “I firmly believe that good must triumph. I have confidence.”

“And yet, through excess of confidence you might make a mistake.… ”

“Every time I have made a mistake, it has been because my confidence was not great enough. To-day, when I allowed the children to go out, I couldn’t help showing them I was a little uneasy. They felt it. All the rest followed from that.”

She had taken my hand.

“You don’t seem to believe in the virtue of convictions.… I mean in their power as an active principle.”

“You are right,” I said laughing. “I am not a mystic.”

“Well, as for me,” she cried in an admirable burst of enthusiasm, “I believe with my whole soul that without mysticism nothing great, nothing fine can be accomplished in this world.”

Discovered the name of Victor Strouvilhou in the visitors’ book. From what the hotel-keeper says, he must have left Saas-Fée two days before our arrival, after staying here nearly a month. I should have been curious to see him again. No doubt Sophroniska talked to him. I must ask her about him.

1 The state records of each individual citizen, in which are noted the legal facts of his existence.