Le Chemin mort (The Still Road)1

   The soul of a great writer outlives him through his works. Sometimes, mysteriously channeled through hidden conduits, some of it comes to live again in the spirit of one of his descendants, combining with other sources, and nourishes a new, totally different but equivalent work. In such a way, after Alphonse Daudet, his son Léon Daudet has become another writer of genius, another marvellous novelist, while the name of Daudet was carried on in exquisite and magisterial style by Mme Alphonse Daudet, the delightful poetess of Miroirs et mirages, Au bord des terrasses and L'Enfance d'une parisienne2. And here to the flourishing name of Daudet, ever renewed and varied through another branch, has been added, since yesterday, that of a fourth writer, M. Lucien Daudet, worthy of his father, his mother, his brother, yet totally original. In the exquisite and powerful book with which he makes his dazzling debut, we find, without doubt, many of Alphonse Daudet's qualities, ceaseless intelligence, prophetic observation, a sensibility that interpolates anew the foolishness of people and the sadness of circumstances and which electrifies, which "ozonizes" certain pages, so as to leave them as breathless and restless as a turbulent night. But for all that this book is from the son of Alphonse Daudet, Lucien Daudet would still have been able to write it without ever reading a single line of his father's, without even having ever known him: there is not a single trace or moment of pastiche. It is utterly original.
   This is a book that is not even composed like any other. No descriptions, yet not a single word that is not descriptive. Everything seems mutually incompatible, levity and profundity, with as much vivacity as gravity. If I really wanted to precede this book with the names of two masters of whom it might make us think, I would suggest Dickens and Whistler3. But, from one language to another, and from one art form to another, with no fear of imitation4.

   Many fashionable people who have not read Balzac and journalists who have not understood him have made the epithet "Balzacian" into a disgusting term of abuse, so that one hardly dare use it now. But, to those who know Balzac well, this epithet comes involuntarily to mind when we read Le Chemin mort, out of the first material details of glaring truth, equal to those Balzac uses to describe the life of his characters and that today allow us to reconstruct the costumes and the furnishings of the era.
   The woman who has just lost her husband, "enveloped and proud in the magnificence of her all-encompasing mourning"5, the "humiliating and disillusioning morning when the dark wood chest decorated with a bust of Dante was sold for forty francs", the "bamboo style" coat-stand, the "up-to-the-minute heels", the "futile and incongruous" instructions of the mother: "You will be very polite to your uncle, and don't hold your bowler hat behind your back, it makes you look so Whippersnapperish", the "much desired bellows case", and how many others that invest each object with mechanical grace and moral significance, making it already out of fashion and antiquated, by "artifying" it. What delightful turns of phrase: the child "fiercely proud to call himself Alain Malsort, without knowing why", but whose mother, through "fancy" calls "Ali"; the young friend who, talking about future plans, proudly declares to the others that he intended to "make himself a mendicant"; the red faced uncle with the broken nose and vulgar manners, "but whose rakish, jolly manner seemed to me at that time the height of outward displays of fortune"; the stingy and gluttonous old lady who had her own special Bordeaux, while her guests drank cheap wine, but who took it back from the butler in a pained voice to make it look as though it was some sort of medicine; the young pauper who does not have enough to buy bread and to whom a society gentleman, incapable of putting aside the conceptions and phraseology of his "class", asks "Are you free to dine this evening?" and who simply responds cheerfully to him with "a nice smile"; these and so many other profound insights, sometimes comic, more often painful, on that which, in human nature, is the most lasting and least immediately perceptible, attests that the author of Le Chemin mort has shown himself worthy of the author of Jack, as well as the authors of Journées de femmes, and Partage de l'enfant6.

Marc Eodonte7.

First publication: L'Intransigeant, 8 September 1908.

1. Le Chemin mort, novel by Lucien Daudet (1883 - 1946).

2. Mme Alphonse Daudet, née Allard (1847 - 1940), had published L'Enfance d'une parisienne (A Parisian woman's childhood) in 1883, Miroirs et mirages (Smoke and Mirrors) in 1905, and Au bord des terrasses (On the Edges of Balconies) in 1907.

3. Lucien Daudet had studied painting with Whistler as one of his teachers.

4. There is a discrepancy in the published texts at this point.
Essais et articles and Contre Sainte-Beuve: "Or, d'une langue à l'autre, pas d'imitation à redouter."
Textes retrouvés: "Or, d'une langue à l'autre et, d'un art à l'autre, pas d'imitation à redouter."
I have used the seemingly more accurate Textes retrouvés text.

5. All quotations, mostly faithful, are taken from the first twenty five pages of Le Chemin mort, except for the last two (the gluttonous lady and the young pauper) which are found on pages 173 and 95.

6. Jack, one of Alphonse Daudet's most famous novels, was published in 1876; Journées de femme (Feminine Days), by Julia Daudet in 1898; Partage de l'enfant (The Gift of the Child), by Léon Daudet in 1905.

7. The article is signed "Marc Eodonte", but almost certainly in error. It seems Proust was amusing himself by following his first name ("Marc El") with the name "Dante".


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