WHEN you go to buy this odd little yellow-bound book — at least my copy is bound in yellow—called MARIE-CLAIRE, the bookseller will tell you that all Europe has been “raving” about it. If you borrow it from a friend he will undoubtedly tell you the same thing, and when you look on the paper wrapper of the volume you will see that for once the publisher’s statements and the statements of disinterested readers, are in harmony. Even the publishers cannot exaggerate the good things which are being said of this book.
This, of course, does not mean that you or I are bound to find it just as good. Sometimes it is good not to be in the fashion with the rest of the world when it comes to approving or condemning a book, as for instance in the case of “The Rosary,” that most successful piece of seventeen-year-old sentimental squash that we have seen in a long time. But with “Marie-Claire” it is perfectly safe to be . fashionable. One does not need to know of Arnold Bennett’s approval, nor of the ♦approval of Paris, or London or anybody else. Having read the book one feels soberly grateful to it for the refreshment it has given one and for the delicate way in which it has cleared the cobwebs away from some of the ideals we used to have when we were children, but which have been getting sadly soiled in the last few years.
A French seamstress wrote it. Her name is Marguerite Audoux. The book is simply the story of her own life from her very earliest childhood to the time when she steps on board a train to come to Paris. As Arnold Bennett says, it is “The exquisite expression of a temperament—a
divine accident.” As somebody else says, it is written with the “wistful tenderness of a little child, it enthralls the imagination by the sheer force of personality and sincerity.” It won a prize from the French literary high-brows as the best book of fiction published in French during the year. John Raphael has translated it into English. It is to the translation that this comment refers.
It is not a problem novel. It is not— well, it is like no other book one has ever read unless, in its simplicity, it might be said to resemble some of the Bible stories. It has the beauty of a straight line or a perfect circle, or of a drop of water falling, or snow flake. The man who reads it and whose mind is open to see its beauty, cannot but lay the book down—almost with reverence. For it makes intelligible to the masculine mind little things about women that are not often understood. There is scarcely any “sex interest” in it at all, and yet it is not a Sir Galahad affair nor a St. Agnes Eve reverie. There is no ranting about “My strength being as the strength of ten because my heart is,” etc., and no saintly repudiation of love with the usual accompaniment of tears and martyrdom. It is merely the story of a perfectly human woman—not “brainy,” not “stupid,” merely lovely.
It starts with a little five-year-old girl whose mother has just died. The father is a drunkard. For a time he supports the child, and her elder sister, with an old French woman, la mere Colas. La mere Colas is poor and when the father goes off and deserts the children she is compelled to send them, in the bottom of an old hay cart, to an orphanage conducted by the nuns.
At five years of age the little girl goes into the institution and is separated from lier sister—not that that makes any difference, but that is the end of the sister until alie turns up, for a moment in the end of the book,, a hard-faced woman, married to a market gardener.
If any but a genius were telling the story you would not give two pins to know what follows. But Marguerite Audoux has a way of telling the little things that went on in the orphanage, that is fascinating. In her dormitory was a little dwarf girl called Ismerie, another child called Renaud, a servant girl called something else and the presiding nun. Each one of these has her little touch of character, pathetic or funny, or both.
Sister Gabrielle has a way of mixing the salad for the children by plunging her arms into the great stone jar in which it was made. She also kept a few birch switches for the children. Then came Sister Marie-Aimee, who was more clean and more kind. Sister Marie-Aimee took a fancy to the five-year-old and dubbed her Marie-Claire, hence the name of the book.
Sister Marie-Aimee has a sad little affair with a new cure, nothing definite, but she felt very badly when the cure died. Then there was a big cripple girl “Colette,” who had a wonderful voice and who wanted ¡to be mended in order that she might run away and find someone to marry her. The innocence of the thing is paramount. The little girls like Colette because she is a cripple and because she has a beautiful voice in which she sings to the children when they are at their regular work of cracking nuts—which, by the way, they are never allowed to eat— and with which she joins in mass in the chapel every day. Marie-Claire, with eight other little orphans, decide to prav for the recovery of Colette. Thev pray for nine days and during that time Colette fasts. On the ninth day, being communion, she goes to the altar, and in her faith, hands her crutch to the little girls to take away, so confident is she 'that when she rises from her knees she will be able to walk. But when she finally tries —you have the end of this little convent tragedy. She cannot walk.
But to try and tell these things about the book is not fair to the book. It is pre-
sumptuous on our part because it is liable to prejudice the reader against the story.
“The origins of this extraordinary book,” says Mr. Arnold Bennett in his introduction to it, “are sufficiently curious and interesting to be dealt with in detail. They go back to some ten years ago, when the author, after the rustic adventures which she describes in the following pages, had definitely settled in Paris as a working sempstress. The existence of a working sempstress in Paris, as elsewhere, is very hard; it usually means eleven hours’ close application a day, six full days a week, at half a crown a day. But already Marguerite Audoux’s defective eyesight was causing anxiety, and upsetting the regularity of her work, so that in the evenings she was often less fatigued than a sempstress generally is. She wanted distraction, and she found it in the realization of an old desire to write. She wrote, not because she could find nothing else to cto, but because at last the chance of writing had come. That she had always loved reading is plain from certain incidents in this present book ; her opportunities for reading, however, had been limited. She now began, in a tentative and perhaps desultory fashion, to set down her youthful reminiscences. About this time she became acquainted, through one of its members, and by one of those hazards of destiny which too rarely diversify the dull industrial life of a city, with a circle of young literary men, of whom possibly the most important was the regretted Charles Louis Philippe, author of “Bubu de Montparnasse,” and other novels which have a genuine reputation among the chosen people who know the difference between literature and its counterfeit. This circle of friends used to meet at Philippe’s flat. It included a number of talented writers, among whom I should mention MM. Iéhl (the author of “Cauet”), Francis Jourdain, Paul Fargue, Larbaud, Chauvin, Marcel Ray, and Regis Gignoux (the literary and dramatic critic). Marguerite Audoux was not introduced as a literary prodigy. Nobody, indeed, was aware that she wrote. She came on her merits as an individuality, and she took her place beside sveral other women who, like herself, had no literary pretensions. I am told by one of the intimates of the fellowship that the impression she made was profound.
And the fact is indubitable that her friends. are at least as enthusiastic about her individuality as about this book which she has written. She was a little over thirty, and very pretty, with an agreeable voice. The sobriety of her charm, the clear depth of her emotional faculty, and the breadth of her gentle interest in human nature handsomely conquered the entire fellowship. The working sempstress was sincerely esteemed by some of the brightest masculine intellects in Paris.
“This admiring appreciation naturally encouraged her to speak a little of herself. And one evening she confessed that she, too, had been trying to write. On another evening she brought some sheets of manuscript—the draft of the early chapters of “Marie-Claire”—and read them aloud. She read, I am told, very well. The reception was enthusiastic. One can imagine the ecstatic fervor of these young men, startled by the apparition of such a shining talent. She must continue the writing of her book, but in the meantime she must produce some short stories and sketches for the daily papers! Her gift must be presented to the public instantly ! She followed the advice thus urgently offered, and several members of the circle (in particular Regis Gignoux and Marcel Ray) gave themselves up to the business of placing the stories and sketches; Marcel Ray devoted whole days to the effort, obtaining special leave from his own duties in order to do so. In the result several stories and sketches appeared in the Matin, Paris Journal (respectively the least and the most literary of Paris morning papers), and other organs. These stories, and sketches, by the way, were republished in a small volume, some time before “Marie-Claire,” and attracted no general attention whatever.
“Meanwhile the more important work proceeded, slowly; and was at length finished. Its composition stretched over a period of six years. Marguerite Audoux never hurried or fatigued herself, and though she re-wrote many passages several times, she did not carry this revision to the meticulous excess which is the ruin of so many ardent literary beginners in France. The trite phrase, “written with blood and tears,” does not in the least apply here. A native wisdom has invariably saved Marguerite Audoux from the dan-
gerous extreme. In his preface to the original French edition, M. Octave Mirbeau appositely points out that Philippe and her other friends abstained from giving purely literary advice to the authoress as her book grew and was read aloud. With the insight of artists they percejved that hers was a talent which must be strictly let alone. But Parisian rumor has alleged, not merely that she was advised, but that she was actually helped in the writing by her admirers. The rumor is worse than false—it is silly. Every paragraph oi the work bears the unmistakable and inimitable work of one individuality. And among the friends of Marguerite Audoux, even the most gifted, there is none who could possibly have composed any of the passages which have been singled out as being beyond the accomplishment of a working sempstress. The whole work and every part of the work is the unassisted and untutored production of its author. This statement cannot be too clearly and positively made. Doubtless the spelling was drastically corrected by the proof-readers; but to have one’-s. spelling drastically corrected is an experience which occurs to nearly all women writers, and to a few male writers.
The book completed, the question of its proper flotation arose. I use the word “flotation” with intent. Although Marguerite Audoux had originally no thought of publishing, her friends were firmly bent not simply on publishing, but on publishing with the maximum of eclat. A great name was necessary to the success of the enterprise, a name which, while keeping the sympathy of the artists, would impose itself on the crowd. Francis Jourdain knew Octave Mirbeau. And Octave Mirbeau, by virtue of his feverish artistic and moral enthusiasm, of his notorious, generosity, and of his enormous vogue, was obviously the heaven-appointed man. Francis Jourdain went to Octave Mirbeau and offered him the privilege of floating “Marie-Claire” on the literary market of Paris. Octave Mirbeau accepted, and he went to work on the business as he goes to work on all bis business; that is to say, with flames and lightnings. For some time Octave Mirbeau lived for nothing but “Marie-Claire.” The result has been vastly creditable to him. “MarieClaire” was finally launched in splendour.
its path hod been prepared with really remurkable skill in the Press and in the world, and it was an exceedingly brilliant success from the start. It ran a triumphant course as a serial in one of the “great reviews,” and within a few weeks of its publication as a book thirty thousand copies liad been sold. The sale continues more actively than ever. Marguerite Audoux lives precisely as she lived before. She is writing a further instalment of her pseudonymous autobiography, and there is no apparent reason why this new instalment should not be even better than the first.
“Such is the story of the book.
“My task is not to criticise the work. I will only say this. In my opinion it is nighly distinguished of its kind (the second part in particular is full of marvellous beauty) ; but it must be accepted for what it is. It makes no sort of pretence to display those constructive and inventive artifices which are indispensable to a great masterpiece of impersonal fiction. It is not fiction. It is the exquisite expression of a temperament. It is a divine accident,”
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