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THE NATIONAL REVIEW.
Art. I.-EDMOND ABOUT.
Ouvrages de M. About. Paris : Hachette, 1860.
La Nouvelle Carte d' Europe. Paris : Dentu, 1860. ' M. ABOUT is one of the cleverest of living Frenchmen. Perhaps, in his own way, he has no rival. No one in this generation has come so near the sprightliness, the worldly shrewdness, and the drollery of Voltaire. There are many passages in his tales which, without giving any painful sense of direct imitation, are almost to be ranked with Candide and L’Ingénu. Like Voltaire, M. About charms us not by direct sallies of witty writing so much as by happy turns of language and a certain well-bred impertinence of style. Like Voltaire, he has the art of treating impossible and fantastic incidents as if they were probable, and of carrying us along with a narrative that we laugh at ourselves for admitting as credible. He has the genius of dramatic construction, which enables Frenchmen alone of all people in the world to make any number of good acting plays out of the most miserable materials. Like Voltaire, too, he is fond of applying his sense and his wit to the questions of the day, and of treating political problems with that suggestive lightness which sometimes seems to open veins of rich and available thought, and sometimes invests the most serious affairs of life with an atmosphere of mockery. Unlike Voltaire, however, he never trades on the public appetite for polished licentiousness, and his books are unsoiled with any thing like coarseness. The day is also past in France when Scripture characters were considered to have principally existed that they might provide food for a neat
No. XXI. JULY 1860.
persiflage. : Qf..course Frenchmen will be French, and M. About is not' a devout Catholic; but his works contain little that need shock the legitimate susceptibility of a Protestant family. They are therefore well worth reading; for the language is excellent. They are very amusing, they are flavoured with too strong a common sense to be merely funny, and they illustrate a considerable section of the thoughts and feelings of modern France.
M. About's books, which are now growing tolerably numerous, may be divided into three classes. There are his lighter novels, which are pure romances of society, and which are telling because they are so well constructed and so admirably written ; there are his more serious stories, and the books in which he has described his views on pictures and on the scenes through which he has travelled; and lastly, there are the two studies of current political topics, which he has published in the last year. We propose to say a few words on each of these classes of his works, to notice briefly their contents, and in some measure indicate what we think to be their value. But our object is to remind our readers what M. About has written, rather than to give any account of his works that could be thought to supersede a perusal of them. Where so much of the excellence of the composition depends on how the things are said, and not on what is said, the only way is to go to the books themselves. An abridgment of Candide would be a very dull and unsatisfactory substitute for the Candide of Voltaire.
The Roi des Montagnes is, we think, indisputably the best of M. About's lighter novels. It exhibits much more strikingly than any other his power of making the impossible probable, and of surprising us with the audacity and felicity of the language in which the fun and gaiety of the story are clothed. Many of our readers will remember that this king of the mountains is a brigand-chief named Hadji-Stavros, who is supposed to haunt the neighbourhood of Athens; that a young German and an English lady and her daughter fall into his clutches, whence the ladies are rescued by giving an order for their ransom on a banking-house in which the mamma is a partner, and where the brigand has fortunately an equal sum lodged; and that the German is rescued by an American, who first seizes on the brigand's daughter as a hostage, and then appears on the mountains with a revolver. The scenes that grow out of these incidents are in the highest degree comical. All is farce, and often the farce is sufficiently broad; but the language has a sustained counterfeit of gravity that gives the fun that quiet air which is necessary to make fun really enjoyable. The relations of Hadji-Stavros to the Greek government are the