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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. Of 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 groundwork of this fun. This brigand-chief is not only a popular hero, but a recognised ally of the government, having control of many members of the legislative body,
and a good understanding with half the officers of the army. The contrast between western notions of a government and the Greek government, as represented by M. About, is the main source of our mirth. The position of a robber infinitely respected and much liked, with a regular band of soldiers, a daughter at a boarding-school, and a good balance at his banker's, and occupying a stronghold close to the capital, seems ludicrously incredible, until the good-humoured simplicity and cheerful truthfulness of the story gradually persuades us to accept HadjiStavros as the most natural and probable person in the world.
The young German, who tells the tale, hears of HadjiStavros before he sees him: and thus the opportunity is given for a sketch of the hero's career, The master of the house where the German lodges, in Athens, is prevailed on to narrate what he knows of the past life of the man whom he, in common with nine-tenths of the Athenians, sincerely reveres. No Greek, in fact, objects very much, says M. About, to a Greek robbing him: “Un Grec dépouillé par ses frères se dit avec une certaine résignation que son argent ne sort pas de famille.” Of course there is an attitude of protest preserved, but the protest is of the feeblest kind. The native moralists complain of robbers as a father complains of the follies of his son. He scolds aloud, but loves the boy all the better secretly, and would be very sorry his lad should resemble " le fils du voisin, qui n'a jamais fait parler de lui.” There was therefore no reason, in public opinion, why the Athenian should not tell the story of Hadji-Stavros without unfriendly criticism. Hadji- Stavros, he said, was the son of a priest of the isle of Tino. He was born Heaven knows in what year: the Greeks of the good old time never knew their age, for registers “are an invention of the period of decadence.” He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and on his return was taken by a pirate and forced to turn sailor: “it was thus he began to make war on the vessels of the Turks, and generally on all those that had no cannons on board.” At last he determined to set up for himself, and the beginning of the Greek insurrection afforded him an opening. “He never exactly knew whether he was a brigand or an insurgent, nor whether he was in command of robbers or partisans. All money was good in his eyes, whether it came from friends or enemies, from simple theft or glorious pillage.” At this epoch every thing Greek, and HadjiStavros among the rest, was looked at en beau. “ Lord Byron dedicated an ode to him, and the poets and rhetoricians of Paris compared him to Epaminondas, et même à ce pauvre Aristide.” But a great misfortune overtook him. Peace was made, and he heard dimly whispered such ominous words as a government, an army, and public security. He laughed heartily when informed that his property was comprised in a sous-préfecture, but he became serious when the tax-gatherer appeared. He kicked that functionary from his door, and retired to the mountains; and thinking the proper time was come, he determined to marry. He married' “ a rich heiress of one of the best families of Laconia,” but his wife died after presenting him with a daughter. Thenceforth he only lived for this child; and in order to give her a royal dowry, he “studied the question of money, learnt to specu. late, watched the rise and fall of the funds, and made his band of robbers into a joint-stock company.” He travelled widely; and it was during
a stay in England that the sight of an election for a rotten borough in Yorkshire “ inspired him with profound reflections on the nature and advantages of constitutional government.” He came back determined to work the institutions of his country to his profit. “ He burnt a fair quantity of villages to please the Opposition, and then destroyed as many in the interest of the Conservative party.” At last his influence was so great that he had thirty deputies who were his passive tools. A celebrated minister considered it worth while to buy him once for all with a magnificent offer. They met in a most friendly way, and the minister offered him a full amnesty for him and his, a brevet of general of division, the title of senator, and ten thousand hectares of forest-land as a free gift. The brigand hesitated, but at last refused. “It is too late," he said, “ for me, at my age, to change my way of living. I should go to sleep in the Senate, and should be apt, from mere force of habit, to shoot my
soldiers if I saw them in the uniform I have so often attacked.”
The character of Hadji-Stavros is well kept up throughout the book, and he has a wild and savage nobleness, and assumes a comic air of superiority to every thing else in Greece, which warms our sympathies as we go on.
He reaches his climax in a passage in which he sketches an ideal of brigandage, which old age alone prevents him from realising. “I would give much," he says, “ to be young once more, and to be only fifty years old. I dream of a new organisation of brigandage, without disorder, turbulence, or noise; but I bave no one to second me. I should like to have an exact census of all the inhabitants of the kingdom, with an approximative estimate of all their property, movable and immovable. A recognised agent at each port would inform me of the intended route, and, so far as possible, of the fortune, of every traveller who landed; and thus I should know what each person ought to give me, and I should not be liable to ask too much or too little. I would establish