Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Short Stories > Notes on Novelists > MATILDE SERAO
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
 Few attentive readers, I take it, would deny that the English novelist—from whom, in this case, there happens to be even less occasion than usual for distinguishing the American—testifies in his art much more than his foreign comrade, from whatever quarter, to the rigour of convention. There are whole sides of life about which he has as little to say as possible, about which he observes indeed in general a silence that has visibly ended by becoming for the foreign comrade his great characteristic. He strikes the spectator as having with a misplaced humility consented once for all to be admonished as to what he shall or shall not “mention”—and to be admonished in especial by an authority altogether indefinite. He subscribes, when his turn comes round, to an agreement in the drawing-up of which he has had no hand; he sits down to his task with a certain received canon of the “proper” before his eyes. The critic I am supposing reproaches him, naturally, in this critic’s way, with a marked failure ever to challenge, much less to analyse, that conception; with having never, as would appear, so much as put to himself in regard to most of the matters of which he makes his mystery the simple question “Proper to what?” How can any authority, even the most embodied, asks the exponent of other views, decide for us in advance what shall in any case be proper—with the consequent implication of impropriety—to our given subject?  
The English novelist would, I imagine, even sometimes be led on to finding that he has practically had to meet such an overhauling by a further admission, though an admission still tacit and showing him not a little shy of the whole discussion—principles and formulas being in general, as we know, but little his affair. Would he not, if off his guard, have been in peril of lapsing into the doctrine—suicidal when reflected upon—that there may be also an a priori rule, a “Thou shalt not,” if not a “Thou shalt,” as to treatable subjects themselves? Then it would be that his alien foe might fairly revel in the sense of having him in a corner, laughing an evil laugh to hear him plead in explanation that it is exactly most as to the subject to be treated that he feels the need laid upon him to conform. What is he to do when he has an idea to embody, we might suspect him rashly to inquire, unless, frankly to ask himself in the first place of all if it be proper? Not indeed—we catch the reservation—that he is consciously often accessible to ideas for which that virtue may not be claimed. Naturally, however, still, such a plea only brings forth for his interlocutor a repetition of the original appeal: “Proper to what?” There is only one propriety the painter of life can ask of his morsel of material: Is it, or is it not, of the stuff of life? So, in simplified terms at any rate, I seem to hear the interchange; to which I need listen no longer than thus to have derived from it a word of support for my position. The question of our possible rejoinder to the scorn of societies otherwise affected I must leave for some other connection. The point is—if point I may expect to obtain any countenance to its being called—that, in spite of our great Dickens and, in a minor degree, of our great George Eliot, the limitations of our practice are elsewhere than among ourselves pretty well held to have put us out of court. The thing least conceded to us moreover is that we handle at all frankly—if we put forward such a claim—even our own subject-matter or in other words our own life. “Your own is all we want of you, all we should like to see. But that your system really touches your own is exactly what we deny. Never, never!” For what it really comes to is that practically we, of all people in the world, are accused of a system. Call this system a conspiracy of silence, and the whole charge is upon us.
The fact of the silence, whether or no of the system, is fortunately all that at present concerns us. Did this not happen to be the case nothing could be more interesting, I think, than to follow somewhat further several of the bearings of the matter, which would bring us face to face with some wonderful and, I hasten to add, by no means doubtless merely disconcerting truths about ourselves. It has been given us to read a good deal, in these latter days, about l’ame Fran?aise and l’ame Russe—and with the result, in all probability, of our being rather less than more penetrated with the desire, in emulation of these opportunities, to deliver ourselves upon the English or the American soul. There would appear to be nothing we are totally conscious of that we are less eager to reduce to the mere expressible, to hand over to publicity, current journalistic prose aiding, than either of these fine essence; and yet incontestably there are neighbourhoods in which we feel ourselves within scent and reach of them by something of the same sense that in thick forests serves the hunter of great game. He may not quite touch the precious presence, but he knows when it is near. So somehow we know that the “Anglo-Saxon” soul, the modern at least, is not far off when we frankly consider the practice of our race—comparatively recent though it be—in taking for granted the “innocence” of literature.
Our perhaps a trifle witless way of expressing our conception of this innocence and our desire for it is, characteristically enough, by taking refuge in another vagueness, by invoking the allowances that we understand works of imagination and of criticism to make to the “young.” I know not whether it has ever officially been stated for us that, given the young, given literature, and given, under stress, the need of sacrificing one or the other party, it is not certainly by our sense of “style” that our choice would be determined: no great art in the reading of signs and symptoms is at all events required for a view of our probable instinct in such a case. That instinct, however, has too many deep things in it to be briefly or easily disposed of, and there would be no greater mistake than to attempt too simple an account of it. The account most likely to be given by a completely detached critic would be that we are as a race better equipped for action than for thought, and that to let the art of expression go by the board is through that very fact to point to the limits of what we mostly have to express. If we accept such a report we shall do so, I think, rather from a strong than from a weak sense of what may easily be made of it; but I glance at these things only as at objects almost too flooded with light, and come back after my parenthesis to what more immediately concerns me: the plain reflection that, if the elements of compromise—compromise with fifty of the “facts of life”—be the common feature of the novel of English speech, so it is mainly indebted for this character to the sex comparatively without a feeling for logic.
Nothing is at any rate a priori more natural than to trace a connection between our general mildness, as it may conveniently be called, and the fact that we are likewise so generally feminine. Is the English novel “proper” because it is so much written by women, or is it only so much written by women because its propriety has been so firmly established? The intimate relation is on either determination all that is here pertinent—effect and cause may be left to themselves. What is further pertinent, as happens, is that on a near view the relation is not constant; by which I mean that, though the ladies are always productive, the fashion of mildness is not always the same. Convention in short has its ups and downs, and these votaries have of late years, I think, been as often seen weltering in the hollow of the wave as borne aloft on its crest. Some of them may even be held positively to have distinguished themselves most—whether or no in veils of anonymity—on the occasion of the downward movement; making us really wonder if their number might not fairly, under any steadier force of such a movement, be counted on to increase. All sorts of inquiries are suggested in truth by the sight. “Emancipations” are in the air, and may it not possibly be that we shall see two of the most striking coincide? If convention has, to the tune to which I just invited an ear, blighted our fiction, what shall we say of its admitted, its still more deprecated and in so many quarters even deplored, effect upon the great body under the special patronage of which the “output” has none the less insisted on becoming incomparably copious? Since the general inaptitude of women appears by this time triumphantly to have been proved an assumption particularly hollow, despoiled more and more each day of the last tatters of its credit, why should not the new force thus liberated really, in the connection I indicate, give something of its measure?
It is at any rate keeping within bounds to say that the novel will surely not become less free in proportion as the condition of women becomes more easy. It is more or less in deference to their constant concern with it that we have seen it, among ourselves, pick its steps so carefully; but there are indications that the future may reserve us the surprise of having to thank the very class whose supposed sensibilities have most oppressed us for teaching it not only a longer stride, but a healthy indifference to an occasional splash. It is for instance only of quite recent years that the type of fiction commonly identified as the “sexual” has achieved—for purposes of reference, so far as notices in newspapers may be held to constitute reference—a salience variously estimated. Now therefore, though it is early to say that all “imaginative work” from the female hand is subject to this description, there is assuredly none markedly so subject that is not from the female hand. The female mind has in fact throughout the competition carried off the prize in the familiar game, known to us all from childhood’s hour, of playing at “grown-up;” finding thus its opportunity, with no small acuteness, in the more and more marked tendency of the mind of the other gender to revert, alike in the grave and the gay, to those simplicities which there would appear to be some warrant for pronouncing puerile. It is the ladies in a word who have lately done most to remind us of man’s relations with himself, that is with woman. His relations with the pistol, the pirate, the police, the wild and the tame beast—are not these prevailingly what the gentlemen have given us? And does not the difference sufficiently point my moral?
Let me, however, not seem to have gone too far afield to seek it; for my reflections—general perhaps to excess—closely connect themselves with a subject to which they are quite ready to yield in interest. I have lately been giving a happy extension to an old acquaintance, dating from early in the eighties, with the striking romantic work of Matilde Serao; a writer who, apart from other successes, has the excellent effect, the sign of the stronger few, that the end of her story is, for her reader, never the end of her work. On thus recently returning to her I have found in her something much more to my present purpose than the mere appearance of power and ease. If she is interesting largely because she is, in the light of her free, her extraordinary Neapolitan temperament, a vivid painter and a rich register of sensations and impressions, she is still more so as an exceptionally compact and suggestive case, a case exempt from interference and presenting itself with a beautiful unconsciousness. She has had the good fortune—if it be, after all, not the ill—to develop in an air in which convention, in our invidious sense, has had as little to say to her as possible; and she is accordingly a precious example of the possibilities of free exercise. The questions of the proper and the improper are comfortably far from her; and though more than in the line of her sisters of English speech she may have to reckon with prescriptions as to form—a burden at which in truth she snaps her fingers with an approach to impertinence—she moves in a circle practically void of all pre-judgment as to subject and matter. Conscious enough, doubtless, of a literary law to be offended, and caring little in fact, I repeat—for it is her weakness—what wrong it may suffer, she has not even the agreeable incentive of an ability to calculate the “moral” shocks she may administer.
Practically chartered then she is further happy—since they both minister to ease—in two substantial facts: she is a daughter of the veritable south and a product of the contemporary newspaper. A Neapolitan by birth and a journalist by circumstance, by marriage and in some degree doubtless also by inclination, she strikes for us from the first the note of facility and spontaneity and the note of initiation and practice. Concerned, through her husband, in the conduct of a Neapolitan morning paper, of a large circulation and a radical colour, she has, as I infer, produced her novels and tales mainly in such snatches of time and of inspiration as have been left her by urgent day-to-day journalism. They distinctly betray, throughout, the conditions of their birth—so little are they to the literary sense children of maturity and leisure. On the question of style in a foreign writer it takes many contributive lights to make us sure of our ground; but I feel myself on the safe side in conceiving that this lady, full of perception and vibration, can not only not figure as a purist, but must be supposed throughout, in spite of an explosive eloquence, to pretend but little to distinction of form: which for an Italian is a much graver predicament than for one of our shapeless selves. That, however, would perhaps pass for a small quarrel with a writer, or rather with a talker and—for it is what one must most insist on—a feeler, of Matilde Serao’s remarkable spontaneity. Her Neapolitan nature is by itself a value, to whatever literary lapses it may minister. A torch kindled at that flame can be but freely waved, and our author’s arm has a fine action. Loud, loquacious, abundant, natural, happy, with luxurious insistences on the handsome, the costly and the fleshly, the fine persons and fine clothes of her characters, their satin and velvet, their bracelets, rings, white waistcoats, general appointments and bedroom furniture, with almost as many repetitions and as free a tongue, in short, as Juliet’s nurse, she reflects at every turn the wonderful mixture that surrounds her—the beauty, the misery, the history, the light and noise and dust, the prolonged paganism and the renewed reactions, the great style of the distant and the past and the generally compromised state of the immediate and the near. These things were all in the germ for the reader of her earlier novels—they have since only gathered volume and assurance—so that I well remember the impression made on me, when the book was new (my copy, apparently of the first edition, bears the date of 1885), by the rare energy, the immense disinvoltura, of “La Conquista di Roma.” This was my introduction to the author, in consequence of which I immediately read “Fantasia” and the “Vita e Avventure di Riccardo Joanna,” with some smaller pieces; after which, interrupted but not detached, I knew nothing more till, in the course of time, I renewed acquaintance on the ground of “Il Paese di Cuccagna,” then, however, no longer in its first freshness. That work set me straightway to reading everything else I could lay hands on, and I think therefore that, save “Il Ventre di Napoli” and two or three quite recent productions that I have not met, there is nothing from our author that I have not mastered. Such as I find her in everything, she remains above all things the signal “case.”
If, however, she appears, as I am bound to note, not to have kept the full promise of her early energy, this is because it has suited her to move less in the direction—where so much might have awaited her—of “Riccardo Joanna” and “La Conquista” than in that, on the whole less happily symptomatic, of “Fantasia.” “Fantasia” is, before all else, a study of “passion,” or rather of the intenser form of that mystery which the Italian passione better expresses; and I hasten to confess that had she not so marked herself an exponent of this specialty I should probably not now be writing of her. I conceive none the less that it would have been open to her to favour more that side of her great talent of which the so powerful “Paese di Cuccagna” is the strongest example. There is by good fortune in this large miscellaneous picture of Neapolitan life no passione save that of the observer curiously and pityingly intent upon it, that of the artist resolute at any cost to embrace and reproduce it. Admirab............
Join or Log In! You need to log in to continue reading

Login into Your Account

  Remember me on this computer.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved