Read INTRODUCTION of Ten Tales, free online book, by Francois Coppee, on ReadCentral.com.

The conte is a form of fiction in which the French have always delighted and in which they have always excelled, from the days of the jongleurs and the trouvères, past the periods of La Fontaine and Voltaire, down to the present. The conte is a tale, something more than a sketch, it may be, and something less than a short story. In verse it is at times but a mere rhymed anecdote, or it may attain almost to the direct swiftness of a ballad. The Canterbury Tales are contes, most of them, if not all; and so are some of the Tales of a Wayside Inn. The free-and-easy tales of Prior were written in imitation of the French conte en vers; and that, likewise, was the model of more than one of the lively narrative poems of Mr. Austin Dobson.

No one has succeeded more abundantly in the conte en vers than M. Coppee. Where was there ever anything better of its kind than L’Enfant de la Balle? that gentle portrait of the Infant Phenomenon, framed in a chain of occasional gibes at the sordid ways of theatrical managers and at their hostility towards poetic plays. Where is there anything of a more simple pathos than L’Epave? that story of a sailor’s son whom the widowed mother strives vainly to keep from the cruel waves that killed his father. (It is worthy of a parenthesis that although the ship M. Coppee loves best is that which sails the blue shield of the City of Paris, he knows the sea also, and he depicts sailors with affectionate fidelity.) But whether at the sea-side by chance, or more often in the streets of the city, the poet seeks out for the subject of his story some incident of daily occurrence made significant by his interpretation; he chooses some character common-place enough, but made firmer by conflict with evil and by victory over self. Those whom he puts into his poems are still the humble, the forgotten, the neglected, the unknown; and it is the feelings and the struggles of these that he tells us, with no maudlin sentimentality, and with no dead set at our sensibilities. The sub-title Mrs. Stowe gave to Uncle Tom’s Cabin would serve to cover most of M. Coppee’s contes either in prose or verse; they are nearly all pictures of life among the lowly. But there is no forcing of the note in his painting of poverty and labor; there is no harsh juxtaposition of the blacks and the whites. The tone is always manly and wholesome.

La Marchande de Journaux and the other little masterpieces of story-telling in verse are unfortunately untranslatable, as are all poems but a lyric or two, now and then, by a happy accident. A translated poem is a boiled strawberry, as some one once put it brutally. But the tales which M. Coppee has written in prose a true poet’s prose, nervous, vigorous, flexible, and firm these can be Englished by taking thought and time and pains, without which a translation is always a betrayal. Ten of these tales have been rendered into English by Mr. Learned; and the ten chosen for translation are among the best of the two score and more of M. Coppee’s contes en prose. These ten tales are fairly representative of his range and variety. Compare, for example, the passion in “The Foster Sister,” pure, burning and fatal, with the Black Forest naïveté of “The Sabots of Little Wolff.” Contrast the touching pathos of “The Substitute,” poignant in his magnificent self-sacrifice, by which the man who has conquered his shameful past goes back willingly to the horrible life he has fled from that he may save from a like degradation and from an inevitable moral decay the one friend he has in the world, all unworthy as this friend is contrast this with the story of the gigantic deeds “My Friend Meurtrier” boasts about unceasingly, not knowing that he has been discovered in his little round of daily domestic duties, making the coffee of his good old mother and taking her poodle out for a walk.

Among these ten there are tales of all sorts, from the tragic adventure of “An Accident” to the pendent portraits of the “Two Clowns,” cutting in its sarcasm, but not bitter from “The Captain’s Vices,” which suggests at once George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Mr. Austin Dobson’s Tale of Polypheme, to the sombre revery of the poet “At Table,” a sudden and searching light cast on the labor and misery which underlies the luxury of our complex modern existence. Like “At Table,” “A Dramatic Funeral” is a picture more than it is a story; it is a marvellous reproduction of the factitious emotion of the good-natured stage folk, who are prone to overact even their own griefs and joys. “A Dramatic Funeral” seems to me always as though it might be a painting of M. Jean Beraud, that most Parisian of artists, just as certain stories of M. Guy de Maupassant inevitably suggest the bold freedom of M. Forain’s sketches in black-and-white.

An ardent admirer of the author of the stories in The Odd Number has protested to me that M. Coppee is not an etcher like M. de Maupassant, but rather a painter in water-colors. And why not? Thus might we call M. Alphonse Daudet an artist in pastels, so adroitly does he suggest the very bloom of color. No doubt M. Coppee’s contes have not the sharpness of M. de Maupassant’s, nor the brilliancy of M. Daudet’s but what of it? They have qualities of their own; they have sympathy, poetry, and a power of suggesting pictures not exceeded, I think, by those of either M. de Maupassant or M. Daudet. M. Coppee’s street views in Paris, his interiors, his impressionist sketches of life under the shadows of Notre Dame, are convincingly successful. They are intensely to be enjoyed by those of us who take the same keen delight in the varied phases of life in New York. They are not, to my mind, really rivalled either by those of M. de Maupassant, who is a Norman by birth and a nomad by choice, or by those of M. Daudet, who is a native of Provence, although now for thirty years a resident of Paris. M. Coppee is a Parisian from his youth up, and even in prose he is a poet; perhaps this is why his pictures of Paris are unsurpassable in their felicity and in their verity.

It may be fancy, but I seem to see also a finer morality in M. Coppee’s work than in M. de Maupassant’s or in M. Daudet’s or in that of almost any other of the Parisian story-tellers of to-day. In his tales we breathe a purer moral atmosphere, more wholesome and more bracing. It is not that M. Coppee probably thinks of ethics rather than aesthetics; in this respect his attitude is undoubtedly that of the others; there is no sermon in his song or at least none for those who will not seek it for themselves; there is never a hint of a preachment. But for all that I have found in his work a trace of the tonic morality which inheres in Moliere, for example, also a Parisian by birth, and also in Rabelais, despite his disguising grossness. This finer morality comes possibly from a wider and a deeper survey of the universe; and it is as different as possible from the morality which is externally applied and which always punishes the villain in the fifth act.

It is of good augury for our own letters that the best French fiction of to-day is getting itself translated in the United States, and that the liking for it is growing apace. Fiction is more consciously an art in France than anywhere else perhaps partly because the French are now foremost in nearly all forms of artistic endeavor. In the short story especially, in the tale, in the conte, their supremacy is incontestable; and their skill is shown and their aesthetic instinct exemplified partly in the sense of form, in the constructive method, which underlies the best short stories, however trifling these may appear to be, and partly in the rigorous suppression of non-essentials, due in a measure, it may be, to the example of Merimee. That is an example we in America may study to advantage; and from the men who are writing fiction in France we may gain much. From the British fiction of this last quarter of the nineteenth century little can be learned by any one less by us Americans in whom the English tradition is still dominant. When we look to France for an exemplar we may find a model of value, but when we copy an Englishman we are but echoing our own faults. “The truth is,” said Mr. Lowell in his memorable essay On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners “the truth is that we are worth nothing except so far as we have disinfected ourselves of Anglicism.”

BRANDER MATTHEWS.