Oscar Wilde – The Quality of George Meredith

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Ah!  Meredith!  Who can define him?  His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning.  As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything except articulate.  Somebody in Shakespeare—Touchstone, I think—talks about a man who is always breaking his shins over his own wit, and it seems to me that this might serve as the basis for a criticism of Meredith’s method.  But whatever he is, he is not a realist.  Or rather I would say that he is a child of realism who is not on speaking terms with his father.  By deliberate choice he has made himself a romanticist.  He has refused to bow the knee to Baal, and after all, even if the man’s fine spirit did not revolt against the noisy assertions of realism, his style would be quite sufficient of itself to keep life at a respectful distance.  By its means he has planted round his garden a hedge full of thorns, and red with wonderful roses.  As for Balzac, he was a most remarkable combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit.  The latter he bequeathed to his disciples.  The former was entirely his own.  The difference between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality.  ‘All Balzac’s characters;’ said Baudelaire, ‘are gifted with the same ardour of life that animated himself.  All his fictions are as deeply coloured as dreams.  Each mind is a weapon loaded to the muzzle with will.  The very scullions have genius.’  A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades.  His characters have a kind of fervent fiery-coloured existence.  They dominate us, and defy scepticism.  One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempré.  It is a grief from which I have never been able completely to rid myself.  It haunts me in my moments of pleasure.  I remember it when I laugh.  But Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was.  He created life, he did not copy it.  I admit, however, that he set far too high a value on modernity of form, and that, consequently, there is no book of his that, as an artistic masterpiece, can rank with Salammbô or Esmond, or The Cloister and the Hearth, or the Vicomte de Bragelonne.—The Decay of Lying.

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