Now I have a French friend, Henri, one of those annoying Frenchmen who talk English much better than I do, and Henri, for some extraordinary reason, had seen my review. He has to live in London now, but his heart is in Paris; and I imagine that every word of his beloved language which appears, however casually, in an English paper mysteriously catches his eye and brings the scent and sounds of the boulevards to him across the coffee-cups. So, the next time I met him, he shook me warmly by the hand, and told me how glad he was that I was an admirer of Antoine Vaurelle’s novels.
“Who isn’t?” I said with a shrug, and, to get the conversation on to safer ground, I added hastily that in some ways I almost liked “Consolatrice” best.
He shook my hand again. So did he. A great book.
“But of course,” he said, “one must read it in the original French. It is the book of all others which loses by translation.”
“Of course,” I agreed. Really, I don’t see what else I could have done.
“Do you remember that wonderful phrase—” and he rattled it off. “Magnificent, is it not?”
“Magnificent,” I said, remembering an appointment instead. “Well, I must be getting on. Good-bye.” And, as I walked off, I patted my forehead with my handkerchief and wondered why the day had grown so warm suddenly.
However the next day was even warmer. Henri came to see me with a book under his arm. We all have one special book of our own which we recommend to our acquaintances, regarding the love of it as perhaps the best passport to our friendship. This was Henri’s. He was about to test me. I had read and admired his favourite Vaurelle—in the original French. Would I love his darling Laforgue? My reputation as a man, as a writer, as a critic, depended on it. He handed me the book—in French.
“It is all there,” he said reverently, as he gave it to me. “All your English masters, they all come from him. Perhaps, most of all, your —— But you shall tell me when you have read it. You shall tell me whom most you seem to see there. Your Meredith? Your Shaw? Your —— But you shall tell me.”
“I will tell you,” I said faintly.
And I’ve got to tell him.
Don’t think that I shall have any difficulty in reading the book. Glancing through it just now I came across this:—
“‘Kate, avez-vous soupe avant le spectacle?’
‘Non, je n’avais guere le coeur a manger.’”
Well, that’s easy enough. But I doubt if it is one of the most characteristic passages. It doesn’t give you a clue to Laforgue’s manner, any more than “‘Must I sit here, mother?’ ’Yes, without a doubt you must,’” tells you all that you want to know about Meredith. There’s more in it than that.
And I’ve got to tell him.
But fancy holding forth on an author’s style after reading him laboriously with a dictionary!