In this indiscriminate world there was no illuminating criticism, nothing but small talk, elegant or inelegant.
Then Durtal learned, also by experience, that one cannot associate with thieves without becoming either a thief or a dupe, and finally he broke off relations with his confreres.
He not only had no sympathy but no common topic of conversation with them. Formerly when he accepted naturalism—airtight and unsatisfactory as it was—he had been able to argue esthetics with them, but now!
“The point is,” Des Hermies was always telling him, “that there is a basic difference between you and the other realists, and no patched-up alliance could possibly be of long duration. You execrate the age and they worship it. There is the whole matter. You were fated some day to get away from this Americanized art and attempt to create something less vulgar, less miserably commonplace, and infuse a little spirituality into it.
“In all your books you have fallen on our fin de siecle—our queue du siecle—tooth and nail. But, Lord! a man soon gets tired of whacking something that doesn’t fight back but merely goes its own way repeating its offences. You needed to escape into another epoch and get your bearings while waiting for a congenial subject to present itself. That explains your spiritual disarray of the last few months and your immediate recovery as soon as you stumbled onto Giles de Rais.”
Des Hermies had diagnosed him accurately. The day on which Durtal had plunged into the frightful and delightful latter mediaeval age had been the dawn of a new existence. The flouting of his actual surroundings brought peace to Durtal’s soul, and he had completely reorganized his life, mentally cloistering himself, far from the furore of contemporary letters, in the chateau de Tiffauges with the monster Bluebeard, with whom he lived in perfect accord, even in mischievous amity.
Thus history had for Durtal supplanted the novel, whose forced banality, conventionality, and tidy structure of plot simply griped him. Yet history, too, was only a peg for a man of talent to hang style and ideas on, for events could not fail to be coloured by the temperament and distorted by the bias of the historian.
As for the documents and sources! Well attested as they might be, they were all subject to revision, even to contradiction by others exhumed later which were no less authentic than the first and which also but waited their turn to be refuted by newer discoveries.
In the present rage for grubbing around in dusty archives writing of history served as an outlet for the pedantry of the moles who reworked their mouldy findings and were duly rewarded by the Institute with medals and diplomas.
For Durtal history was, then, the most pretentious as it was the most infantile of deceptions. Old Clio ought to be represented with a sphinx’s head, mutton-chop whiskers, and one of those padded bonnets which babies wore to keep them from bashing their little brains out when they took a tumble.