A ring of the doorbell interrupted Durtal’s perusal of his notes. Des Hermies entered.
“I have just seen Carhaix. He is ill,” he said.
“That so? What seems to be the matter?”
“Nothing very serious. A slight attack of bronchitis. He’ll be up in a few days if he will consent to keep quiet.”
“I must go see him tomorrow,” said Durtal.
“And what are you doing?” enquired Des Hermies. “Working hard?”
“Why, yes. I am digging into the trial of the noble baron de Rais. It will be as tedious to read as to write!”
“And you don’t know yet when you will finish your volume?”
“No,” answered Durtal, stretching. “As a matter of fact I wish it might never be finished. What will become of me when it is? I’ll have to look around for another subject, and, when I find one, do all the drudgery of planning and then getting the introductory chapter written—the mean part of any literary work is getting started. I shall pass mortal hours doing nothing. Really, when I think it over, literature has only one excuse for existing; it saves the person who makes it from the disgustingness of life.”
“And, charitably, it lessens the distress of us few who still love art.”
“And the number keeps diminishing. The new generation no longer interests itself in anything except gambling and jockeys.”
“Yes, you’re quite right. The men can’t spare from gambling the time to read, so it is only the society women who buy books and pass judgment on them. It is to The Lady, as Schopenhauer called her, to the little goose, as I should characterize her, that we are indebted for these shoals of lukewarm and mucilaginous novels which nowadays get puffed.”
“You think, then, that we are in for a pretty literature. Naturally you can’t please women by enunciating vigorous ideas in a crisp style.”
“But,” Durtal went on, after a silence, “it is perhaps best that the case should be as it is. The rare artists who remain have no business to be thinking about the public. The artist lives and works far from the drawing-room, far from the clamour of the little fellows who fix up the custom-made literature. The only legitimate source of vexation to an author is to see his work, when printed, exposed to the contaminating curiosity of the crowd.”
“That is,” said Des Hermies, “a veritable prostitution. To advertise a thing for sale is to accept the degrading familiarities of the first comer.”
“But our impenitent pride—and also our need of the miserable sous—make it impossible for us to keep our manuscripts sheltered from the asses. Art ought to be—like one’s beloved—out of reach, out of the world. Art and prayer are the only decent ejaculations of the soul. So when one of my books appears, I let go of it with horror. I get as far as possible from the environment in which it may be supposed to circulate. I care very little about a book of mine until years afterward, when it has disappeared from all the shop windows and is out of print. Briefly, I am in no hurry to finish the history of Gilles de Rais, which, unfortunately, is getting finished in spite of me. I don’t give a damn how it is received.”