Denis Diderot’s first venture into fiction was a mildly spicy fantasy called Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748; The Indiscreet Toys, 1749), which he published anonymously in 1748 in hope of alleviating his financial problems. At about the same time, and probably for the same pecuniary reason, he wrote his first short story. It was in similar naughty-fantastic vein and was called “L’Oiseau blanc” (the white bird). That story was not published in his lifetime, and it is too superficial and derivative in both content and technique to reveal anything about Diderot’s development as a short-story writer. It is only worth mentioning as a reminder that, for Diderot, telling stories was a constant literary impulse and that he made no real distinction between novels and short stories. Indeed, it is notable that, in all of his novel-length fictions and in a number of his personal letters, there are digressive passages in which a complete tale of some kind is told; some of these tales have been detached from their original source and published separately as short stories. Quite a substantial volume could be composed of such digressions and labeled Diderot’s short stories, but, in fact, there are only five texts, all composed between 1770 and 1773, which were never intended to be part of anything else and which constitute Diderot’s contribution to the art of the short story.
“The Two Friends from Bourbonne”
The first of the five, “The Two Friends from Bourbonne,” is a tale about the nature of friendship, set in a small town near Diderot’s birthplace. In its earliest version, set down in 1769 or 1770, it was a brief exemplary tale intended as a criticism of a story set in America, which idealized friendship by means of an exotic fable about the Iroquois and which was written by a contemporary of his, Jean-Francois, Marquis de Saint-Lambert. Diderot pointedly detailed a case of friendship between two very ordinary people, living simple lives in a familiar setting and in present time, as a contrast to Saint-Lambert’s remote fantasy. The early version ended with the death of one of the friends, but eventually an account of what happened thereafter to the other friend was added, together with a sort of epilogue on the poetics of the short story which has made “The Two Friends from Bourbonne” a particularly celebrated and influential text. The story itself is simple and directly told: The two friends are actually cousins, Olivier and Félix, born the same day, in the same house, to two sisters. One sister dies in childbirth, and the two boys are reared together by the other sister, so that their close relationship is a matter of daily routine, unmarked by self-conscious heroics and constituting a part of their nature. They do everything together and even fall in love at the same time with the same girl. To resolve that problem, Félix withdraws in favor of Olivier and, without quite understanding his own emotions, chooses to leave respectable society and becomes a smuggler. Arrested and on the point of being hanged for his crimes, Félix is rescued in a daring gesture by Olivier and escapes to freedom, although Olivier is mortally wounded in the event. The adventures of Félix, as a hunted criminal after his friend’s death, are varied and harrowing, but their constant focus is Félix’s unremitting effort to give financial aid to Olivier’s widow and children. At the story’s conclusion, the narrator informs the reader that Félix is still alive at the time of writing but living in exile, serving in the Prussian military. The narrative style is remarkable for its spareness and rapidity. No physical descriptions of people or of places interrupt the account of events, which is given in short, precise, and generally unadorned sentences. The direct and unemotional style is intended to underline both the drama of the events and their authentic immediacy, based as they are on real events and people known to Diderot.
The famous epilogue on poetics, abruptly intruded into “The Two Friends from Bourbonne” after the narrative concludes, makes two main points: First, if one distinguishes three main types of tale (larger-than-life, wholly fantastic, and historical), then this one belongs to the historical category; and second, the historical type can only succeed if it overcomes the central contradiction of its requirements, which are that it be credibly true-to-life and at the same time emotionally captivating. Diderot suggests that the best means of overcoming this contradiction is for the artist to lard his narrative, at every step, with small circumstantial details which are exactly observed and which therefore blend the note of authenticity into the very texture of the narrator’s rhetorical art designed to captivate. This device of the systematic accumulation of realistic details is, indeed, the fundamental technique at work in “The Two Friends...
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