James Huneker (essay date 1920)
[Huneker was a prominent American literary critic. In the following essay, he discusses Mirbeau's writings on literature, art, theater, and politics, as well as his fiction.]
Octave Mirbeau was a prodigious penman. When Remy de Gourmont called Paul Adam "a magnificent spectacle" he might have said with equal propriety the same of Mirbeau. A spectacle and a stirring one it is to watch the workings of a powerful, tumultuous brain such as Mirbeau's. He was a tempestuous force. His energy electric. He could have repeated the exclamation of Anacharsis Clootz: "I belong to the party of indignation!" His whole life Mirbeau was in a ferment of indignation over the injustice of life, of literature, of art. His friends say that he was not a revolutionist born; nevertheless, he ever seemed in a pugnacious mood, whether attacking society, the Government, the Institutes, the theatre, the army or religion. There is no doubt that certain temperaments are uneasy if not in opposition to existing institutions, and while his sincerity was indisputable—an imperious sincerity, a sincerity that was perilously nigh an obsession—Mirbeau seemed possessed by the mania of contradiction. After his affiliations with Jules Valles and the anarchistic group he was nicknamed "Mirabeau," and, indeed, there was in him much of the fiery and disputatious, though he never in oratory recalled the mighty revolutionist. Nevertheless, he was a prodigious penman.
He was born in Normandy, 1850 (Ernest Gaubert says 1848), the country of those two giants, Gustave Flaubert and Barbey d'Aurevilly. He died early in 1917. His Odyssey, apart from his writings, was not an exciting one. Well born and well educated, he took a violent dislike to his clerical instructors, and as may be noted in Sebastien Roch (1890), he suffered from the result of a shock to his sensibilities because of an outrageous occurrence in the course of his school years. He early went to Paris, like many another ambitious young man, and began as an artcritic, but his first article on Monet, Manet, and Cezanne was also his last in the journal l'Ordre; it created so much scandal by its attack on those mud-gods of art, Meissonier, Cabanel, Lefebvre and Bouguereau, that he was drafted into the dramatic department. There he did not last long. After a violent diatribe against the House of Moliere he found himself with several duels on his hands and enjoyed the distinction of a personal reply from Coquelin. He wrote for a little review Les Grimaces, and in 1891 defended Jean Grave's La Societe Mourante and composed a preface for that literary firebrand. He had dipped into the equivocal swamp of politics and had been a sous-prefet (at St. Girons, 1877), but the experience did not lend enchantment to his patriotism. He saw the inner machinery of a democracy greasy with corruption and it served him as material for his political polemics.
His first decade in Paris he wrote for such publications as Chroniques Parisiennes, La France, Gaulois, and Figaro. The entire gamut of criticism was achieved by him. He was fearless. His pen was vitriolic and also a sledgehammer. Like old Dr. Johnson, if his weapon missed fire he brained his adversary with its butt-end. A formidable antagonist, yet the obverse of his medal shows us a poet of abnormal sensibilities, a loather of all injustice, a Quixote tilting at genuine giants, not missing windmills; also a man of great literary endowment and achievement. His critics speak of a period of discouragement during which he smoked opium, though without ill consequences. His was not a passive temperament to endure inaction. Like others, he had perversely imitated Baudelaire and De Quincey, but soon gave up the attempt. A nature trembling on the verge of lytic pantheism and truculent satire, Mirbeau had a hard row to hoe, and it is gratifying to learn that as he conquered in his art so he conquered himself. He waged war against Octave Mirbeau to the last. And no wonder. He has written stories that would bring a crimson blush to the brow of Satan.
Turning the pages of the principal Paris reviews to which he copiously contributed we find him calling the financial press blackmailers; the law reporters "vermine judiciaire"; French journalism decidedly decadent: "The press kills literature, art, patriotism; it aggrandizes the shop and develops the shopkeeping spirit. It exalts the mediocre painters, sculptors, writers. Its criticism is venal." As for the theatre—from the frying-pan into the fire! The theatre is the prey of mediocrity, wherein Le Maitre de Forges is pronounced a masterpiece!
The comedians ("les tripots revenus; cabotinisme") of La Comedie Francaise come in for their share. Emile Zola, naturally enough, has his allegiance, but he dealt hard raps on the skulls of his followers, the Zolaettes, who hung on the fringe of the novelist's dressing-gown. He admired Barbey d'Aurevilly and Elemir Bourges, as well he might; he attacked Daudet, Paul Bourget, Ohnet, Legouve, Feuillet, Sarcey—dear old Uncle...
(The entire section is 2088 words.)