I hope that the life of Léon Cladel by his daughter Judith, which Lemerre has brought out in a pleasant volume, will do something for the fame of one of the most original writers of our time.1 Cladel had the good fortune to be recognised in his lifetime by those whose approval mattered most, beginning with Baudelaire, who discovered him before he had printed his first book, and helped to teach him the craft of letters. But so exceptional an artist could never be popular, though he worked in living stuff and put the whole savour of his countryside into his tragic and passionate stories. A peasant, who writes about peasants and poor people, with a curiosity of style which not only packs his vocabulary with difficult words, old or local, and with unheard of rhythms, chosen to give voice to some never yet articulated emotion, but which drives him into oddities of printing, of punctuation, of the very shape of his accents! A page of Cladel has a certain visible uncouthness, and at first this seems in keeping with his matter; but the uncouthness, when you look into it, turns out to be itself a refinement, and what has seemed a confused whirl, an improvisation, to be the result really of reiterated labour, whose whole aim has been to bring the spontaneity of the first impulse back into the laboriously finished work.

In this just, sensitive, and admirable book, written by one who has inherited a not less passionate curiosity about life, but with more patience in waiting upon it, watching it, noting its surprises, we have a simple and sufficient commentary upon the books and upon the man. The narrative has warmth and reserve, and is at once tender and clear-sighted. J’entrevois nettement, she says with truth,

combien seront précieux pour les futurs historiens de la littérature du XIXe siècle, les mémoires tracés au contact immédiat de l’artiste, exposés de ses faits et gestes particuliers, de ses origines, de la germination de ses croyances et de son talent; ses critiques à venir y trouveront de solides matériaux, ses admirateurs un aliment à leur piété et les philosophes un des aspects de l’Âme française.*

The man is shown to us, ‘les élans de cette âme toujours grondante et fulgurante comme une forge, et les nuances de ce fiévreux visage d’apôtre, brun, fin et sinueux’, and we see the inevitable growth, out of the hard soil of Quercy and out of the fertilising contact of Paris and Baudelaire, of this whole literature, these books no less astonishing than their titles, Ompdrailles-le-Tombeau-des-Lutteurs, Celui de la Croix-aux-Boeufs, La Fête Votive de Saint-Bartholomée-Porte-Glaive. The very titles are an excitement. I can remember how mysterious and alluring they used to seem to me when I first saw them on the cover of what was perhaps his best book, Les Va-Nu-Pieds.

It is by one of the stories, and the shortest, in Les Va-Nu-Pieds, that I remember Cladel. I read it when I was a boy, and I cannot think of it now without a shiver. It is called L’Hercule, and it is about a Sandow of the streets,2 a professional strong man, who kills himself by an overstrain; it is not a story at all, it is the record of an incident, and there is only the strong man in it and his friend the zany, who makes the jokes while the strong man juggles with bars and cannon-balls. It is all told in a breath, without a pause, as if someone who had just seen it poured it out in a flood of hot words. Such vehemence, such pity, such a sense of the cruelty of the spectacle of a man driven to death like a beast, for a few pence and the pleasure of a few children; such an evocation of the sun and the streets and this sordid tragic thing happening to the sound of drum and cymbals; such a vision in sunlight of a barbarous and ridiculous and horrible accident, lifted by the telling of it into a new and unforgettable beauty, I have never felt or seen in any other story of a like grotesque tragedy. It realises an ideal, it does for once what many artists have tried and failed to do; it wrings the last drop of agony out of that subject which it is so easy to make pathetic and effective. Dickens could not have done it, Bret Harte could not have done it,3 Kipling could not do it: Cladel did it only once, with this perfection.

Something like it he did over and over again, with unflagging vehemence, with splendid variations, in stories of peasants and wrestlers and thieves and prostitutes. They are all, as his daughter says, epic; she calls them Homeric, but there is none of the Homeric simplicity in this tumult of coloured and clotted speech, in which the language is tortured to make it speak. The comparison with Rabelais is nearer. La recherche du terme vivant, sa mise en valeur et en saveur, la surabondance des vocables puisés à toutes sources … la condensation de l’action autour de ces quelques motifs éternels de l’épopée: combat, ripaille, palabre et luxure, there, as she sees justly, are links with Rabelais. Goncourt, himself always aiming at an impossible closeness of written to spoken speech, noted with admiration ‘la vraie photographie de la parole avec ses tours, ses abbreviations, ses ellipses, son essoufflement presque.’§ Speech out of breath, this is what Cladel’s is always; his words, never the likely ones, do not so much speak as cry, gesticulate, overtake one another. L’âme de Léon Cladel, says his daughter, était dans un constant et flamboyant automne. Something of the colour and fever of autumn is in all he wrote. Another writer since Cladel, who has probably never heard of him, has made heroes of peasants and vagabonds. But Maxim Gorki makes heroes of them consciously, with a mental self-assertion, giving them ideas which he has found in Nietzsche. Cladel put into all his people some of his own passionate way of seeing ‘scarlet,’ to use Barbey d’Aurevilly’s epithet: un rural écarlate.4 Vehement and voluminous, he overflowed: his whole aim as an artist, as a pupil of Baudelaire, was to concentrate, to hold himself back; and the effort added impetus to the checked overflow. To the realists he seemed merely extravagant; he saw certainly what they could not see; and his romance was always a fruit of the soil. The artist in him, seeming to be in conflict with the peasant, fortified, clarified the peasant, extracted from that hard soil a rare fruit. You see in his face an extraordinary mingling of the peasant, the visionary, and the dandy: the long hair and beard, the sensitive mouth and nose, the fierce brooding eyes, in which wildness and delicacy, strength and a kind of stealthiness, seem to be grafted on an inflexible peasant stock.



First published as ‘Léon Cladel’, Saturday Review 102 (1 September 1906), pp. 264–65; Symons reprinted this essay in Figures of Several Centuries (1916) and added it to the 1919 edition of The Symbolist Movement in Literature.

1. Judith Cladel, La vie de Léon Cladel: suivie de Léon Cladel en Belgique (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1905). Symons’ hope proved unfounded: I have been unable to find English translations of Cladel’s work for this volume, nor does the reception of his work seem to have entered the critical mainstream.

2. Eugene Sandow (1867–1925) was a famous nineteenth-century strongman. As well as performing feats of strength, he published a self-help fitness book, Strength and How to Obtain It (1897).

3. American writer Bret Harte (1836–1902) became famous for his stories about mining life in California during the Gold Rush.

4. French novelist and critic Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808–89) published an article on Cladel, ‘Un Rural Écarlate’, in Le Figaro 4 May 1872 in response to his novel, La Fête votive. Cladel wasn’t ‘a red’, d’Aurevilly claimed, but ‘a rural scarlet’ – a republican who lived in the countryside.

* [‘I foresee clearly … how precious future historians of nineteenth-century literature will find memoirs derived from immediate contact with the artist, from exposure to his acts, his smallest gestures and his roots, the budding of his beliefs and talent; future critics will find solid material there, admirers will find nourishment for their worship, and philosophers will find one aspect of the French Soul.’]

[‘the ardour of this soul which was rumbling and flashing like a forge, the nuances of his feverish face like an apostle, dark, thin and sinewy’.]

[‘The search for the living epithet, its development and flavour, the overabundance of meanings taken from all sources … the concentration of action around a few eternal motifs from Epic: fighting, feasting, nattering and desire.’]

§ [‘The truly photographic quality of his writing, with its turns of phrase, its abbreviations and ellipses, almost out of breath.’ – Judith Cladel quotes Edmond de Goncourt’s letter to Léon Cladel (7 December 1873) in her biography.]

[‘Léon Cladel’s soul … was in a constant and flamboyant autumnal state’.]