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Alphonse Daudet

Alphonse Daudet

The French novelist, dramatist, and short-storywriter Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) is remembered chiefly for his regionalist sketches of Provence and for his transitional role in the evolution of 19th-century theater.

Born in Nîmes, as a child Alphonse Daudet experienced the heady delights of a sun-drenched Provence and the darkening contrasts of his family's steadily worsening financial condition. His father, a silk manufacturer, had to abandon business there in 1849, moving the family north to Lyons; never fully recovering from the depression which followed the Revolution of 1848, the Daudets finally lost everything in 1857. The family became scattered, and Alphonse—never an enthusiastic student—found himself miserably placed as a pion, or monitor, in a provincial Collège. After a few months he was rescued by his elder brother Ernest, who brought him to Paris and generously encouraged the boy's already evident literary talents. A collection of undistinguished love verses, Les Amoureuses, represented a most traditional debut for Alphonse, but again through his brother's influence he was directed by the opportunities of journalism to contribute prose chroniques, stylish social sketches, which won him entry to the prestigious Figaro (1859); already in these early compositions, a mixture of what critics have called "rose-water fantasy" and often sharp satire reveals Daudet's most characteristic modes: sentimentality and imaginative flight.

Early Career

Until 1865 the young Daudet enjoyed financial security as a comfortable undersecretary to the Duc de Morny—a position accorded, in almost fairy tale manner, by a chance notice of the Empress Eugénie. In these years he collaborated in writing a number of one-act plays (La Dernière idole, 1862; Les Absents, 1864; L'Oeillet blanc, 1865), helped toward the stage by the Duc de Morny's influence. Daudet decided to live solely by his pen after the duke's death, and in 1866 the first of his regionalist sketches, or Lettres de mon moulin (Letters from My Mill), based on Provençal folklore began appearing in Paris papers.

Two years later Daudet's first long work, Le Petit chose (The Little Good-for-nothing), was completed; largely autobiographical, this early novel speaks of boyhood joys and travails but in the end leads its hero to the failure and obscurity which Daudet's recent successes were to forestall. The serial publication of his Aventures Prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon (1869) assured Daudet a place in Parisian literary circles, and today—with Lettres and Le Petit chose—it represents his most lasting contribution to French letters. Full of boisterous good humor and the vitality of southern climes, Daudet's picaro Tartarin nevertheless stands in sharp contrast to the young hero of L'Arlésienne, originally one of the Provençal tales related in Lettres, and adapted for the stage as Daudet's most serious dramatic effort in 1872. Here somber passion and jealousy lead to suicide—a thematic shift typical of Daudet's search for personal and artistic maturity in these years. L'Arlésienne failed miserably before the theatergoers of 1872, and this reversal of fortune turned Daudet resolutely back to novel writing. The play remains important, however, for the transformation Daudet there attempted in established theatrical formulas. Augustin Scribe's "well-made play" and the "comedy of manners" fostered by Alexandre Dumas and Émile Augier had for 20 years held dominion over the French stage. The seemingly plotless, moody, sequential arrangement of L'Arlésienne (with incidental music by Georges Bizet) produced shock and laughter, reactions of a prejudiced public erased only by a second, successful production in 1885, when émile Zola's campaign for naturalistic reform in the theater as well as the novel had begun to condition audiences to a genre less dependent on formal contrivance, closer to the unconnected sequences of life.

Later Works

Married in 1867, a father the following year, Daudet felt that the press of family responsibilities made success imperative; the shock of defeat and occupation after the Franco-Prussian War (1870) turned his imagination to a more serious vein, and it was at this time as well that he met regularly with Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, Edmond de Goncourt, and Zola—all diversely arguing for an art expressive of nature in all its determinisms, of man in his natural milieu. Zola's formulation of "naturalism," weighted with scientific analogies, would not come until 1880, but Daudet followed the author of Les Rougon-Macquart as closely as his temperament permitted and over the next 20 years produced 10 long novels of his own (Froment jeune et Risler aîné, 1874; Jack, 1876; Le Nabab, 1877; Les Rois en exil, 1879; Numa Roumestan, 1881; L'évangéliste, 1883; Sapho, 1884; L'Immortel, 1887; La Lutte pour la vie, 1889; Le Soutien de famille, 1896). Perhaps the most accomplished of the early, more determinedly objective works is Jack, the story of an illegimate son reared below his station, forced to become a laborer, and eventually destroyed by the brutalizing world of industrial society. The novel contains one of the first protests heard in France against the dehumanizing effects of child labor.

As in all these realistic novels of manners, however, Daudet undermines both the force of Jack's social protest and the novel's very artistic integrity with lacrimonious appeals to reader sentiment and verbose developments. Sentimentality is perhaps the hallmark of Daudet's fictional world. Daudet died after an apoplectic attack on Dec. 16, 1897.

Further Reading

Daudet's works, particularly his novels, have found many translators; a version of Letters from My Mill is by John P. Macgregor (1966). Studies of Daudet in English include the early but still valuable book by R. H. Sherard, Alphonse Daudet: A Biographical and Critical Study (1894), and the general treatment by Murray Sachs, The Career of Alphonse Daudet: A Critical Study (1965). Daudet's theatrical works are studied by Guy Rufus Saylor in Alphonse Daudet as a Dramatist (1940).

Additional Sources

Hare, Geoffrey E., Alphonse Daudet, a critical bibliography, London: Grant & Cutler, 1978. □

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Daudet, Alphonse

Alphonse Daudet (älfôNs´ dōdā´), 1840–97, French writer, b. Nîmes (Provence). Daudet made his mark with gentle naturalistic stories and novels portraying French life both in the provinces and in Paris. At the age of 16, after his father had suffered financial losses, he was obliged to serve as study master (maître d'études) in a school at Cévennes. With the help and encouragement of his older brother, he went to Paris, where he began his literary career with the publication of a small volume of poetry, Les Amoureuses (1857). His career was assured with the success of Lettres de mon moulin (1869, tr. Letters from My Mill, 1900), a group of delightful, Provence-inspired short stories.

Le Petit Chose (1868) is a semiautobiographical novel touchingly descriptive of his life at boarding school and sometimes compared to Dickens's David Copperfield. It was followed in rapid succession by Aventures prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon (1872), Contes du lundi (1873), Fromont jeune et Risler aîné (1874), Jack (1876), Le Nabab (1877), Les Rois en exil (1879), Numa Roumestan (1881), L'Évangeliste (1883), Sapho (1884), La Belle Nivernaise (1886), and L'Immortel (1888). Daudet was at once objective and personal, and his works, permeated by an engaging sense of humor, wistfulness, and subtle irony, were drawn largely from his own experience. Two volumes of reminiscences, Souvenirs d'un homme de lettres and Trente ans de Paris, appeared in 1888. Harrowing diaries of his lingering death from syphilis, La Doulou, were not published until 1930 (tr. In the Land of Pain, 2003). His brother, Louis Marie Ernst Daudet (1837–1921), was a historian. His son was Léon Daudet.

See study by M. Sachs (1965).

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Daudet, Alphonse

DAUDET, Alphonse

Nationality: French. Born: Nîmes, 13 May 1840. Education: Educated in Lyons. Military Service: National Guard, 1870. Family: Married Julia Allard in 1867; two sons and one daughter. Career: Pupil-teacher, 1855-56; school usher, Collège d'Alais, 1857; secretary for Duc de Morny, 1860-65. Full-time writer and playwright, from 1865, Paris. Died: 16 December 1897.

Publications

Collections

Works. 24 vols., 1898-1900.

The Novels, Romances and Writings of Daudet. 20 vols., 1898-1903.

Oeuvres complètes. 18 vols., 1899-1901; 20 vols., 1929-31.

Oeuvres complètes illustrées. 20 vols., 1929-31.

oeuvres, edited by Jean-Louis Curtis. 12 vols., 1965-66.

oeuvres, edited by Roger Ripoll. 1986—.

Short Stories

Le Roman du Chaperon rouge: scènes et fantaisies. 1862.

Lettres de mon moulin. Impressions et souvenirs. 1869; edited by Jacques-Henry Bornecque; 2 vols., 1948; as Stories of Provence (selection), 1886; as Letters from My Mill, 1880; as Letters from a Windmill in Provence, 1922; as French Stories from Daudet, 1945; as Letters from My Mill and Letters to an Absent One, 1971; as Letters from My Windmill, 1978.

Lettres à un absent. 1871; as Letters to an Absent One, 1900; asLetters to an Absent One and Letters from My Mill, 1971.

Robert Helmont. Études et paysages. 1873; as Robert Helmont: Diary of a Recluse, 1870-1871, 1892.

Contes du lundi. 1873; revised edition, 1878; as Contes militaires(special edition), edited by J.T.W. Brown, 1892; as Monday Tales (bilingual edition), 1950.

Contes et récits (collection). 1873.

Les Femmes d'artistes. 1874; as Wives of Men of Genius, 1889; asArtists' Wives, 1890.

Contes choisis. La fantasie et l'histoire (collection). 1877.

Les Cigognes, légende rhénane. 1883.

La Belle-Nivernaise. Histoire d'un vieux bateau et de son équipage, illustrated by Émile Montégut. 1886; as La Belle-Nivernaise; The Story of an Old Boat and Her Crew (and Other Stories), 1887; as La Belle-Nivernaise, the Story of a River-Barge and its Crew, edited by James Boïelle, 1888; La Belle-Nivernaise and Other Stories, 1895.

La Fedór. L'Enterrement d'une étoile. 1896.

La Fedór. Pages de la vie, illustrated by Faìes. 1897; in part asTrois souvenirs, 1896.

Le Trésor d'Arlatan, illustrated by H. Laurent Desrousseaux. 1897.

Novels

Le Petit Chose. Histoire d'un enfant. 1868; as My Brother Jack, or the Story of What-d'ye-Call'em, 1877; as The Little Good-for-Nothing, 1878.

Aventures prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon. 1872; as The New Don Quixote, or the Wonderful Adventures of Tartarin de Tarascon, 1875.

Fromont jeune et Risler aîné. Moeurs parisiennes. 1874; asSidonie, 1877.

Jack. Moeurs contemporaines. 2 vols., 1876; translated as Jack, 1877.

Le Nabab. Moeurs parisiennes. 1877; as The Nabob, 1877.

Les Rois en exil. 1879; Kings in Exile, 1879.

Numa Roumestan. 1881.

L'Evangéliste. Roman parisien. 1883; Port Salvation; or, The Evangelist, 2 vols., 1883.

Sapho. Moeurs parisiennes. 1884; as Sappho, 1884; as Sappho: A Picture of Life in Paris, 1954.

Tartarin sur les Alpes. Nouveaux exploits du héros tarasconnais.1885; as Tartarin on the Alps, 1887.

L'Immortel. 1888.

Port-Tarascon. Dernières aventures de l'illustre Tartarin. 1890; as Port-Tarascon, the Last Adventures of the Illustrious Tartarin, 1891.

Rose et Ninette. Moeurs du jour. 1892; as Rose and Ninette, 1892.

La Petit Paroisse. Moeurs conjugales. 1895.

Soutien de famille. Moeurs contemporaines. 1898; as The Head of the Family, 1898.

Plays

La Dernière Idole, with others (produced 1862). 1862.

Les Absents (produced 1864). 1863.

L'oeillet blanc, with others (produced 1865). 1865.

Le Frère aîné, with others (produced 1867). 1868.

Le Sacrifice (produced 1869). 1869.

L'Arlésienne (produced 1872). 1872; as L'Arlésienne (The Girl of Arles), 1894.

Lise Tavernier (produced 1872). 1872.

Le Char, with others (produced 1878). 1878.

Théâtre. 3 vols., 1880-99.

Le Nabab, with others (produced 1880). 1881.

Jack, with others (produced 1881). 1882.

Fromont jeune et Risler aîné, with others (produced 1886). 1886.

Numa Roumestan (produced 1887). 1890.

La Lutte pour la vie (produced 1889). 1890.

L'Obstacle (produced 1889, with music by Reynaldo Hahn). 1891.

Sapho, with others (produced 1885). 1893.

La Menteuse, with others (produced 1892). 1893.

Poetry

Les Amoureuses. 1858; enlarged edition, 1863; enlarged edition, as Les Amoureuses. Poèmes et fantaisies, 1857-61, 1873.

La Double Conversion, conte en vers. 1861.

Other

oeuvres. 16 vols., 1879-91.

Oeuvres complètes. 8 vols., 1881-87; 24 vols., 1897-99.

Souvenirs d'un homme de lettres. Pages retrouvés (memoirs).1888; as Recollections of a Man, 1889.

Trente ans de Paris. A travers ma vie et mes livres (memoirs).1888; as Thirty Years of Paris and of My Literary Life, 1888.

Entre les Frises et la rampe. Petites études de la vie théâtrale. 1894.

Notes sur la vie (memoirs). 1899.

Premier Voyage, Premier Mensonge. Souvenirs de mon enfance(memoirs), illustrated by Bigot-Valentin. 1900; as My First Voyage, My First Lie, 1901.

Pages inédites de critique dramatique, 1874-1880, edited by Lucien Daudet. 1923.

La Doulou. 1929; as La Doulou: La vie: Extraits des carnets inédit de l'auteurs, 1931; as Suffering 1887-95, 1934.

Histoire d'une amitié: Correspondance inédite entre Daudet et Frédéric Mistral 1860-1897, edited by Jacques-Henry Bornecque. 1979.

Translator, Vie d'enfant by Batisto Bonnet. 1894. Translator, with others, Valet de ferme. 1894.

*

Bibliography:

Daudet, A Critical Bibliography by Geoffrey E. Hare, 2 vols., 1978-79.

Critical Studies:

Daudet (biography) by Robert H. Sherard, 1894; "Three Notes to Daudet's Stories" by T.A. Jenkins, Modern Language Notes, May 1907; in The Historical Novel and Other Essays by Brander Matthews, 1901; Daudet, by G.V. Dobie, 1949; in The Short Story by Sean O'Faolain, 1951; The Career of Daudet: A Critical Study by Murray Sachs, 1965; Daudet by Alphonse V. Roche, 1976; "Willa Cather and Alphonse Daudet" by James Woodress, in Cather Studies, 1993, pp.156-66; "The Recovery of Psychic Center in Daudet's Les Lettres de mon moulin " by James F. Hamilton, in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall 1995-Winter 1996, pp. 133-43.

* * *

For 40 years Alphonse Daudet was an active, and highly successful, man of letters, busily publishing poems, plays, novels, short stories, and memoirs—20 volumes' worth, in the most complete edition of his works—for which he earned a major worldwide reputation. A century later that major reputation is in sharp decline, even in France, where most of his works are no longer read, or in print; his place in French literary history, though far from negligible, is yet among those of the second rank. In addition to two or three still-popular novels, only a select handful of his nearly one hundred short stories are "alive" today, having been kept steadily in print since they first appeared. But those stories are so well known, and so widely read, in France and elsewhere, that they have attained the status of classics in the genre and are regularly studied in the schools. As a short story writer, Daudet is still a major figure.

It is an irony that would not have been lost on Daudet himself that it is only in a "minor" genre that posterity now recognizes him as a major figure. It must be added, however, that Daudet himself never considered the short story a "minor" genre. It was his genre of choice, in which he had learned his craft, and which he had gladly practiced, in some form, throughout his career, from first to last. There is, indeed, symbolic significance in the fact that his last publication was a short story. More telling still is the evidence that a "short story mindset" pervades all his work: his poems often tell a story, his plays can be seen as dramatized anecdotes, and critics have regularly noted that his novels are either episodic in structure, or have so many detachable subplots that they resemble ingeniously disguised short story collections. Storytelling was indeed second nature to Daudet, and he understood full well that it was the indispensable foundation of his literary calling.

Daudet himself believed that he owed his talent as a teller of tales to his meridional temperament: vivacity, emotional warmth, and facility with language. There is much contemporary testimony that, on social occasions, Daudet often proved himself a gifted and spellbinding raconteur. That special ability transfers itself vividly into a story writing style that is effusive yet intimate, and that gives the reader the pleasing sensation of "listening" to the author spontaneously telling the story aloud to an audience of one. The secret of this "oral" style, so carefully cultivated by Daudet in his short stories, lies in the successful creation of the right narrational "voice" for each occasion, and for that kind of creation Daudet possessed an instinctive ease.

Daudet's first published story collection, Lettres de mon moulin (Letters from My Windmill), was ideally suited to the fullest exploitation of this "oral" style. Each story purported to be a letter from the author to various correspondents, thus justifying an informal, warmly personal, and quasi-conversational style, and enabling the author to vary mood, tone, and narrational "voice" according to the subject of each tale. For a somber account of a tragically unrequited love, as in "The Arlesian Girl," Daudet adopted a spare and self-effacing narrative manner, using simple peasant words and short sentences, to emphasize the stark horror of the drama. Tales of minor ecclesiastical misdeeds, by contrast, such as "The Elixir of Reverend Father Gaucher" or "The Pope's Mule," are more effectively rendered in a tone of mounting, infectious gaiety, regularly undercut by sly, ironic observations that create a comfortable distance, for the reader, from the mildly scandalous events being narrated. Stories that broached the moral dilemmas of the author's own calling—"M. Seguin's Goat" and "The Legend of the Man with the Golden Brain" are the chief examples—required the sententiousness and mock solemnity of the fable, the legend, or the exemplary tale so that the reader might be properly entertained without missing the seriousness of the story's moral insight.

There is striking variety of style, technique, and subject matter in Letters from My Windmill, but the common denominator of all the stories is the skill and refined craftsmanship with which each story is presented. This was the first publication in which Alphonse Daudet exhibited something more than a lively imagination and an engaging narrative manner: he proved himself a meticulous and demanding stylist, with a sense of form and structure, a keen ear for appropriate sentence rhythm, and a willingness to revise his work repeatedly, to meet his own aesthetic standards. He had become a disciplined artist.

During the 1870s Daudet expanded his range and his productivity in the short story, finding new subject matter in the Franco-Prussian War and in the daily life of Parisians, for example, and discovering new ways to tell a contemporary tale without losing any of the freshness and charm of his "oral" technique. In the early 1870s he wrote four volumes of stories and sketches, including the very successful Contes du lundi (Monday Tales), and at the end of the decade he produced revised and augmented editions of Letters from My Windmill and Monday Tales that, together, contained all of his short stories he wished to keep in print. Those two definitive volumes, and two longer novellas he wrote at the end of his life, La Fédor. L'Enterrement d'une étoile and Le Trésor d'Arlatan, (Arlatan's Treasure), represent his total surviving contribution to the art of the short story. It is a distinguished achievement by any measure. First and foremost, he reminded his fellow writers (and his readers) of the distant oral origins of storytelling, for he devised a writing style that recaptured the flavor, excitement, and intimacy of the human voice, which was the ancient world's vehicle for the transmission of tales. He also demonstrated commitment to the short story genre when it was still a literary novelty, by treating it with high seriousness and bringing to bear upon it all of his discipline and artistry. He had the singular capacity to probe the deepest of human emotions in his stories, with sympathy and understanding, yet with enough skeptical irony to avoid the pitfall of sentimentality. He wrote most often about unhappy love, and about the vulnerability of the innocent in a corrupt world, because those themes corresponded most closely to his own experience of the world—hence the personal and intimate tone that characterized so many of his short stories, and that generations of readers have found to be so moving. Whatever the future may hold for the rest of his work, one must believe that Daudet's short stories will continue to live, for the world will always take time to "listen" to a storyteller who can tell a tale as entrancingly as he does.

—Murray Sachs

See the essay on "The Pope's Mule."

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