Littell's Living Age/Volume 131/Issue 1696/Erckmann-Chatrian

From The Athenæum.


The singular personage, whom the world knows under the name of Erckmann-Chatrian, is composed of two men, robust, sound in body, and vigorous in mind. They are, neither of them, Alsacians, although they have together created an Alsacian literature.

Emile Erckmann was born four and fifty years ago, in the little Lorraine town of Phalsbourg. To have an exact idea of what Phalsbourg was ten years back, picture to yourself a statue of Marshal Comte de Lobau, round the statue a place planted with old trees, round the place a row of very modest houses, round the houses a cluster of barracks and casemated magazines, round the barracks a rampart, round the rampart ditches, and round the ditches a plain, high, bare, and dry. An old legend, asserts that every house in Phalsbourg has produced, on an average, a sixth of a general, a colonel, two majors, ten captains, and lieutenants in proportion. In short it is a veritable cradle of soldiers, the look of which was dear to my old chauvinisme, and which I never saw without pleasure; I lived a long time near it. The little warlike town which the Germans dismantled in 1872 is five English miles from Schlittenbach, that dear house where four of the six children that I have the happiness to possess were born. Everything at Phalsbourg is military, and I once was acquainted with a lawyer, a simple notaire, who knew the Annuaire by heart, and could name all the colonels of all the regiments in France, and tell their depots, and where the regiments were stationed. Such was the singular atmosphere, one may almost call it absolutely unique, in which Emile Erckmann was born. His father, a small bookseller, who combined the selling of a few groceries with his book-selling, was neither rich nor poor. He sent his son to the college, and made him study law.

Chatrian, like Erckmann, is a native of Lorraine, but like him, and like me, alas! he is a native of the annexed portion. His native village is called Soldatenthal, the valley of the soldier, because it was founded, if the legend is to be trusted, by a Swedish soldier settled in France after the Thirty Years' War. The collaborator of Erckmann is a gentilhomme, by the same title as MM. Granier de Cassagnac, father and son. He is descended from a family of glass-blowers, and himself blew glass in his youth. But that trade not being to his liking, he preferred to re-enter, as maítre d'études, the little college of Phalsbourg, where he had been educated, and there formed his friendship with Erckmann.

Their beginnings in literature were far from successful. In 1848 they started at Strasbourg a republican journal called the Patriote du Rhin; and they brought out at the Strasbourg Theatre a grand drama, "L'Alsace en 1814," but at the second performance the piece was prohibited by the censorship, and the journal died for want of subscribers. They came to Paris and knocked, without success, at the doors of the publishers. Their first novel, "Les Brigands des Vosges," appeared in the Journal des Fails of the Abbé Migne, but it was not paid for; and the two friends might have died of starvation had not the one had some little means of his own, and the other a humble occupation. Chatrian earned one thousand five hundred francs in the office of the Chemin de Fer de l'Est. As far as I can remember, the first book of theirs that I read was a fantastic tale translated from Erckmann by Chatrian. Some periodicals more or less read, L'Artiste, La Revue de Paris, Le Constitutionel, opened their columns to them, not without difficulty, and for five or six years they found it much more difficult to get a single novel published than to write two.

Now they are almost rich. The journals compete for the privilege of printing their stories, and Hetzel, an excellent and honest publisher, sells them by the hundred thousand. However, Chatrian has never left the railway, and has risen to a very honorable post. He is caissier des titres, and his salary must be some ten or twelve thousand francs a year. He is married, and has three children. He has a pretty house at Raincy, in the banlieue, and he possesses great influence in his neighborhood. It was to him that the brave Colonel Langlois owed his success at the elections of last February.

Erckmann, who is not married, is an exile, without near relations. He had a grand-niece at Strasbourg, who has married a German. Broken down by this sorrow, he wandered for a long time on the borders of our dear native land, the door of which is shut to him as to so many others. Before the war he had settled in the pretty valley of the Zinzel, to live after the fashion of the Ami Fritz. He is the best liver in the world; he adores the good wine of Alsace, sauerkraut, ham, the crayfish of the Zorn, the beer of Strasbourg, and he gladly loses himself in the clouds that rise from his pipe. What he loves, perhaps, still better, is shooting in the woods, long expeditions in the mountains, and discussions without end with a small group of friends. A most worthy man, in truth, this Erckmann, and a droll fellow, too. He had decayed teeth, which gave him pain from time to time. So he had them all taken out at one sitting, and now with a set of gums, as fresh and rosy as an infant of six months old, he munches the most solid of food and the softest of crusts. With his cheeks a little hollow, his fat chin, his long moustaches, and his bourgeois country dress, he looks like a colonel on half pay. After having long wandered like a tormented spirit near the lost paradise of Alsace-Lorraine, he has settled in the neighborhood of Saint Dié, in the Vosges, with worthy friends who are connections of his. I went to see him there two years ago, and mechanically, in spite of ourselves, across the mountain paths we penetrated into Alsace.

I learned on this occasion the secret of his joint work with the good Chatrian. The two friends see one another very rarely, whether at Paris or in the Vosges. When they do meet, they elaborate together the scheme of a work. Then Erckmann writes it, Chatrian corrects it, and sometimes puts it into the fire. I can quote as an example, a certain story conceived in an anti-clerical spirit, and intended for the XIXme Siècle. Erckmann is at this moment writing it for the third time. We have few writers so conscientious, and I do not suppose that you have many. We have none more sincere, more upright, more humane, more zealous in defending the true against the untrue, right against might. We have no better patriots, if patriotism consists in denouncing the follies of ambition, decrying false glory, not seeking a quarrel with any one, but wishing that a people unjustly invaded should defend itself to the last. Such is the meaning and morality of all these national tales which the authors of our ruin denounce to the public with signal hypocrisy. Edmond About.