Henry James.

Partial portraits online

. (page 17 of 24)
Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 17 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

tion, and that, in accordance with the very just
principles enunciated in that preface to which I have
perhaps too repeatedly referred, he has sacrificed
what is uncharacteristic to what is characteristic. It
characterises the career of this French country lady of
fifty years ago that its long gray expanse should be
seen as peopled with but five or six figures. The
essence of the matter is that she was deceived in
almost every affection, and that essence is given if
the persons who deceived her are given.

The reply is doubtless adequate, and I have only
intended my criticism to suggest the degree of my
interest. What it really amounts to is that if the
subject of this artistic experiment had been the
existence of an English lady, even a very dull one,
the air of verisimilitude would have demanded that
she should have been placed in a denser medium.
Une Vie may after all be only a testimony to the
fact of the melancholy void of the coast of Normandy,
even within a moderate drive of a great seaport,
under the Eestoration and Louis Philippe. It is
especially to be recommended to those who are
interested in the question of what constitutes a
" story," offering as it does the most definite sequences
at the same time that it has nothing that corresponds
to the usual idea of a plot, and closing with an im-
plication that finds us prepared. The picture again in
this case is much more dominant than the idea, unless it
be an idea that loneliness and grief are terrible. The


picture, at any rate, is full of truthful touches, and the
work has the merit and the charm that it is the most
delicate of the author's productions and the least
hard. In none other has he occupied himself so
continuously with so innocent a figure as his soft,
bruised heroine ; in none other has he paid our poor
blind human history the compliment (and this is
remarkable, considering the flatness of so much of
the particular subject) of finding it so little Mte. He
may think it, here, but comparatively he does not say
it. He almost betrays a sense of moral things.
Jeanne is absolutely passive, she has no moral spring,
no active moral life, none of the edifying attributes
of character (it costs her apparently as little as may
be in the way of a shock, a complication of feeling,
to discover, by letters, after her mother's death, that
this lady has not been the virtuous woman she has
supposed); but her chronicler has had to handle the
immaterial forces of patience and renunciation, and
this has given the book a certain purity, in spite of
two or three " physiological " passages that come in
with violence a violence the greater as we feel it to
be a result of selection. It is very much a mark of
M. de Maupassant that on the most striking occasion,
with a single exception, on which his picture is not
a picture of libertinage it is a picture of unmitigated
suffering. Would he suggest that these are the only
alternatives ?

The exception that I here allude to is for Pierre
et Jean, which I have left myself small space to speak


of. Is it because in this masterly little novel there
is a show of those immaterial forces which I just
mentioned, and because Pierre Eoland is one of the
few instances of operative character that can be re-
called from so many volumes, that many readers will
place M. de Maupassant's latest production altogether
at the head of his longer ones ? I am not sure, inas-
much as after all the character in question is not
extraordinarily distinguished, and the moral problem
not presented in much complexity. The case is only
relative. Perhaps it is not of importance to fix the
reasons of preference in respect to a piece of writing
so essentially a work of art and of talent. Pierre et
Jean is the best of M. de Maupassant's novels mainly
because M. de Maupassant has never before been so
clever. It is a pleasure to see a mature talent able
to renew itself, strike another note, and appear still
young. This story suggests the growth of a percep-
tion that everything has not been said about the
actors on the world's stage when they are represented
either as helpless victims or as mere bundles of
appetites. There is an air of responsibility about
Pierre Roland, the person on whose behalf the tale
is mainly told, which almost constitutes a pledge.
An inquisitive critic may ask why in this particular
case M. de Maupassant should have stuck to the petit
bourgeois, the circumstances not being such as to
typify that class more than another. There are
reasons indeed which on reflection are perceptible ;
it was necessary that his people should be poor, and


necessary even that to attenuate Madame Eoland's
misbehaviour she should have had the excuse of the
contracted life of a shopwoman in the Eue Mont-
martre. Were the inquisitive critic slightly malicious
as well, he might suspect the author of a fear that
he should seem to give way to the illusion du beau if
in addition to representing the little group in Pierre
et Jean as persons of about the normal conscience he
had also represented them as of the cultivated class.
If they belong to the humble life this belittles and
I am still quoting the supposedly malicious critic
M. de Maupassant must, in one way or the other,
belittle. To the English reader it will appear, I
think, that Pierre and Jean are rather more of the
cultivated class than two young Englishmen in the
same social position. It belongs to the drama that
the struggle of the elder brother educated, proud,
and acute should be partly with the pettiness of his
opportunities. The author's choice of a milieu, more-
over, will serve to English readers as an example of
how much more democratic contemporary French
fiction is than that of his own country. The greater
part of it almost all the work of Zola and of
Daudet, the best of Flaubert's novels, and the best of
those of the brothers De Goncourt treat of that
vast, dim section of society which, lying between
those luxurious walks on whose behalf there are easy
presuppositions and that darkness of misery which,
in addition to being picturesque, brings philanthropy
also to the writer's aid, constitutes really, in extent


and expressiveness, the substance of any nation. In
England, where the fashion of fiction still sets mainly
to the country house and the hunting-field, and yet
more novels are published than anywhere else in the
world, that thick twilight of mediocrity of condition
has been little explored. May it yield triumphs in
the years to come !

It may seem that I have claimed little for M. de
Maupassant, so far as English readers are concerned
with him, in saying that after publishing twenty
improper volumes he has at last published a twenty-
first, which is neither indecent nor cynical. It is not
this circumstance that has led me to dedicate so
many pages to him, but the circumstance that in
producing all the others he yet remained, for those
who are interested in these matters, a writer with
whom it was impossible not to reckon. This is why
I called him, to begin with, so many ineffectual names :
a rarity, a " case," an embarrassment, a lion in the
path. He is still in the path as I conclude these
observations, but I think that in making them we
have discovered a legitimate way round. If he is
a master of his art and it is discouraging to find
what low views are compatible with mastery, there is
satisfaction, on the other hand in learning on what
particular condition he holds his strange success.
This condition, it seems to me, is that of having
totally omitted one of the items of the problem, an
omission which has made the problem so much easier
that it may almost be described as a short cut to a


solution. The question is whether it be a fair cut.
M. de Maupassant has simply skipped the whole
reflective part of his men and women that reflective
part which governs conduct and produces character.
He may say that he does not see it, does not know it ;
to which the answer is, " So much the better for you,
if you wish to describe life without it. The strings
you pull are by so much the less numerous, and you
can therefore pull those that remain with greater
promptitude, consequently with greater firmness, with
a greater air of knowledge." Pierre Roland, I repeat,
shows a capacity for reflection, but I cannot think
who else does, among the thousand figures who com-
pete with him I mean for reflection addressed to
anything higher than the gratification of an instinct.
We have an impression that M. d'Apreval and
Madame de Cadour reflect, as they trudge back from
their mournful excursion, but that indication is not
pushed very far. An aptitude for this exercise is a
part of disciplined manhood, and disciplined man-
hood M. de Maupassant has simply not attempted to
represent. I can remember no instance in which he
sketches any considerable capacity for conduct, and
his women betray that capacity as little as his men.
I am much mistaken if he has once painted a gentle-
man, in the English sense of the term. His gentle-
men, like Paul Bretigny and Gontran de Ravenel,
are guilty of the most extraordinary deflections. For
those who are conscious of this element in life, look
for it and like it, the gap will appear to be immense.


It will lead them to say, " No wonder you have a
contempt if that is the way you limit the field. No
wonder you judge people roughly if that is the way
you see them. Your work, on your premisses, remains
the admirable thing it is, but is your ' case ' not ade-
quately explained ? "

The erotic element in M. de Maupassant, about
which much more might have been said, seems to me
to be explained by the same limitation, and explicable
in a similar way wherever else its literature occurs
in excess. The carnal side of man appears the most
characteristic if you look at it a great deal; and you
look at it a great deal if you do not look at the other,
at the side by which he reacts against his weaknesses,
his defeats. The more you look at the other, the less
the whole business to which French novelists have
ever appeared to English readers to give a dispropor-
tionate place the business, as I may say, of the
senses will strike you as the only typical one. Is
not this the most useful reflection to make in regard
to the famous question of the morality, the decency,
of the novel ? It is the only one, it seems to me,
that will meet the case as we find the case to-day.
Hard and fast rules, a priori restrictions, mere inter-
dictions (you shall not speak of this, you shall not
look at that), have surely served their time, and will
in the nature of the case never strike an. energetic
talent as anything but arbitrary. A healthy, living
and growing art, full of curiosity and fond of exer-
cise, has an indefeasible mistrust of rigid prohibitions.


Let us then leave this magnificent art of the novelist
to itself and to its perfect freedom, in the faith that
one example is as good as another, and that our fiction
will always be decent enough if it be sufficiently
general. Let us not be alarmed at this prodigy
(though prodigies are alarming) of M. de Maupassant,
who is at once so licentious and so impeccable, but
gird ourselves up with the conviction that another
point of view will yield another perfection.





WHEN the mortal remains of Ivan Turg^nieff were
about to be transported from Paris for interment in
his own country, a short commemorative service was
held at the Gare du Nord. Ernest Eenan and
Edmond About, standing beside the train in which
his coffin had been placed, bade farewell in the name
of the French people to the illustrious stranger who
for so many years had been their honoured and
grateful guest. M. Renan made a beautiful speech,
and M. About a very clever one, and each of them
characterised, with ingenuity, the genius and the
moral nature of the most touching of writers, the
most lovable of men. " Turgenieff," said M. Renan,
" received by the mysterious decree which marks out
human vocations the gift which is noble beyond
all others : he was born essentially impersonal." The
passage is so eloquent that one must repeat the whole
of it. " His conscience was not that of an individual
to whom nature had been more or less generous : it
was in some sort the conscience of a people. Before
he was born he had lived for thousands of years ;


infinite successions of reveries had amassed them-
selves in the depths of his heart. No man has been
as much as he the incarnation of a whole race :
generations of ancestors, lost in the sleep of centuries,
speechless, came through him to life and utterance."

I quote these lines for the pleasure of quoting
them; for while I see what M. Renan means by
calling Turgenieff impersonal, it has been my wish
to devote to his delightful memory a few pages
written under the impression of contact and inter-
course. He seems to us impersonal, because it is from
his writings almost alone that we of English, French
and German speech have derived our notions even
yet, I fear, rather meagre and erroneous of the
Russian people. His genius for us is the Slav genius ;
his voice the voice of those vaguely-imagined multi-
tudes whom we think of more and more to-day as
waiting their turn, in the arena of civilisation, in the
grey expanses of the North. There is much in his
writings to encourage this view, and it is certain that
he interpreted with wonderful vividness the tempera-
ment of his fellow-countrymen. Cosmopolite that he
had become by the force of circumstances, his roots
had never been loosened in his native soil. The
ignorance with regard to Russia and the Russians
which he found in abundance in the rest of Europe
and not least in the country he inhabited for ten
years before his death had indeed the effect, to a
certain degree, to throw him back upon the deep
feelings which so many of his companions were unable


to share with him, the memories of his early years,
the sense of wide Russian horizons, the joy and pride
of his mother-tongue. In the collection of short
pieces, so deeply interesting, written during the last
few years of his life, and translated into German
under the name of Senilia, I find a passage it is the
last in the little book which illustrates perfectly
this reactionary impulse : " In days of doubt, in days
of anxious thought on the destiny of my native land,
thou alone art my support and my staff, O great
powerful Russian tongue, truthful and free ! If it
were not for thee how should man not despair at the
sight of what is going on at home ] But it is incon-
ceivable that such a language has not been given to
a great people." This Muscovite, home-loving note
pervades his productions, though it is between the
lines, as it were, that we must listen for it. None
the less does it remain true that he was not a simple
conduit or mouthpiece ; the inspiration was his own
as well as the voice. He was an individual, in other
words, of the most unmistakable kind, and those
who had the happiness to know him have no diffi-
culty to-day in thinking of him as an eminent,
responsible figure. This pleasure, for the writer of
these lines, was as great as the pleasure of reading
the admirable tales into which he put such a world
of life and feeling : it was perhaps even greater, for
it was not only with the pen that nature had given
Turg6nieff the power to express himself. He was
the richest, the most delightful, of talkers, and his


face, his person, his temper, the thoroughness with
which he had been equipped for human intercourse,
make in the memory of his friends an image which
is completed, but not thrown into the shade, by his
literary distinction. The whole image is tinted with
sadness : partly because the element of melancholy
in his nature was deep and constant readers of his
novels have no need to be told of that ; and partly
because, during the last years of his life, he had been
condemned to suffer atrociously. Intolerable pain
had been his portion for too many months before he
died ; his end was not a soft decline, but a deepen-
ing distress. But of brightness, of the faculty of
enjoyment, he had also the large allowance usually
made to first-rate men, and he was a singularly com-
plete human being. The author of these pages had
greatly admired his writings before having the fortune
to make his acquaintance, and this privilege, when it
presented itself, was highly illuminating. The man
and the writer together occupied from that moment
a very high place in his affection. Some time
before knowing him I committed to print certain
reflections which his tales had led me to make ; and
I may perhaps, therefore, without impropriety give
them a supplement which shall have a more vivifying
reference. It is almost irresistible to attempt to say,
from one's own point of view, what manner of mao
he was.

It was in consequence of the article I just men-
tioned that I found reason to meet him, in Paris,


where he was then living, in 1875. I shall never
forget the impression he made upon me at that first
interview. I found him adorable ; I could scarcely
believe that he would prove that any man could
prove on nearer acquaintance so delightful as that.
Nearer acquaintance only confirmed my hope, and he
remained the most approachable, the most practicable,
the least unsafe man of genius it has been my fortune
to meet. He was so simple, so natural, so modest, so
destitute of personal pretension and of what is called
the consciousness of powers, that one almost doubted
at moments whether he were a man of genius after
all. Everything good and fruitful lay near to him ;
he was interested in everything; and he was absol-
utely without that eagerness of self-reference which
sometimes accompanies great, and even small, reputa-
tions. He had not a particle of vanity ; nothing
whatever of the air of having a part to play or a
reputation to keep up. His humour exercised itself
as freely upon himself as upon other subjects, and
he told stories at his own expense with a sweetness
of hilarity which made his peculiarities really sacred
in the eyes of a friend. I remember vividly the
smile and tone of voice with which he once repeated
to me a figurative epithet which Gustave Flaubert
(of whom he was extremely fond) had applied to him
an epithet intended to characterise a certain ex-
pansive softness, a comprehensive indecision, which
pervaded his nature, just as it pervades so many of
the characters he has painted. He enjoyed Flau-


bert's use of this term, good-naturedly opprobrious,
more even than Flaubert himself, and recognised
perfectly the element of truth in it. He was natural
to an extraordinary degree ; I do not think I have
ever seen his match in this respect, certainly not
among people who bear, as he did, at the same time,
the stamp of the highest cultivation. Like all men
of a large pattern, he was composed of many different
pieces; and what was always striking in him was
the mixture of simplicity with the fruit of the most
various observation. In the little article in which I had
attempted to express my admiration for his works, I
had been moved to say of him that he had the aris-
tocratic temperament: a remark which in the light
of further knowledge seemed to me singularly inane.
He was not subject to any definition of that sort,
and to say that he was democratic would be (though
his political ideal was a democracy), to give an equally
superficial account of him. He felt and understood
the opposite sides of life ; he was imaginative, specu-
lative, anything but literal. He had not in his mind
a grain of prejudice as large as the point of a needle,
and people (there are many) who think this a defect
would have missed it immensely in Ivan Sergueitch.
(I give his name, without attempting the Eussian
orthography, as it was uttered by his friends when
they addressed him in French.) Our Anglo-Saxon,
Protestant, moralistic, conventional standards were
far away from him, and he judged things with a
freedom and spontaneity in which I found a perpetual


refreshment. His sense of beauty, his love of truth
and right, were the foundation of his nature; but
half the charm of conversation with him was that one
breathed an air in which cant phrases and arbitrary
measurements simply sounded ridiculous.

I may add that it was not because I had written a
laudatory article about his books that he gave me a
friendly welcome ; for in the first place my article
could have very little importance for him, and in the
second it had never been either his habit or his
hope to bask in the light of criticism. Supremely
modest as he was, I think he attached no great weight
to what might happen to be said about him ; for he
felt that he was destined to encounter a very small
amount of intelligent appreciation, especially in
foreign countries. I never heard him even allude to
any judgment which might have been passed upon
his productions in England. In France he knew that
he was read very moderately ; the " demand" for his
volumes was small, and he had no illusions whatever
on the subject of his popularity. He had heard with
pleasure that many intelligent persons in the United
States were impatient for everything that might come
from his pen ; but I think he was never convinced,
as one or two of the more zealous of these persons
had endeavoured to convince him, that he could boast
of a " public" in America. He gave me the impres-
sion of thinking of criticism as most serious workers
think of it that it is the amusement, the exercise,
the subsistence of the critic (and, so far as this goes,


of immense use) ; but that though it may often con-
cern other readers, it does not much concern the artist
himself. In comparison with all those things which
the production of a considered work forces the artist
little by little to say to himself, the remarks of the
critic are vague and of the moment ; and yet, owing
to the large publicity of the proceeding, they have a
power to irritate or discourage which is quite out of
proportion to their use to the person criticised. It
was not, moreover (if this explanation be not more
gross than the spectre it is meant to conjure away),
on account of any esteem which he accorded to my
own productions (I used regularly to send them to
him) that I found him so agreeable, for to the best
of my belief he was unable to read them. As regards
one of the first that I had offered him he wrote me
a little note to tell me that a distinguished friend,
who was his constant companion, had read three or
four chapters aloud to him the evening before and
that one of them was written de main de maitref
This gave me great pleasure, but it was my first and
last pleasure of the kind. I continued, as I say, to
send him my fictions, because they were the only
thing I had to give ; but he never alluded to the rest
of the work in question, which he evidently did not
finish, and never gave any sign of having read its
successors. Presently I quite ceased to expect this,
and saw why it was (it interested me much), that my
writings could not appeal to him. He cared, more
than anything else, for the air of reality, and my


reality was not to the purpose. I do not think my
stories struck him as quite meat for men. The
manner was more apparent than the matter; they
were too tarabiscotd, as I once heard him say of the
style of a book had on the surface too many little
flowers and knots of ribbon. He had read a great
deal of English, and knew the language remarkably
well too well, I used often to think, for he liked to
speak it with those to whom it was native, and,
successful as the effort always was, it deprived him
of the facility and raciness with which he expressed
himself in French.

I have said that he had no prejudices, but per-
haps after all he had one. I think he imagined it to
be impossible to a person of English speech to con-
verse in French with complete correctness. He
knew Shakespeare thoroughly, and at one time had
wandered far and wide in English literature. His
opportunities for speaking English were not at all
frequent, so that when the necessity (or at least the
occasion) presented itself, he remembered the phrases

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17 19 20 21 22 23 24

Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 17 of 24)