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choice has been made, his standard has been indi-
cated ; then we can follow lines and directions and
compare tones and resemblances. Then in a word
we can enjoy one of the most charming of pleasures,
we can estimate quality, we can apply the test of
execution. The execution belongs to the author
alone; it is what is most personal to him, and we
measure him by that. The advantage, the luxury,
as well as the torment and responsibility of the
novelist, is that there is no limit to what he may
attempt as an executant no limit to his possible
experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes. Here it is
especially that he works, step by step, like his brother
of the brush, of whom we may always say that he
has painted his picture in a manner best known to
himself. His manner is his secret, not necessarily a
jealous one. He cannot disclose it as a general
thing if he would ; he would be at a loss to teach it
to others. I say this with a due recollection of
having insisted on the community of method of the
artist who paints a picture and the artist who writes
a novel. The painter is able to teach the rudiments
of his practice, and it is possible, from the study of
good work (granted the aptitude), both to learn how
to paint and to learn how to write. Yet it remains
true, without injury to the rapprochement, that the
literary artist would be obliged to say to his pupil
much more than the other, " Ah, well, you must do
it as you can ! " It is a question of degree, a matter
2c



386 THE ART OF FICTION

of delicacy. If there are exact sciences, there are also
exact arts, and the grammar of painting is so much
more definite that it makes the difference.

I ought to add, however, that if Mr. Besant says
at the beginning of his essay that the " laws of fiction
may be laid down and taught with as much precision
and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective,
and proportion," he mitigates what might appear
to be an extravagance by applying his remark to
" general " laws, and by expressing most of these
rules in a manner with which it would certainly be
unaccommodating to disagree. That the novelist
must write from his experience, that his " characters
must be real and such as might be met with in actual
life;" that "a young lady brought up in a quiet
country village should avoid descriptions of garrison
life," and "a writer whose friends and personal ex-
periences belong to the lower middle-class should
carefully avoid introducing his characters into
society;" that one should enter one's notes in a
common -place book; that one's figures should be
clear in outline ; that making them clear by some
trick of speech or of carriage is a bad method, and
" describing them at length " is a worse one ; that
English Fiction should have a " conscious moral pur-
pose;" that "it is almost impossible to estimate too
highly the value of careful workmanship that is, of
style;" that "the most important point of all is the
story," that " the story is everything " : these are
principles with most of which it is surely impossible



THE ART OF FICTION 387

not to sympathise. That remark about the lower
middle-class writer and his knowing his place is per-
haps rather chilling ; but for the rest I should find
it difficult to dissent from any one of these recom-
mendations. At the same time, I should find it diffi-
cult positively to assent to them, with the exception,
perhaps, of the injunction as to entering one's notes
in a common-place book. They scarcely seem to me
to have the quality that Mr. Besant attributes to the
rules of the novelist the " precision and exactness "
of "the laws of harmony, perspective, and propor-
tion." They are suggestive, they are even inspiring,
but they are not exact, though they are doubtless as
much so as the case admits of : which is a proof of
that liberty of interpretation for which I just con-
tended. For the value of these different injunctions
so beautiful and so vague is wholly in the mean-
ing one attaches to them. The characters, the situa-
tion, which strike one as real will be those that touch
and interest one most, but the measure of reality is
very difficult to fix. The reality of Don Quixote or
of Mr. Micawber is a very delicate shade ; it is a
reality so coloured by the author's vision that, vivid
as it may be, one would hesitate to propose it as a
model : one would expose one's self to some very
embarrassing questions on the part of a pupil. It
goes without saying that you will not write a good
novel unless you possess the sense of reality ; but it
will be difficult to give you a recipe for calling that
sense into being. Humanity is immense, and reality



388 THE ART OF FICTION

has a myriad forms ; the most one can affirm is that
some of the flowers of fiction have the odour of it,
and others have not ; as for telling you in advance
how your nosegay should be composed, that is
another affair. It is equally excellent and incon-
clusive to say that one must write from experience ;
to our supposititious aspirant such a declaration
might savour of mockery. What kind of experience
is intended, and where does it begin and end ? Ex-
perience is never limited, and it is never complete ;
it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-
web of the finest silken threads suspended in the
chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-
borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere
of the mind ; and when the mind is imaginative
much more when it happens to be that of a man of
genius it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it
converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.
The young lady living in a village has only to be a
damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite
unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she
shall have nothing to say about the military. Greater
miracles have been seen than that, imagination assist-
ing, she should speak the truth about some of these
gentlemen. I remember an English novelist, a
woman of genius, telling me that she was much com-
mended for the impression she had managed to give
in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of
the French Protestant youth. She had been asked
where she learned so much about this recondite being,



THE ART OF FICTION 389

she had been congratulated on her peculiar oppor-
tunities. These opportunities consisted in her having
once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an
open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some
of the young Protestants were seated at table round
a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture ; it
lasted only a moment, but that moment was ex-
perience. She had got her direct personal impression,
and she turned out her type. She knew what youth
was, and what Protestantism ; she also had the ad-
vantage of having seen what it was to be French, so
that she converted these ideas into a concrete image
and produced a reality. Above all, however, she was
blessed with the faculty which when you give it an
inch takes an ell, and which for the artist is a much
greater source of strength than any accident of resi-
dence or of place in the social scale. The power to
guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implica-
tion of things, to judge the whole piece by the
pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so
completely that you are well on your way to knowing
any particular corner of it this cluster of gifts may
almost be said to constitute experience, and they
occur in country and in town, and in the most differ-
ing stages of education. If experience consists of
impressions, it may be said that impressions are ex-
perience, just as (have we not seen it ?) they are the
very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly
say to a novice, " Write from experience and experi-
ence only," I should feel that this was rather a tautalis-



390 THE ART OF FICTION

ing monition if I were not careful immediately to add,
"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!"
I am far from intending by this to minimise the
importance of exactness of truth of detail. One
can speak best from one's own taste, and I may
therefore venture to say that the air of reality
(solidity of specification) seems to me to be the
supreme virtue of a novel the merit on which all
its other merits (including that conscious moral
purpose of which Mr. Besant speaks) helplessly and
submissively depend. If it be not there they are all
as nothing, and if these be there, they owe their
effect to the success with which the author has pro-
duced the illusion of life. The cultivation of this
success, the study of this exquisite process, form,
to my taste, the beginning and the end of the
art of the novelist. They are his inspiration, his
despair, his reward, his torment, his delight. It
is here in very truth that he competes with life ;
it is here that he competes with his brother the
painter in his attempt to render the look of things,
the look that conveys their meaning, to catch the
colour, the relief, the expression, the surface, the
substance of the human spectacle. It is in regard
to this that Mr. Besant is well inspired when he bids
him take notes. He cannot possibly take too many,
he cannot possibly take enough. All life solicits him,
and to "render" the simplest surface, to produce
the most momentary illusion, is a very complicated
business. His case would be easier, and the rule



THE ART OF FICTION 391

would be more exact, if Mr. Besant had been able
to tell him what notes to take. But this, I fear, he
can never learn in any manual ; it is the business of
his life. He has to take a great many in order to
select a few, he has to work them up as he can, and
even the guides and philosophers who might have
most to say to him must leave him alone when it
comes to the application of precepts, as we leave the
painter in communion with his palette. That his
characters " must be clear in outline," as Mr. Besant
says he feels that down to his boots ; but how he
shall make them so is a secret between his good
angel and himself. It would be absurdly simple if
he could be taught that a great deal of " description "
would make them so, or that on the contrary the
absence of description and the cultivation of dialogue,
or the absence of dialogue and the multiplication of
"incident," would rescue him from his difficulties.
Nothing, for instance, is more possible than that he
be of a turn of mind for which this odd, literal oppo-
sition of description and dialogue, incident and de-
scription, has little meaning and light. People often
talk of these things as if they had a kind of inter-
necine distinctness, instead of melting into each other
at every breath, and being intimately associated parts
of one general effort of expression. I cannot imagine
composition existing in a series of blocks, nor con-
ceive, in any novel worth discussing at all, of a
passage of description that is not in its intention
narrative, a passage of dialogue that is not in its



392 THE ART OF FICTION

intention descriptive, a touch of truth of any sort
that does not partake of the nature of incident, or
an incident that derives its interest from any other
source than the general and only source of the suc-
C8ss of a work of art that of being illustrative. A
novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like
any other organism, and in proportion as it lives
will it be found, I think, that in each of the parts
there is something of each of the other parts. The
critic who over the close texture of a finished work
shall pretend to trace a geography of items will mark
some frontiers as artificial, I fear, as any that have
been known to history. There is an old-fashioned
distinction between the novel of character and the
novel of incident which must have cost many a
smile to the intending fabulist who was keen about
his work. It appears to me as little to the point as
the equally celebrated distinction between the novel
and the romance to answer as little to any reality.
There are bad novels and good novels, as there are
bad pictures and good pictures ; but that is the only
distinction in which I see any meaning, and I can as
little imagine speaking of a novel of character as I
can imagine speaking of a picture of character.
When one says picture one says of character, when
one says novel one says of incident, and the terms
may be transposed at will. What is character but
the determination of incident ? What is incident
but the illustration of character 1 What is either a
picture or a novel that is not of character ? What



THE ART OF FICTION 393

else do we seek in it and find in it ? It is an incident
for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on
a table and look out at you in a certain way ; or if
it be not an incident I think it will be hard to say
what it is. At the same time it is an expression of
character. If you say you don't see it (character in
that allons done/), this is exactly what the artist
who has reasons of his own for thinking he does
see it undertakes to show you. When a young man
makes up his mind that he has not faith enough
after all to enter the church as he intended, that is
an incident, though you may not hurry to the end
of the chapter to see whether perhaps he doesn't
change once more. I do not say that these are ex-
traordinary or startling incidents. I do not pretend to
estimate the degree of interest proceeding from them,
for this will depend upon the skill of the painter. It
sounds almost puerile to say that some incidents are
intrinsically much more important than others, and I
need not take this precaution after having professed
my sympathy for the major ones in remarking that the
only classification of the novel that I can understand
is into that which has Life and that which has it not.
The novel and the romance, the novel of incident
and that of character these clumsy separations appear
to me to have been made by critics and readers for
their own convenience, and to help them out of some
of their occasional queer predicaments, but to have
little reality or interest for the producer, from whose
point of view it is of course that we are attempting



394 THE ART OF FICTION

to consider the art of fiction. The case is the same
with another shadowy category which Mr. Besant ap-
parently is disposed to set up that of the " modern
English novel " ; unless indeed it be that in this matter
he has fallen into an accidental confusion of stand-
points. It is not quite clear whether he intends the
remarks in which he alludes to it to be didactic or
historical. It is as difficult to suppose a person in-
tending to write a modern English as to suppose
him writing an ancient English novel : that is a label
which begs the question. One writes the novel, one
paints the picture, of one's language and of one's time,
and calling it modern English will not, alas ! make the
difficult task any easier. No more, unfortunately, will
calling this or that work of one's fellow-artist a romance
unless it be, of course, simply for the pleasantness
of the thing, as for instance when Hawthorne gave
this heading to his story of Blithedale. The French,
who have brought the theory of fiction to remark-
able completeness, have but one name for the novel,
and have not attempted smaller things in it, that I
can see, for that. I can think of no obligation to
which the "romancer" would not be held equally
with the novelist; the standard of execution is
equally high for each. Of course it is of execution
that we are talking that being the only point of a
novel that is open to contention. This is perhaps
too often lost sight of, only to produce interminable
confusions and cross-purposes. We must grant the
artist his subject, his idea, his donnfo : our criticism is



THE ART OF FICTION 395

applied only to what he makes of it. Naturally I
do not mean that we are bound to like it or find it
interesting : in case we do not our course is per-
fectly simple to let it alone. We may believe that
of a certain idea even the most sincere novelist can
make nothing at all, and the' event may perfectly
justify our belief; but the failure will have been a
failure to execute, and it is in the execution that the
fatal weakness is recorded. If we pretend to respect
the artist at all, we must allow him his freedom of
choice, in the face, in particular cases, of innumerable
presumptions that the choice will not fructify. Art
derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise
from flying in the face of presumptions, and some of the
most interesting experiments of which it is capable are
hidden in the bosom of common things. Gustave Flau-
bert has written a story about the devotion of a servant-
girl to a parrot, and the production, highly finished as
it is, cannot on the whole be called a success. We are
perfectly free to find it flat, but I think it might have
been interesting ; and I, for my part, am extremely
glad he should have written it ; it is a contribution to
our knowledge of what can be done or what cannot.
Ivan Turge'nieff has written a tale about a deaf and
dumb serf and a lap-dog, and the thing is touching,
loving, a little masterpiece. He struck the note of
life where Gustave Flaubert missed it he flew in
the face of a presumption and achieved a victory.

Nothing, of course, will ever take the place of the
good old fashion of "liking" a work of art or not



396 THE AKT OF FICTION

liking it : the most improved criticism will not abolish
that primitive, that ultimate test. I mention this to
guard myself from the accusation of intimating that
the idea, the subject, of a novel or a picture, does
not matter. It matters, to my sense, in the highest
degree, and if I might put up a prayer it would be
that artists should select none but the richest. Some,
as I have already hastened to admit, are much more
remunerative than others, and it would be a world
happily arranged in which persons intending to treat
them should be exempt from confusions and mis-
takes. This fortunate condition will arrive only, I
fear, on the same day that critics become purged
from error. Meanwhile, I repeat, we do not judge
the artist with fairness unless we say to him, " Oh, I
grant you your starting-point, because if I did not I
should seem to prescribe to you, and heaven forbid I
should take that responsibility. If I pretend to tell
you what you must not take, you will call upon me
to tell you then what you must take ; in which case
I shall be prettily caught. Moreover, it isn't till I
have accepted your data that I can begin to measure
you. I have the standard, the pitch ; I have no
right to tamper with your flute and then criticise
your music. Of course I may not care for your idea
at all ; I may think it silly, or stale, or unclean ; in
which case I wash my hands of you altogether. I
may content myself with believing that you will not
have succeeded in being interesting, but I shall, of
course, not attempt to demonstrate it, and you will



THE ART OF FICTION 397

be as indifferent to me as I am to you. I needn't
remind you that there are all sorts of tastes : who
can know it better 1 ? Some people, for excellent
reasons, don't like to read about carpenters ; others,
for reasons even better, don't like to read about
courtesans. Many object to Americans. Others (I
believe they are mainly editors and publishers) won't
look at Italians. Some readers don't like quiet
subjects ; others don't like bustling ones. Some
enjoy a complete illusion, others the consciousness
of large concessions. They choose their novels accord-
ingly, and if they don't care about your idea they
won't, a fortiori, care about your treatment."

So that it comes back very quickly, as I have said,
to the liking : in spite of M Zola, who reasons less
powerfully than he represents, and who will not re-
concile himself to this absoluteness of taste, thinking
that there are certain things that people ought to
like, and that they can be made to like. I am quite
at a loss to imagine anything (at any rate in this
matter of fiction) that people ought to like or to dislike.
Selection will be sure to take care of itself, for it has
a constant motive behind it. That motive is simply
experience. As people feel life, so they will feel the
art that is most closely related to it. This closeness
of relation is what we should never forget in talking
of the effort of the novel. Many people speak of it
as a factitious, artificial form, a product of ingenuity,
the business of which is to alter and arrange the
things that surround us, to translate them into con-



398 THE ART OF FICTION

ventional, traditional moulds. This, however, is a
view of the matter which carries us but a very short
way, condemns the art to an eternal repetition of a
few familiar cliches, cuts short its development, and
leads us straight up to a dead wall. Catching the
very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of
life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps
Fiction upon her feet. In proportion as in what she
offers us we see life without rearrangement do we feel
that we are touching the truth ; in proportion as we
see it with rearrangement do we feel that we are
being put off with a substitute, a compromise and
convention. It is not uncommon to hear an extra-
ordinary assurance of remark in regard to this matter
of rearranging, which is often spoken of as if it were
the last word of art. Mr. Besant seems to me in
danger of falling into the great error with his rather
unguarded talk about " selection." Art is essentially
selection, but it is a selection whose main care is to
be typical, to be inclusive. For many people art
means rose-coloured window-panes, and selection
means picking a bouquet for Mrs. Grundy. They
will tell you glibly that artistic considerations have
nothing to do with the disagreeable, with the ugly ;
they will rattle off shallow commonplaces about the
province of art and the limits of art till you are
moved to some wonder in return as to the province
and the limits of ignorance. It appears to me that
no one can ever have made a seriously artistic attempt
without becoming conscious of an immense increase



THE ART OF FICTION 399

a kind of revelation of freedom. One perceives
in that case by the light of a heavenly ray that
the province of art is all life, all feeling, all observa-
tion, all vision. As Mr. Besant so justly intimates,
it is all experience. That is a sufficient answer to
those who maintain that it must not touch the sad
things of life, who stick into its divine unconscious
bosom little prohibitory inscriptions on the end of
sticks, such as we see in public gardens " It is for-
bidden to walk on the grass ; it is forbidden to touch
the flowers ; it is not allowed to introduce dogs or
to remain after dark ; it is requested to keep to the
right," The young aspirant in the line of fiction
whom we continue to imagine will do nothing with-
out taste, for in that case his freedom would be of little
use to him ; but the first advantage of his taste will
be to reveal to him the absurdity of the little sticks
and tickets. If he have taste, I must add, of course
he will have ingenuity, and my disrespectful reference
to that quality just now was not meant to imply that
it is useless in fiction. But it is only a secondary
aid; the first is a capacity for receiving straight
impressions.

Mr. Besant has some remarks on the question of
" the story " which I shall not attempt to criticise,
though they seem to me to contain a singular am-
biguity, because I do not think I understand them.
I cannot see what is meant by talking as if there
were a part of a novel which is the story and part of
it which for mystical reasons is not unless indeed



400 THE ART OF FICTION

the distinction be made in a sense in which it is
difficult to suppose that any one should attempt to
convey anything. "The story," if it represents any-
thing, represents the subject, the idea, the donn6e
of the novel ; and there is surely no " school" Mr.
Besant speaks of a school which urges that a novel
should be all treatment and no subject. There must
assuredly be something to treat; every school is
intimately conscious of that. This sense of the
story being the idea, the starting-point, of the novel,
is the only one that I see in which it can be spoken
of as something different from its organic whole;
and since in proportion as the work is successful the
idea permeates and penetrates it, informs and ani-
mates it, so that every word and every punctuation-
point contribute directly to the expression, in that


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Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 23 of 24)