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Henry James

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Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists

Mérimée

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Death of the Lion, Complete Tales, IX, 95.

His old program, his old ideal even had to be changed. Say what one would, success was a complication and recognition had to be reciprocal.1

1In Notes of a Son and Brother James relates that John La Farge introduced him to Browning, Balzac and Mérimée, and exhorted him to translate La Vénus d’llle. James followed his advice and also translated Tamango and Mateo Falcone. In his 1898 article he writes that from the moment he saw his manuscript come back, unaccepted, he knew that Mérimée was “distinguished.” All his life James was to remember his very first contact with La Vénus d’llle:

  • 2 Literature, III (23 July 1898), 66.

That was the first flush of a sentiment destined to last for many a year and of which the ashes are not even at present completely cold. La Vénus d’llle struck my immaturity as a masterpiece of art and offered to the young curiosity concerned that sharpest of all challenges of youth, the challenge as to the special source of the effect. It may in these days seem monstrous, but there are readers who, while still schoolboys, wonder more even how the thing is done than how the tangle will come out.2

  • 3 Loc. cit.
  • 4 Loc. cit.

2James was one of those precocious schoolboys and he tried to discover the secret of Mérimée’s manner. “The poison of the ‘short story’ was evidently in one’s blood,” he further writes, “when Tamango, Mateo Falcone, L’Enlèvement de la Redoute had the magic of an edge so fine and a surface so smooth.”3 The tales brought home to the young inexperienced writer “the lesson of a mysterious selection and conviction.”4 James elsewhere stresses the attractiveness of the tales, in which a fantastic or supernatural element is presented against a background of hard realism, and he says that in La Vénus d’llle Mérimée has succeeded in making the reader almost believe in the actuality of his bronze statue.

  • 5 French Poets and Novelists, p. 391.

3What James principally admires in Mérimée is his sobriety. The subject matter of his tales influenced the romantiques of 1830, but James regrets that they were not equally influenced by their form. Hugo and George Sand would have lost nothing had they emulated Mérimée’s conscious sobriety and extraordinary conciseness. Like Maupassant after him, Mérimée succeeds in conveying a state of mind through gesture and action. He hardly ever reveals his characters’ thoughts or analyses their emotions. His tales are admirable for their “pregnant concision and for a firmness of contour suggesting hammered metal.”5 Unfortunately, James says, they are completely void of moral concern and of sentiment. There is no reprobation, no compassion, nothing that resembles a feeling:

  • 6 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 171.

Not to be sentimental, not to be moral, not to be rhetorical, but to have simply a sort of gentlemanly, epicurean relish for the bitterness of the general human lot, and to distil it into little polished silver cups—this was Mérimée’s conscious effort, and this was his rare success.6

4That is why, though in later years James still saw the work as beautifully done, he also found it extraordinarily meagre:

  • 7 Literature, III, 67.

It was the best way to write, yes—but was it, altogether, the best way to be? The question only made the author more interesting—opened up vistas as to the connexion, as it were—between the talent and the soul.7

  • 8 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 166.

5The publication of the Lettres à une Inconnue in 1874 refreshed James’s interest in the French writer. In his review of those letters he remarks that their being disclosed to the public by the lady herself supposes a frankness more common in France than in Anglo-Saxon countries. In 1876 appeared the Lettres à une autre Inconnue, and James also reviewed them. Reminding his readers of the review he had written two years before, he says that the book gave rise to much criticism but that nobody thought of blaming the lady who had not hesitated to make public, after the death of her lover, thirty years of their private history. Here is another “unknown,” he adds, who does not scruple either to give her friend away and who must have reflected that to have been a correspondent of Mérimée was a remunerative situation. The letters have no value and add nothing to Mérimée’s reputation, which is by now quite established. He has received his due and even more than his due, and “so small an investment of talent has certainly never brought in a higher interest of fame.”8 But if the letters add nothing to Mérimée’s reputation they help James to clear up the puzzle of his relative sterility. On reading them he realizes that Mérimée was in fact a whole century removed from his own time: he was a classicist who despised romanticism:

  • 9 Literature, III, 67.

So sharp a light does Mérimée throw, in his way, on the whole “classic” business in France, showing us both what queer things, in the old order, could go with it and what indispensable ones it could go without. Here come in his contradictions and harsh inconsistencies—of surface at all events; the whole range of anomaly illustrated by the sterility of his rare talent, flowering into a mere handful of small pieces, and by his having at once so much curiosity and so much prejudice.9

6Mérimée wanted to appear as the man of the world, and that man killed the artist. His disbelief in fine things together with his contempt for the age he lived in made his work run dry:

  • 10 Ibid, p. 68.

He died, intellectually speaking, of dryness, too young, only at last to come to life again in a form in which the dryness —figuring so as purely personal and whimsical—was not only fatal, but was susceptible of an extraordinary renovation.10

7Without the letters the whole case would have remained a mystery. But the letters present Mérimée as an habitué of the court of the Empress, a man of the world, modern, cosmopolitan, polyglot. Having many things to talk about he by far surpassed the leisure-less Balzacs and Gautiers as a letter-writer. But it is difficult and even impossible to be both an artist and a man of the world. Public life generally means the “death of the lion.” Neil Paraday is protected as long as he is no success, but his recognition in fashionable society is also the beginning of his decline as an artist.

  • 11 Ibid., p. 66.

8In Mérimée’s case the artist was sacrificed to the man’s love of life. James, however, cannot help admiring him; he finds him provoking to the critical sense and complete in spite of his limitation, “which is partly, doubtless, because he was in the worldly way a success, and led his life much as he chose.”11 Mérimée was, after all, quite free to choose, and his decision to turn his back on talent in order to become a man of the world could only fill James with a mixture of awe and admiration.

Notes

1 The Death of the Lion, Complete Tales, IX, 95.

2 Literature, III (23 July 1898), 66.

3 Loc. cit.

4 Loc. cit.

5 French Poets and Novelists, p. 391.

6 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 171.

7 Literature, III, 67.

8 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 166.

9 Literature, III, 67.

10 Ibid, p. 68.

11 Ibid., p. 66.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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