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Henry James

 | 
Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists

Stendhal

Texte intégral

  • 1 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 157.

We recommend his books to persons of “sensibility” whose moral convictions have somewhat solidified.1

1James was ready to accept any subject, however morally “bad,” provided the writer should be aware of the moral complexities involved in human life and in human behaviour. This appears best in his reaction towards Stendhal, whose unconventional characters are real models of psychological analysis, but certainly not models of virtue. Andrew Paton’s biography of Stendhal provided James with an opportunity to write on the author of the Chartreuse de Parme. The review dates from 1874, and this is all he ever wrote on Stendhal.

  • 2 Ibid., p. 154.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 157.
  • 4 Loc. cit.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 155.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 156.

2The little esteem in which James holds Le Rouge et te Noir, a book, he says, which “comes nearest to being absolutely unreadable,”2 is the first thing that strikes us, especially if we forget that Stendhal’s cynicism was completely alien to James’s temperament. The American did not understand how the French writer could find beauty and sublimity in his most immoral characters and think that “one may perfectly well live a scandalous life and sit up half the night reading Dante in a glow of pure rapture.”3 James, however, does not reject Stendhal’s immorality as a whole; he does not always find it vicious. All depends, he says, on the subjects Stendhal handled. Le Rouge et le Noir and De L’Amour, for instance, have “an air of unredeemed corruption.”4 The Chartreuse de Parme, on the contrary, “will always be numbered among the dozen finest novels we possess”5 in spite of the fact that the doctrine professed in it—that the passions or the power to surrender oneself to the feeling of the moment is the finest thing in the world—is quite incompatible with James’s old moralistic canons. Each of the characters in the book is grossly immoral but “there is so little attempt to offer any other, that through the magnificently sustained pauses of the narrative we feel at last the influence of the writer’s cynicism, regard it as amiable, and enjoy serenely his clear vision of the mechanism of character, unclouded by the mists of prejudice.”6

  • 7 Ibid., p. 69.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 153.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 152.

3Stendhal worked in perfect freedom and did not conform to principles or rules imposed from outside. His instinctive gift for observation made him a valuable travelling companion for the American writer and his heroes. James calls him “the divinity of whom M. Taine is the prophet,”7 but he admires Stendhal’s method as much as he dislikes Taine’s systems. The former started from small facts and noticed that much could be explained by circumstances, while Taine, with his genius for theory and generalizations, used his unordered data to construct a whole system. It is interesting to observe, James writes, that “in his attempts to theorize, Beyle is always flimsy and erratic” whereas “in his attempts to collect small facts in the manner of Beyle (as in Monsieur Graindorge), M. Taine is generally ponderous and infelicitous.”8 In order to illustrate Stendhal’s love of small facts James quotes a letter in which the French writer asks his sister to help him to find out more about provincial manners: “Contribute to my knowledge of women, facts, facts! I have a passionate desire to know human nature, and a great mind to live in a boarding-house, where people cannot conceal their real characters.”9 James had certainly been struck by this letter for he alludes to it again in The Pension Beaurepas, in which the narrator, an admirer of the Chartreuse de Parme, follows in the footsteps of its author and like him is convinced that there is no better place than a boarding-house to pick up human material.

4Though he judges him the most immoral of writers, James sincerely admires Stendhal because, unlike Feuillet or Dumas, Stendhal is not superficial. Under the cool and easy style a painful tension can be felt, and this restlessness is the mark of a superior mind. More Anglo-Saxon than French in his constant effort to express himself in concrete terms, Stendhal was sure to find a sympathetic critic in Henry James, who shared his dislike of abstractions and systems and was as loath to generalize as himself.

Notes

1 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 157.

2 Ibid., p. 154.

3 Ibid., p. 157.

4 Loc. cit.

5 Ibid., p. 155.

6 Ibid., p. 156.

7 Ibid., p. 69.

8 Ibid., p. 153.

9 Ibid., p. 152.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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