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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists


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  • 1 The House of Fiction, p. 75.

… it is in the waste … the waste of time, of passion, of curiosity, of contact—that true initiation resides; so that the most wonderful adventures of the artist’s spirit are those, immensely quickening for his ‘authority’, that are yet not reducible to his notes.1

  • 2 At the time when Henry Vizetelly was sentenced in England for having translated and diffused Zola’ (...)

1The reception of Zola in the Anglo-Saxon world throws light not only on the situation of the novel there but also on the difficulty for the Anglo-Saxon mind to accept European pessimism in general and the deterministic explanation of man’s behaviour in particular.2 For such a temperament as James’s, Zola’s crudity was a bitter pill to swallow. Nothing was more opposed to his own delicate sensibility than Zola’s directness, violence and aggressivity, nothing more opposed to his sense of the relative and of individual freedom than the rigour of Zola’s method and his strict obedience to a system. It is quite natural, therefore, that his first contact with Zola should have provoked, on James’s part, a violent reaction. During his stay in Paris in 1875-1876, at the time when, as a correspondent to the Tribune, he expressed his disgust for Barye’s animals, Carpeaux’ naked figures, and realism in general, James also spoke of the “brutal indecency” of Son Excellence Eugène Rougon in his review for the American paper:

  • 3 Parisian Sketches, p. 135.

Emile Zola, a “pupil” of Gustave Flaubert, is, as a novelist, the most thoroughgoing of the little band of the out-and-out realists. Unfortunately the real, for him, means exclusively the unclean, and he utters his crudities with an air of bravado which makes them doubly intolerable.3

2In 1880 James wrote a review of Nana for the Parisian. Though the book is dull, he says, it might have been interesting.

3Wilhelm Meister, Clarissa Harlowe, Romola, are not amusing, yet they possess a human savour not to be found in Nana. English readers will be unable to like the book because of its “monstrous uncleanness.” Why, James wonders, should realism be necessarily allied with the impure?

  • 4 The House of Fiction, p. 276.

On what authority does M. Zola represent nature to us as a combination of the cesspool and the house of prostitution? On what authority does he represent foulness rather than fairness as the sign that we are to know her by? On the authority of his predilections alone.4

  • 5 Ibid., p. 277.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 279.

4Actually, James was adverse to Zola’s choice of subject but would not appear intolerant and therefore made his criticism bear on Zola’s lack of taste in his treatment of the subject. Taste, James writes, is “the most human faculty we possess, and as the novel may be said to be the most human form of art, it is a poor speculation to put the two things out of conceit of each other.”5 Zola lacks not only taste but also a sense of humour that would have disinfected his work. What strikes the English reader of Nana is “the extraordinary absence of humour, the dryness, the solemnity, the air of tension and effort.”6 Zola disapproves of wit, which he considers an impertinence in a novel, and he would also disapprove of humour, James adds, if he had the least suspicion of what it is. Finally, Zola is not even a good psychologist and in spite of their artistic levity the English have a better perception of character:

  • 7 Ibid., p. 280.

We are by disposition better psychologists… we have… a deeper, more delicate perception of the play of character and the state of the soul… French novelists are at bottom, with all their extra freedom, a good deal more conventional than our own.7

5Nana does not escape this reproach and is as conventional as the rest:

  • 8 Ibid., p. 280.

The figure of the brutal fille, without a conscience or a soul, with nothing but devouring appetites and impudences, has become the stalest of the stock properties of French fiction, and M. Zola’s treatment has here imparted to her no touch of superior verity. He is welcome to draw as many figures of the same type as he finds necessary, if he will only make them human; this is as good a way of making a contribution to our knowledge of ourselves as another. It is not his choice of subject that has shocked us; it is the melancholy dryness of his execution, which gives us all the bad taste of a disagreeable dish and none of the nourishment.8

6Though he professes great respect for Zola’s effort and theory James completely disagrees with the application. Yet he thinks that Zola should be read in the Anglo-Saxon world because his seriousness and passionate conviction would be an excellent antidote to the “insipidity” of the English novel. This man without timidity, without restriction and with strong general views, would appear all the more revolutionary there in comparison with the three-volumed circulating library novels written by timid young ladies and addressed to inexperienced girls and spinsters.

7At the end of his essay on “The Art of Fiction,” James addresses himself to younger writers as Zola does at the end of “L’argent dans la littérature.” He also expresses ideas similar to those of the French novelist when he says that any corner of life may be explored, that there is no impression of it, no manner of seeing or feeling it to which the novelist may not offer a place. Zola’s prodigious effort in France should be emulated in England, but without his pessimism because it tends to vitiate his effort:

  • 9 Ibid., p. 45.

In France to-day we see a prodigious effort (that of Emile Zola, to whose solid and serious work no explorer of the capacity of the novel can allude without respect), we see an extraordinary effort vitiated by a spirit of pessimism on a narrow basis. M. Zola is magnificent, but he strikes an English reader as ignorant; he has an air of working in the dark; if he had as much light as energy, his results would be of the highest value.9

  • 10 Letters. I, 105.
  • 11 Partial Portraits, p. 209.

8This was addressed to an English audience. When he writes to Howells from Paris in February of the same year James’s advice is less moderate. He regards his friend as the great American naturalist but he thinks that Howells does not go far enough. He should read Zola to see what can be done in that field, and particularly La Joie de Vivre, which is “admirably solid and serious.”10 In his portrait of Alphonse Daudet in 1883, James had alluded to Zola, saying that nobody would accuse the latter of having a perception of the beautiful: “He has an illimitable, and at times, a very valuable, sense of the ugly, of the unclean; but when he addresses himself to the poetic aspect of things as in La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret, he is apt to have terrible misadventures.”11 Just as he describes crowds better than individuals, Zola is better when he depicts ugly rather than beautiful or poetical subjects. The energy of the man may be prodigious, it does not counterbalance his negative side: the lack of taste and psychology, the absence of humour and originality.

  • 12 The House of Fiction, p. 222.

9After this James wrote nothing on Zola for sixteen years, and the long article he sent to the Atlantic Monthly in 1902 shows that his judgment has gained in penetration. James has overcome old prejudices and expresses his unqualified admiration for what he considers good in a temperament so wholly different from his own. He compares Zola with the grand sowers or reapers of Millet duskily outlined against the sky. He stresses the “anomaly of the adoption of the futile art by one of the stoutest minds and stoutest characters of our time.”12 That such a young man should once have sat down to Les Rougon-Mac quart rather than to an equal task in physics, mathematics, politics or economics is still matter for bewilderment for James, but it exemplifies once more, he says, the pliancy of the novel, its capacity of adjustment to the temperament of the artist. James seems to have advanced beyond the terms “vulgar,” “impure,” and “unclean” when writing on Zola. He compares the Rougon-Mac quart to a gigantic pyramid which Zola had planned from the start, piling up bricks and stones as he proceeded. He distinguishes in it three parts of unequal value. The first part (including such works as La Débâcle, L’Assommoir, Le Ventre de Paris) is the best because subject and treatment work together in perfect harmony.

  • 13 Ibid., p. 242.

10James has been re-reading La Débâcle and he says that in the glow of his admiration he is ready to take back every reservation he had ever made before. He calls L’Assommoir the most extraordinary record of Zola’s genius and Gervaise the most immediately “felt” of all his characters. In such books, he says, “the author’s perceptions go straight, and the subject, grateful and responsive, gives itself wholly up. It is no longer a case of an uncertain smoky torch, but of a personal vision, the vision of genius, springing from an inward source.”13 Even Zola’s crudity has become an asset in James’s eyes. The pictures of L’Assommoir or Le Ventre de Paris would lack something if they were milder. They needed all the writer’s virility and vigour since they aim at rendering a world with which taste has nothing to do. As for the sense of proportion, James says that Zola’s lack of it is often more noticeable in the work of those he scandalized than in his own. The way Zola goes to work partakes of the general seriousness of French literature. James recalls two of his Sunday afternoons in Paris when men of letters exchanged remarks on their works and ambitions:

  • 14 Ibid., p. 231.

‘Well, I, on my side,’ I remember Zola’s saying, ‘am engaged on a book, a study of the mœurs of the people for which I am making a collection of all the’ bad words, ‘the gros mots, of the language, those with which the vocabulary of the people, those with which their familiar talk, bristles.’ I was struck with the tone in which he made the announcement—without bravado and without apology, as an interesting idea that had come to him and that he was working, really to arrive at character and particular truth, with all his conscience; just as I was struck with the unqualified interest that his plan excited. It was on a plan that he was working—formidably, almost grimly, as his fatigued face showed; and the whole consideration of this interesting element partook of the general seriousness.14

11Where, then, did Zola fail? He did as soon as he became presumptuous, as soon as he decided to give, for instance in The Three Cities, a picture of Rome though his knowledge of Italy was far from adequate for such purpose. To write his former novels he had inquired patiently and conscientiously but as he grew older his art became mechanical mainly, James says, because sooner or later, lack of taste must lead to a breaking down of the imagination itself:

  • 15 Ibid., pp. 237-238.

There is simply no limit, in fine, to the misfortune of being tasteless; it does not merely disfigure the surface and the fringe of your performance—it eats back into the very heart and enfeebles the sources of life. When you have no taste you have no discretion, which is the conscience of taste, and when you have no discretion you perpetrate books like Rome, which are without intellectual modesty, books like Fécondité, which are without a sense of the ridiculous, books like Vérité, which are without the finer vision of human experience.15

12It was Zola’s mistake to go on writing after his imagination was spent. The great novels of his early career provided him with a method for his later books, a kind of recipe that could be applied afterwards to whatever subject he might choose to treat. He should have stopped then, just as Flaubert should have stopped after Madame Bovary. But if they had been more perfect the two French writers would have lost much of their interest: their very failure is a lesson for the younger novelists. Zola failed in the books of the second and third groups, i.e., when he started on works dealing with the life of individuals and centering round their personal character and career, or in works appealing more directly to the moral sense. These books appear to James as a kind of literary curiosity, not to say monstrosity:

  • 16 Ibid., p. 240.

Nothing might interest us more, literally, and might positively affect us more, even very nearly to tears, though indeed sometimes also to smiles, than to see the constructor of Les Rougon-Macquart trying, ‘for all he is worth,’ to be fine with fineness, finely tender, finely true—trying to be, as it is called, distinguished—in face of constitutional hindrance.16

13James’s main objection is of course to Zola’s determinism. Science can be interesting as long as we use it, as long as we apply the scientific method to art, but the artist cannot allow himself to become the mere instrument of science.

14Coming back to such masterpieces as L’Assommoir and La Débâcle, James wonders how Zola could get so near to universality: he was sedentary, with a limited experience of life, he was “scientific” with a preconceived plan for his work, his psychology was rudimentary and coarse, and yet each book is a triumph and bears the stamp of genius. How, James wonders, could something so vivid be made out of mere documents, how could such a book be produced simply by following a method? For it gives an impression of solidity, never of the superficial and the cheap. Unlike Balzac, who also had cadres for his work, Zola never seems to be personally overtaken by life. There is no link between the personal life and the process of creation: everything is planned from the start and nothing can modify the project. On one single occasion—the Dreyfus affair—Zola tried to dramatize his personal experience, but this experience appears to have been wasted for his creative intelligence: Vérité was a complete failure. Yet James concludes by expressing his respect and his admiration for the French novelist. Even if Zola did not quite succeed in rendering the private and the intimate he will live and be recognized as a great writer thanks to his expression of the promiscuous and the collective.

  • 17 Ibid., p. 74.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 75.

15James seems to have grasped Zola’s intention but also the failure of his enterprise. In “The Lesson of Balzac” (1905) he refers to Les Rougon-Macquart as a “monument to the idea of plenitude, of comprehension and variety, second only to the Comédie Humaine.17 But he adds that the work would not have existed without the example of Balzac and that, unlike the Comédie Humaine, it is greatly vitiated by its mechanical treatment. It has a solid, symmetrical structure, but Zola, who had planned it from the first and wanted to waste no time, was obliged to leave out the life of the soul and to stick almost exclusively to the directly observable. He had not Balzac’s immersion in, and sympathy for, his subject because he was afraid of wasting his time. Yet, “it is in the waste,” James feels, “that true initiation resides.”18 Zola believed in science and was convinced that it could explain everything and give us the last word about human behaviour. That is why he left out what James calls the “mystic process,” by which reality is transformed under the aesthetic vision of the artist. Zola’s works therefore generally appear, not as a representation of life—that is, as an image of life coloured by the artist’s mind—but as a mere copy of it. It was pure chance when he now and then struck the right note.

  • 19 Emile Zola, Le roman expérimental, p. 15.

16Apart from their common faith in the future of the novel, James and Zola were at the antipodes from each other. Zola’s art was that of the fresco rather than that of the portrait; he conceived of form as an architectural whole, an accumulation of details, not as the “figure in the carpet”; his favourite field was the social and the political, not the moral and personal. Whereas James always refused to submit to any given system, Zola believed that nothing is more important than the formula, the method. He rejected a preconceived idea of the absolute but in doing this he simply replaced the old metaphysical absolute by a new physiological and scientific absolute. Both were equally objectionable to James, and nothing was more alien to his relativistic and empirical mind than Zola’s conviction that “un même déterminisme doit régir la pierre des chemins et le cerveau de l’homme.”19


1 The House of Fiction, p. 75.

2 At the time when Henry Vizetelly was sentenced in England for having translated and diffused Zola’s novels, a dozen versions—which were, of course, carefully expurgated—had already appeared in America.

3 Parisian Sketches, p. 135.

4 The House of Fiction, p. 276.

5 Ibid., p. 277.

6 Ibid., p. 279.

7 Ibid., p. 280.

8 Ibid., p. 280.

9 Ibid., p. 45.

10 Letters. I, 105.

11 Partial Portraits, p. 209.

12 The House of Fiction, p. 222.

13 Ibid., p. 242.

14 Ibid., p. 231.

15 Ibid., pp. 237-238.

16 Ibid., p. 240.

17 Ibid., p. 74.

18 Ibid., p. 75.

19 Emile Zola, Le roman expérimental, p. 15.

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