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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists


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  • 1 Letter to Edmund Gosse, 1893. Letters, I, 208.

I drink him down as he is—like a philtre or a baiser, and the coloration of his moindre mot has a peculiar magic for me.1

  • 2 Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 165.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 169.

1To the limited Parisian horizon of the Goncourt brothers James opposes Loti’s world-wide scene, to their pettiness and splitting of hairs, his charm and exuberant exoticism. Yet to James he is another good illustration of the French mind, a living manifestation of the national genius: the French have developed a remarkable art of expressing the life of the senses (Daudet, Maupassant, Goncourt), but they cease to be experts when they have to picture the inward life. George Sand and Octave Feuillet are perhaps exceptions in that they turned to the life of the soul, but the former gives us no close representation and the latter finds little more in the spirit than “the liveliest phenomena of the flesh.”2 The result of the prevailing French interest for the external world is an obvious lack of proportion in their works. They are good painters but poor analysts. They should be punished, James says, for that collective sin against proportion, but they are not: they sin with impunity, and Loti is one of the best examples of their “irritating mastery of the trick of eating your cake and having it.”3

  • 4 Impressions, Introduction, pp. 3-4.

2When he considers Loti’s novels the English reader may object that the exploits depicted in them can hardly be called “action” since they are more relaxing than tonic and merely consist of confidences about erotic experiences in foreign countries. Indeed the Anglo-American novelists, from Smollett to Marryat and Cooper, have a very different notion of adventure. Unlike Loti, in whose world the man of action and the man of observation melt together, these writers generally assume that “adventures are mainly for those who lack the fiddle-bow and the fiddle-bow all for those condemned to chamber-music.”4 But James does not mind what a book is provided it gives him much pleasure, which Loti’s works always do. This does not mean that James’s praise is unqualified. He reproaches Loti with lack of composition and censures the décousu quality of his works, particularly of Mon Frère Yves. He also deplores the vulgarity of the facts, a vulgarity which the exotic glow of the whole does not entirely disguise. Loti felt attracted to, and fascinated by, a kind of primitive humanity and he took seriously people and things which, in James’s eyes, certainly do not deserve it. He did not even seem to suspect the moral complications inevitably proceeding from intimate personal relations, although

  • 5 Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 183.

the closer, the more intimate is a personal relation, the more we look in it for the human drama, the variations and complications, the note of responsibility for which we appeal in vain to the loves of the quadrupeds. Fairly to satisfy us in this way such a relation is not, as Mr. Matthew Arnold says of American civilisation, interesting.5

  • 6 Ibid., p. 169.

3But the author’s imagination succeeds in lighting everything up and in making us forget the lack of taste and the complacent animalism of most works. He performs so beautifully “as to kick up a fine golden dust over the question of what he contains—or what he doesn’t.”6 Besides, the parts concerned with the senses largely compensate for the weakness of those dealing with the complicated heart. The impressions are merely physical and the senses vibrate to every possible impression.

  • 7 Impressions, Introduction, p. 4.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 13.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 11.
  • 10 Notebooks, p. 133.

4In his Introduction to Impressions James reaffirms his love for the French novelist and says that he has been under his charm from the very first reading. Though he is no better analyst than most other French writers of his time, Loti pleases him more because his horizon is wider than theirs. He is the one “for whom Paris, with its screen of many folds, least shuts off the rest of the globe.”7 He does not confine himself to Paris, and his works do not lack space and air. Of course his creatures do not bear the mark of the place where they live, they are simply “globe creatures, with the great arch of the sky for two-thirds of their consciousness, becoming no uglier by anything that may happen to them than birds become by the traps and missies of man.”8 This, in fact, is the very reason why James tolerates Loti far better than the others. He confesses that if the same creatures were “mewed and stewed in closed rooms in dark towns” it would be quite different and he would never stand the writer’s intimate confidences about them. Loti is no moralist and his only philosophy is the philosophy of the imagination. His characters “have come into the world mainly to feel and he, upon their heels, mainly to feel [or them.”9 His singular power to tell is his value. In his Notebooks James mentions the thinness of Matelot but also its incomparable charm,10 and he transcribes a passage that strikes him as particularly beautiful. He later urges Edmund Gosse to read that passage aloud; perhaps James writes,

  • 11 Letters, I, 208.

you will find in it something of the same strange eloquence of suggestion and rhythm as I do: which is what literature gives when it is most exquisite and which constitutes its sovereign value and its resistance to devouring time.11

  • 12 Impressions, Introduction, p. 20.

5A writer’s eloquence always finds James willing to let himself be carried away on the great waves of romance. He does not mind Loti’s liberty with the real because the reality created is so living and charming. After reading Loti the reader does not want to visit the strange and distant places the writer describes for fear they should prove less attractive, less beguiling than their creator has made them: “he leaves us,” James writes “with a fear of finding strange things themselves not so true as he is true to their surprising essence.12

  • 13 Notes on Novelists, p. 352.
  • 14 Preface to Letters from America by Rupert Brooke (London, 1916), p. xxi.

6James comes back to Loti’s charm in the London Notes of 1897. He admits that it is difficult to criticize him because “he performs in an air in which, on the part of the spectator, analysis withers and only submission lives.”13 If Loti represents the triumph of instinct, never was instinct so sustained and unerring; if he is often loose, never was looseness so much pervaded by proportion. Loti has been endowed with a rich poetic nature, and James evokes him again in the very last lines he wrote before dying, the preface to Rupert Brooke’s Letters from America. Speaking of the young poet killed in the Dardanelles as “a creature on whom the gods had smiled their brightest, and half of whose manifestation therefore was by the simple act of presence and of discreet communication,”14 James further writes that for the quality of their imagination Stevenson and Loti could perhaps be compared to him, even though they were lesser poets than Brooke:

  • 15 Ibid., p. xxxv.

He lightly performs the miracle, to my own sense, which R.L. Stevenson, which even Pierre Loti, taking however long a rope, had not performed; he charmingly conjures away… the marked tendency of the whole exquisite region to insist on the secret of its charm, when incorrigibly moved to do so.15

7True, Stevenson and Loti were smaller poets than Rupert Brooke, but by mentioning them in this passage James clearly shows that the spontaneous and poetic imagination was what most appealed to him in these two novelists, who otherwise so little conformed to his canons.

8James’s pleasure in escaping from the stifling air of Paris and the unwholesome and sordid life depicted by the Parisian writers accounts for his readiness to forgive and even ignore whatever blemishes he found in Loti’s works. Actually this novelist was as superficial as his fellow-writers in Paris and sacrificed like them the life of the soul to that of the senses. But he had the luck of working in a different medium. James’s old-maidish shrinking from the picture of physical love seems to disappear when the setting is a far-away country with the blue sky as a roof. In the open air and in the sunlight everything is beautiful, and the human plant can resume its communion with the surrounding nature. But the same situations become ugly and unbearable in the closed rooms of dark, dirty towns where man, in his confinement, has lost sight of his origin.

  • 16 Notes on Novelists, p. 8.

9Through his imagination Loti also enables his readers to visualize the scenes and the characters he presents even though they are not actually true to facts. This James was always ready to accept when it was sustained by style and a poetic mind, as was the case with George Sand or Stevenson. What Loti has in common with these two other writers is that his work and his life are one and that, like them, he has supremely lived. James could have said of Loti what he said of Stevenson: “He had done as well for himself in his appropriation of Samoa as if he had done it for the hero of a novel, only with the complications and braveries actual and palpable.”16 Like George Sand’s and Stevenson’s, Loti’s life was as interesting as his work. Such “figures” are rare in literature, and whenever he meets one James does not forget to pay it the tribute of his admiration.


1 Letter to Edmund Gosse, 1893. Letters, I, 208.

2 Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 165.

3 Ibid., p. 169.

4 Impressions, Introduction, pp. 3-4.

5 Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 183.

6 Ibid., p. 169.

7 Impressions, Introduction, p. 4.

8 Ibid., p. 13.

9 Ibid., p. 11.

10 Notebooks, p. 133.

11 Letters, I, 208.

12 Impressions, Introduction, p. 20.

13 Notes on Novelists, p. 352.

14 Preface to Letters from America by Rupert Brooke (London, 1916), p. xxi.

15 Ibid., p. xxxv.

16 Notes on Novelists, p. 8.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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