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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists


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  • 1 Partial Portraits, p. 322.

The French capital was an accident for him, not a necessity. It touched him at many points, but it let him alone at many others, and he had, with that great tradition of ventilation of the Russian mind, windows open into distances which stretched far beyond the banlieue.1

1It is through Turgenev that James was introduced to the other members of the Paris circle and he afterwards often joined hands with the Russian novelist over the parochialism of their French confrères. James was glad to meet in Turgenev a talent similar to his own, or at least to what he himself ambitioned to become. That is why, though this writer was a Russian, he is so important as a link between James and the French realists that he cannot be left out of this study.

2The two novelists resembled each other in more than one respect. Coming from countries where the art of the novel was still in its prime they had turned to France for guidance and imitated Balzac and George Sand (for whom they both had a lifelong regard) in their early works. Like the writers of the Flaubertian school, they were convinced that the novel is a serious form of art and that nothing great can be achieved without form and composition. They were both cosmopolitans who led a pendulum life between Europe and their own country. Both finally retired from the scene of public life: Turgenev was exiled by the tsar and withdrew to Spasskoïe while James, weary of the London fashionable society with its hundred and seven dinners a year, voluntarily exiled himself in Rye, Sussex. Both novelists were confirmed bachelors who refused to be burdened with domestic life and were convinced that the bonds of marriage threaten the artist’s integrity. They were men of thought rather than men of action, men of observation rather than men of passion. They did not like the France of the second Empire and could not abide the crudity of much of the naturalists’ literature. The masculine characters they created resemble them: they are generally spectators rather than actors, endowed with such lucidity that nothing—least of all passion—can have hold over them. Yet both writers had the passion of art. For them the French capital was “an accident, not a necessity,” and though they had once hoped to make their countrymen turn to it, they finally grew weary of Paris and of the French altogether and felt the need for more air and space. They believed too much in free will and in personal responsibility to accept the French “schools,” systems and theories. The time they spent in France did not so much enrich their knowledge of that country as it helped them, by contrast, to understand their own.

  • 2 Selected Letters, p. 102.
  • 3 French Poets and Novelists, p. 308.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 280.
  • 5 F.O. Matthiessen, The Major Phase (New York, 1963), p. 138.

3As a letter to W.E. Henley testifies,2 James owned a complete collection of Turgenev’s works and he had read them more than once, either in German, French, or English translations. Turgenev’s personality attracted him from the first: “We always desire more information about the writers who greatly interest us than we find in their works, and many American readers have probably a friendly curiosity as to the private personality of M. Turgénieff,”3 he wrote in 1874. Among these American readers James was certainly the first. Just as he had admired Sainte-Beuve in the field of criticism, so he wanted to emulate Turgenev’s craft in fiction. He was convinced that if America was ever to have “a native novelist of a large pattern it would probably be, in a degree, his own,”4 and he secretly hoped to play the part. Because of James’s moral and intellectual affinities with the Russian novelist his essay on Turgenev, written in 1884 and reprinted in Partial Portraits, is one of his most important pieces of criticism. As F.O. Matthiessen wrote in The Major Phase, “it helps define James’ own aims even better than his many critiques of Balzac and Flaubert.”5

4On the somewhat monotonous literary background of Paris Turgenev appeared to James as a familiar figure, a foreigner attracted by the zeal and seriousness of the French novelists yet outside their coteries and schools, a cosmopolitan like himself carrying about with him the fresh air of a larger country. Besides, he immediately saw that the Russian had the same kind of sensibility and the same conception of art as himself. Turgenev generally started from an idea, from a character, never—or very rarely—from a plot, a story:

  • 6 Partial Portraits, pp. 314-315.

The germ of a story, with him, was never an affair of plot— that was the last thing he thought of: it was the representation of certain persons. The first form in which a tale appeared to him was as the figure of an individual, or a combination of individuals, whom he wished to see in action, being sure that such people must do something very special and interesting. They stood before him definite, vivid, and he wished to know, and to show, as much as possible of their nature.6

5In Turgenev the story proceeds directly from, and is a consequence of, the qualities of the characters. It starts from the vision of some morally interesting person, of whom the writer traces the biography and whom he then lets act according to his individual nature. The germ of The Portrait of a Lady was also the sense of a single character, that of Isabel Archer, and when he wrote the preface to this novel James evoked his Russian friend who always had fictive creatures hovering in his mind, soliciting him in all kinds of ways:

  • 7 The Art of the Novel, p. 43.

He saw them, in that fashion, as disponibles, saw them subject to the chances, the complications of existence, and saw them vividly, but then had to find for them the right relations, those that would most bring them out; to imagine, to invent and select and piece together the situations most useful and favourable to the sense of the creatures themselves, the complications they would be most likely to produce and to feel.7

6Because of his manner Turgenev was often accused of not having enough “story” But for him—as for James—to present his characters and to exhibit their relations with each other was story enough. After some time he saw them come together, speak and act according to what they were, and it was his task to solve the innumerable complications that had thus come to the foreground. The French often reproached him with having too little architecture but Turgenev preferred to have too little than too much of it if there was a danger of its spoiling his portraits and interfering with his measure of the truth. The complications, the adventures, were of the mind, and the neutral Parisian background further contributed to make the psychological motives come out:

  • 8 Partial Portraits, p. 309.

The Parisian background, with its brilliant sameness, its absence of surprises (for those who have known it long), threw them into relief and made him see them, as he saw the figures in his tales, in relations, in situations which brought them out.8

  • 9 The Art of the Novel, p. 44.
  • 10 French Poets and Novelists, p. 287.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 293.
  • 12 The House of Fiction, p. 174.

7Like Turgenev, James could not conceive of a setting or of a plot without seeing his character as part of it. To imagine the setting first was to put the cart before the horse: “I might envy,” he wrote, “though I couldn’t emulate, the imaginative writer so constituted as to see his fable first and to make out its agents afterwards: I could think so little of any fable that it didn’t need its agents positively to launch it.”9 James also resembles Turgenev in his preference for feminine characters. Turgenev’s women are quite different from the often frivolous and conventional French heroines. They are “addicted to none of those chatteries which French romancers consider the ‘adorable’ thing in women”10 and they have “a touch of the faintly acrid perfume of the New England temperament—a hint of Puritan angularity.”11 They resemble James’s heroines in their complexity and in that they—and not the men—represent strength of will. They “form in themselves, on the ground of moral beauty, of the finest distinction of soul, one of the most striking groups the modern novel has given us.”12

  • 13 “Daniel Deronda: A Conversation.” Selected Literary Criticism, p. 39.

8For James Turgenev is often the yard-stick by which he measures other writers. Comparing him with the two Georges he shows that the Russian was quite the reverse of the French George, who had plenty of charm but completely neglected truth, and that he had a greater sense of economy than George Eliot, who needed eight volumes to picture Daniel Deronda whereas Turgenev only needed a couple of hundred pages to picture Inssaroff in On the Eve.13 Comparing him with his French companions James finds him superior to them because, though as acute an observer of reality as they are, Turgenev goes much further than they in his moral investigation and in his concern with the finest complications of human conduct:

  • 14 French Poets and Novelists, p. 307.

If M. Turgénieff pays his tribute to the magic of sense he leaves us also eloquently reminded that soul in the long run claims her own.14

9He was also able to apprehend the religious impulses of man, and this gives his work a deeper resonance. He had the same sobriety as Maupassant, but his pessimism was not desperate and his scepticism never excluded a sincere tenderness and sympathy for all human beings:

  • 15 The House of Fiction, p. 173.

No one has had a closer vision, or a hand at once more ironic and more tender, for the individual figure.15

  • 16 Partial Portraits, p. 300.
  • 17 The House of Fiction, pp. 171-172.

10His horizon went beyond the limits of the Parisian sky. If he learned the sense of form from the French novelists he had reservations and above all “the great back-garden of his Slav imagination and his Germanic culture, into which the door constantly stood open, and the grandsons of Balzac were not… particularly free to accompany him.”16 Finally James also compares Turgenev with other Russian novelists and stresses his friend’s greater sense of composition. Tolstoi, with his immense ambition to present all human life is a kind of “splendid accident” but he has not his precursor’s gift. James obviously does not like such monsters harnassed to a Titanesque task. His preference—like Turgenev’s— goes to “the world of character and feeling, the world of the relation life throws up at every hour and on every spot.”17 He reproaches Tolstoi and Dostoievski with an absence of concision and of composition which, if it can be tolerated in their works because of their talent and genius, becomes unbearable in those of their imitators:

  • 18 Selected Letters, p. 202.

Tolstoi and D. are fluid pudding, though not tasteless, because the amount of their own minds and souls in solution in the broth gives it savour and flavour, thanks to the strong, rank quality of their genius and their experience. But there are all sorts of things to be said of them, and in particular that we see how great a vice is their lack of composition, their defiance of economy and architecture, directly they are emulated and imitated; then, as subjects of emulation, models, they quite give themselves away.18

11This remark throws light on James’s personal conception of form: such books as War and Peace or Anna Karenina certainly cannot be said to lack composition but the unifying element is outside the book, transcends, as it were, the different episodes which are only loosely connected with each other. For James the form is the “figure in the carpet,” the closely-woven web in which every single thread has a value in the final arrangement of the whole.

  • 19 Notebooks, p. 26.
  • 20 Selected Letters, p. 96.

12Having admired Turgenev the writer, James wanted to know the man and he was not disappointed when he met him in Paris. They became friends, and James remembered him later as “the most delightful and lovable of men.”19 In his essay he evokes the tall Russian on the upper floor he occupied in the large detached house on the hill of Montmartre where he lived with Pauline Viardot and her husband. He also remembers the green sitting-room where nothing was ever out of place and the library at Bougival with the valuable pictures on the walls and the immeasurable divan. Turgenev inspired him with extreme regard, as he wrote in 1876 to William Dean Howells. He was “everything that one could desire—robust, sympathetic, modest, simple, profound, intelligent, naif—in fine, angelic.”20 In short, the man completed the writer:

  • 21 Partial Portraits, p. 294.

He was the richest, the most delightful, of talkers, and his face, his person, his temper, the thoroughness with which he had been equipped for human intercourse, make in the memory of his friends an image which is completed, but not thrown into the shade, by his literary distinction.21

13In spite of a large community of ideas between the two writers the influence seems to have been all on one side. Turgenev cannot have been a great reader of James; he admired his first book but obviously never read the others. James was not unaware of it:

  • 22 Ibid., p. 299.

I do not think my stories struck him as quite meat for men. The manner was more apparent than the matter; they were too tarabiscoté, as I once heard him say of the style of a book—had on the surface too many little flowers and knots of ribbon.22

14Whether this is self-criticism or whether it was really Turgenev’s opinion of James, we do not know. But we need only compare The Princess Casamassima with Virgin Soil to recognize the accuracy of this remark and to see that indeed James added “many little flowers and knots of ribbon” to an even and regular surface.

  • 23 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 167.
  • 24 Quoted in A. Maurois, Tourguéniev (Paris, 1952), p. 112.
  • 25 Letters, I, 157.

15Except for Sainte-Beuve and Renan, who cannot be considered as novelists, not one of his French contemporaries could entirely satisfy James and serve him as a model. When there was much form, as in Flaubert and Maupassant, there was too little soul, and when there was the least concern with the moral sense the writers were, like George Sand, “too preoccupied with that need to do good which is in art often the enemy of doing well.”23 In Turgenev James found all the qualities of the French without the defects: the clarity without the theorizing, the precision without the dogmatism, the sense of form without the sacrifice of moral values. The geometrical arrangement of Turgenev’s novels does not exclude a deep concern with the life of the soul and the fine complications of character; the sensuous perception is always combined with an apprehension of man’s inner life. Turgenev was a pessimist who thought that whatever man can do is useless and indifferent in the great scheme of the universe. Yet he had more poetry, more sympathy for life and a greater faith in human nature than his French contemporaries. Even though their liberty ultimately proves a delusion, his characters are free to act and to try to alter their fate. They are not condemned from the start nor enclosed in a rigid determinism. Turgenev’s feminine characters, which James sincerely admired, have a sense of personal responsibility, a moral roundness that relate them to the heroines of George Eliot rather than to those of the French. Isabel Archer is a sister of Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda and of Elena Nicholaevna in On the Eve, but she has little in common with Emma Bovary. James and Turgenev diverged from the French in that they could not share their deterministic view of man and their hatred for the bourgeois and for humanity at large. Their sense of the relative always prevented them from practising their irony at the expense of other human creatures and from seeing the world in terms of black-and-white contrasts. That is why they were finally exasperated by the French: “Leur littérature pue la littérature,”24 Turgenev said, and James shared this view when he called the French realists “finished, besotted mandarins.”25 From a technical point of view Turgenev taught James to observe the concrete world but also to prefer suggestion to statement, the indirect to the direct approach. By temperament, however, Turgenev was more classical than James and he was closer to life as a result of his personal experience. He had spent his youth in the Russian country and had been a hunter at the age when James’s sole physical exercise consisted in walking from one painting-gallery to another. Indirectness, suggestion, obliquity, which for Turgenev were a deliberate exercise soon proved to be for James the only possible approach to life. Nothing was more alien to James’s nature than the straight line. Spiralling around reality he could only get at it through elaborate curves and volutes which make his style rather “tarabiscoté” indeed when set off against the classical sobriety of the Russian.


1 Partial Portraits, p. 322.

2 Selected Letters, p. 102.

3 French Poets and Novelists, p. 308.

4 Ibid., p. 280.

5 F.O. Matthiessen, The Major Phase (New York, 1963), p. 138.

6 Partial Portraits, pp. 314-315.

7 The Art of the Novel, p. 43.

8 Partial Portraits, p. 309.

9 The Art of the Novel, p. 44.

10 French Poets and Novelists, p. 287.

11 Ibid., p. 293.

12 The House of Fiction, p. 174.

13 “Daniel Deronda: A Conversation.” Selected Literary Criticism, p. 39.

14 French Poets and Novelists, p. 307.

15 The House of Fiction, p. 173.

16 Partial Portraits, p. 300.

17 The House of Fiction, pp. 171-172.

18 Selected Letters, p. 202.

19 Notebooks, p. 26.

20 Selected Letters, p. 96.

21 Partial Portraits, p. 294.

22 Ibid., p. 299.

23 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 167.

24 Quoted in A. Maurois, Tourguéniev (Paris, 1952), p. 112.

25 Letters, I, 157.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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