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Henry James

 | 
Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists

Barrès, France and Proust

Texte intégral

  • 1 E. Gosse, Aspects and Impressions, p. 38.
  • 2 Letters, I, 277.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 227.

1By the end of the century most of the French writers James had known were dead. “Their places in Henry James’s affection,” Edmund Gosse relates in Aspects and Impressions “were partly filled by Paul Bourget and Maurice Barrès, whose remarkable and rather ‘gruesome’ book, Les Déracinés, now supplied James with an endless subject of talk and reflection.”1 If it was so we can only deplore that Edmund Gosse should not have told us more on this point. As it is he does not in the least contribute to enrich our knowledge especially since James expressed himself in similar terms on the book in a letter written to Grace Norton on Christmas Day 1897. He advises her friend to read Les Déracinés, which is, he says, “very curious and serious, but a gruesome picture of young France. If it didn’t sound British and Pharisaic I would almost risk saying that, on all the more and more showing, young and old France both seem to me to be in a strange state of moral and intellectual decomposition.”2 To Gosse himself he had written three years before: “Have you seen Maurice Barrès’s last volume— ‘Du Sang, de la Volupté et de la Mort’? That is exquisite in its fearfully intelligent impertinence and its diabolical Renanisation.”3 However brief these remarks, we may be sure that James read Barrés with interest. He even translated one of his essays under the title “The Saints of France” as a contribution to The Book of France (1915).

  • 4 Ibid., p. 206.
  • 5 Preface to The Tragic Muse, The Art of the Novel, p. 91.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 92.
  • 7 Ibid., pp. 92-93.

2Another French writer whom James mentions only sporadically is Anatole France. He calls him a “real master” and advises Stevenson to read his “charming little Etui de Nacre4 instead of Bourget’s Cosmopolis. In the preface to The Tragic Muse he evokes France’s Histoire Comique and says that he would have been extremely worried had the book appeared earlier because of the light thrown in it on actors and the theatre by “that admirable writer M. Anatole France.”5 Histoire Comique was published in 1903. In the best parts of the book, James further writes in his preface, Anatole France “has ‘done the actress,’ as well as the actor, done above all the mountebank, the mummer and the cabotin, and mixed them up with the queer theatric air, in a manner that practically warns all other hands off the material for ever.”6 But he adds that he, for his part, saw his own heroine “in a complexity of relations finer than any that appear possible for the gentry of M. Anatole France” and that her consciousness “puts her quite on a different level from that of the vivid monsters of M. France, whose artistic identity is the last thing they wish to chuck—their only dismissal is of all material and social over-draping.”7 The two writers, it is true, have treated the subject on two very different levels. We would look in vain, in James’s novel, for the typical stage atmosphere that impregnates Histoire Comique. But it was not James’s purpose to render this. He wanted to give us, under the particular features of Miriam Rooth, another portrait of the artist and of the problems linked with the artistic consciousness.

  • 8 Letters, II, 30.

3Among all French writers Marcel Proust is the one whose name is most often associated with James’s. Yet there can be no question of an influence nor even of an acquaintance between them. Only once is Proust briefly alluded to in a letter James wrote to Edith Wharton on 25 February 1914. He says that Bernstein had promised to send him Proust’s works but that he hasn’t yet received anything, “So that,” he adds, “I shall indeed be ‘very pleased’ to receive the ‘Swann’ and the ‘Vie et l’Amour’ from you at your entire convenience.”8 Edith Wharton did send the books and in A Backward Glance reports that James read them with much curiosity and admiration:

  • 9 Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, p. 324.

He seized upon Du Côté de chez Swann and devoured it in a passion of curiosity and admiration. Here, in the first volume of a long chronicle-novel—the very type of the unrolling tapestry which was so contrary to his own conception of form—he instantly recognized a new mastery, a new vision, and a structural design as yet unintelligible to him, but as surely there as hard bone under soft flesh in a living organism.... I look back with peculiar pleasure at having made Proust known to James, for the encounter gave him his last, and one of his strongest, artistic emotions.9

  • 10 Bruce Lowery, Marcel Proust et Henry fames. Une confrontation (Paris, 1969). Mr. Lowery suggests t (...)

4Here again, however, we must content ourselves with second-hand testimony. James himself never met Proust and never wrote anything on him. He probably did not reflect much on his works either. He had other preoccupations at the time and even—for once—neglected his own work, which he left unfinished. The war had taken hold of his mind and prevented him from thinking of anything else. The names of Proust and James have been recently associated and presented as the two sides of a large Franco-American diptych by Mr. Bruce Lowery.10

5By the turn of the century the doors between the two literary countries were no longer closed. In 1897 James applauded Bourget’s lecture on Flaubert at Oxford because he saw in it the dawn of a new time full of valuable and interesting contacts between the two communities. Bourget introduced to France not only Henry James but his brother William and the latter’s ideas. Just as James had been a great admirer of French literature so Proust, twenty-seven years his junior, was an ardent admirer of English literature. Though they never met, their minds, endowed with the same kind of sensibility, steeped in the same intellectual atmosphere and hovering half-way between France and England, could not but render a similar sound.

Notes

1 E. Gosse, Aspects and Impressions, p. 38.

2 Letters, I, 277.

3 Ibid., p. 227.

4 Ibid., p. 206.

5 Preface to The Tragic Muse, The Art of the Novel, p. 91.

6 Ibid., p. 92.

7 Ibid., pp. 92-93.

8 Letters, II, 30.

9 Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, p. 324.

10 Bruce Lowery, Marcel Proust et Henry fames. Une confrontation (Paris, 1969). Mr. Lowery suggests that James might have heard of Swann in an article that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 4 December 1913, and in which Proust’s name was associated with his own.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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