Anne Haverty, ‘A bleak time in Babylon’, review of Peter Brooks, Henry James Goes to Paris, in The Irish Times (12 May 2007)

In the autumn of 1875, Henry James arrived in Paris with the intention of establishing himself as a writer. It seemed perfect. Literary Paris was already legendary, and he was a young man of 32 who knew the city - his first memory was of the Place Vendôme - and spoke impeccable French. He thought it was not unlikely he would stay forever. Yet, a little more than a year later, he left for London, disappointed and disenchanted. In this masterly critique, Peter Brooks reveals why, and why also it would prove in time to be one of the most important years of his life.

The Paris sojourn began well. He came with an agreement from the New York Tribune to take a fortnightly Letter (the James family back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was wealthy but had a strong work ethic) and a letter from Turgenev, the Russian writer who lived there and whom he hugely admired. Settling into a “snug little” trois pièces in the rue du Luxembourg (now rue Cambon) with “a gem of a portier” to wait on him - the duties of the portier included making his bed - he began work. His novel, The American, came easily and there were no complaints, as yet, from the Tribune about his letters.

Paris, however, was hard going. The apartment was not as snug as it first appeared and the winter proved lonely and bleak. He passed the festive season alone. In January he wrote to his mother that his days were “a blank” apart from work. French society seemed hermetically sealed, and anyway, people didn’t do evenings; or if they did, outsiders weren’t invited. His beloved Turgenev, for example, was kept to a strict curfew by the Viardots with whom he lived. In desperation James accepted invitations to balls and dinner parties from the Americans in Paris - often divorcees and refugees from transatlantic scandals, the kind of women who often appear in his books. But this recourse was hateful to him. Paris was “beastly”.

On the face of it, however, he had landed firmly on his feet. Turgenev, a friend made almost immediately on arrival, was warm, hospitable, encouraging - James found him “adorable”. On December 12th, Turgenev brought him along to Flaubert’s Sunday salon in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where, apart from the great man himself (who received in his dressing-gown to express the climate of unbuttoned conversation he liked), the gathering included Edmond de Goncourt and the younger novelist, Émile Zola. On following Sundays, James would get to know Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet. James was aware that he was among the Olympians, but his enthusiasm was qualified. They wanted only to talk about their own books, he wrote home. And their subject matter and expression was “unclean”, “crude”, “foul” ...

In Paris, James fell in love with the Russian, Paul Zhukovsky; though whether he accepted or even recognised the emotion as love in the sexual sense is uncertain. He admired Zhukovsky’s “purity of life”. “Good” and “pure” were approving adjectives that James used a lot at this time, especially in contrast with the Paris “Babylon”.

In the summer, the Tribune told him not to send any more Letters. The newspaper would have preferred gossip, scandals, stories from Babylon, to his earnest reviews of theatre and opera. His Letters were “too good”, he lamented. In the heat he grew more restless and increasingly convinced that Paris was not for him.

”I hated the Boulevards,” he wrote later, “the horrible monotony of the new quarters.” And he decided that the literary fraternity, Flaubert et al., was not to his liking. “I don’t like their wares and they don’t like any others ...” Here, Brooks probes that dislike. Why did James turn his back on the cream of French literati? It was partly because of literary allegiances. James was a devotee of Balzac, whom the French regarded as passé. They saw themselves as the avant-garde, while he was a follower of tradition. He wanted to talk of George Eliot, about whom they knew little and cared less. And James was famously unable to flatter or pretend admiration for writing he didn’t admire - which included what he saw of theirs.

But more viscerally, the New England puritanism - and innocence? - personified in the principled, cerebral young Henry James clashed painfully with the knowing and dissolute worldliness of Europe. James was shocked by the French. From London he reviewed Goncourt’s La Fille Elisa, remarking that French literature can resemble “little vases, skilfully moulded and chiselled, into which unclean things have been dropped”. French writing, even French life, with its easy acceptance of realities and its neglect of what he prized most - reflectiveness and the ethical consciousness - distressed him. For a long time, English life and letters would suit him much better.

With skill and sensitivity and unusual readability, Brooks reveals how, as James matured, this gradually changed. He came to admire the passion and commitment, if not the work, of these men; but more importantly learned from them to admit the centrality of sex - and his own obsession with it - into his novels, and into The Golden Bowl especially. As Brooks put it, his “relative self-liberation in regard to sex” goes in tandem with his more open attitude to the French novelists. Maupassant, for instance, dismissed before as “foul”, would become a master for him.

Henry James came full circle. On his deathbed, his last memories, like his first, were of Paris. Dictating delirious letters to his secretary, they were from Napoleon, giving his final orders.

[End]

 

 

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