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Henry James's reputation as The Master is so familiar that it's hard to imagine he was ever someone on whom some things really were lost. This is the story of the year—1875 to 1876—when the young novelist moved to Paris, drawn by his literary idols living at the center of the early modern movement in art. As Peter Brooks skillfully recounts, James largely failed to appreciate or even understand the new artistic developments teeming around him during his Paris sojourn. But living in England twenty years later, he ...
Henry James's reputation as The Master is so familiar that it's hard to imagine he was ever someone on whom some things really were lost. This is the story of the year—1875 to 1876—when the young novelist moved to Paris, drawn by his literary idols living at the center of the early modern movement in art. As Peter Brooks skillfully recounts, James largely failed to appreciate or even understand the new artistic developments teeming around him during his Paris sojourn. But living in England twenty years later, he would recall the aesthetic lessons of Paris, and his memories of the radical perspectives opened up by French novelists and painters would help transform James into the writer of his adventurous later fiction. A narrative that combines biography and criticism and uses James's writings to tell the story from his point of view, Henry James Goes to Paris vividly brings to life the young American artist's Paris year—and its momentous artistic and personal consequences.
James's Paris story is one of enchantment and disenchantment. He initially loved Paris, he succeeded in meeting all the writers he admired (Turgenev, Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, Goncourt, and Daudet), and he witnessed the latest development in French painting, Impressionism. But James largely found the writers disappointing, and he completely misunderstood the paintings he saw. He also seems to have fallen in and out of love in a more ordinary sense—with a young Russian aesthete, Paul Zhukovsky. Disillusioned, James soon retreated to England—for good. But James would eventually be changed forever by his memories of Paris.
"In this affectionate study, Brooks concedes that the young James 'missed the point, completely,' but argues that what he observed in Paris deeply affected him, and was especially crucial to his late novels."—The New Yorker
"Brooks's main thesis is that when James lived in Paris he 'missed' much that was new and exciting. He didn't really like Flaubert's writing, he dismissed the Impressionists, and he found Wagner's music 'boring.' But twenty or more years later, Brooks argues, what James failed to appreciate at the time came back to haunt him and to affect his later great work. Though James was more of a Romantic realist in the tradition of Balzac (with a large taste for melodramatic kitsch and wild and improbable plot twists), he came to appreciate Flaubert's exquisite style and measured realism and to write several important essays on him."—Edmund V. White, New York Review of Books
"[E]ngaging and perceptive. . . . [A]n exceptionally clear-sighted account of James's boldness and importance as a novelist."—Times Literary Supplement
"Peter Brooks has produced a brilliant and accessible account of a young American landing in Paris and missing the point. In Henry James Goes to Paris . . . Mr. Brooks shows how James' year in the City of Light—1875 to 1876—left him in the dark, baffled about the French avant-garde."—New York Observer
"In the autumn of 1875, Henry James arrived in Paris . . . 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. . . . With skill and sensitivity and unusual readability, Brooks reveals how, as James matured . . . he came to admire the passion and commitment, if not the work, of these men."—Anne Haverty, Irish Times
"Brooks's readings of James's novels are deep and rich."—Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe
"A brilliant study of how James's experiences that year lay repressed for two decades in what the novelist called 'the deep well of unconscious cerebration', before he transformed his style. Or, as Brooks, who is one of America's finest literary critics, puts it, how James 'missed much of what he experienced—but missed it, I think, only for the time being.' "—Frances Wilson, The Daily Telegraph
"In his fascinating new study, Henry James Goes to Paris . . . Peter Brooks . . . gives a detailed account of the year James spent there, a year that would shape him forever. . . . Mr. Brooks weaves together episodes from James's year in Paris with his novels, from Roderick Hudson onward, to make plain how painstakingly James absorbed the lessons of the masters even as he seemed to repudiate them."—Eric Ormsby, The New York Sun
"Peter Brooks is an engaging, lucid writer with a marvelous intuitive grasp of Jamesian complexities and a rare gifting for integrating biography, history, gossip and literary criticism."—David Laskin, Seattle Times
"In Brooks' excellent account of [James's] time in Paris we can begin to understand how the Balzacian disciple became the Master of the novel we know and still love to read today."—Book Depository
"This is a perceptive and well-finessed account of the novelist's growth, enlivened by several lightnesses of touch . . . and James should feel well served."—Ian F. A. Bell, Modern Language Review
"Unsurpassed as a James reader, Brooks grounds his larger argument in penetrating analyses of not only What Maisie Knew and The Golden Bowl but of two early signposts of James' development, The American and The Tragic Muse. These readings will surely lend new stature, and generate new interest, in all these novels."—David M. Robinson, American Literary Realism
"[A] rich and subtly presented case. . . . Henry James Goes to Paris explores the intersection of narrative and criticism, using an explanatory hypothesis of James's development to frame a series of perceptive critical readings."—John Attridge, Modernism/modernity
"[W]onderfully lively and original synthesis of biography, criticism and speculation."—Josh Cohen, European Legacy
Woolf 's anecdote captures a number of issues. It suggests that James by 1912 was himself considered by the artistic elite-what better representatives of that than Woolf and Fry?-to be an exemplar of the movement from Victorianism to modernism, in fact the person younger generations looked to, and now called the Master, because heled the way into a new kind of fiction. Yet, the comparison of Flaubert and Cézanne, which we may find entirely apt-especially when we think about the late work of these two restless innovators-was perhaps less reassuring to James than Fry intended, in that late Cézanne probably most of all triggered James's longstanding hesitations about Flaubert, offering a cautionary tale in the infringement of certain commitments to representation.
James in 1912 was a modernist master, but one who clung to a notion of representation of the real that he saw as indispensable to the very project of the novel-a project that leads him over and over again to set against Flaubert's practice the more nourishing example of Balzac. So a modernist master who is unwilling to make the leap beyond that we see in the work Cézanne did in Provence from 1900 to his death in 1906, and presumably even more so where the experimentation of Picasso and Matisse is concerned. Yet Roger Fry was certainly right in his comparisons. Starting in the mid-1890s, James does produce work that parallels Seurat's pointillisme and anticipates Picasso's cubism. It is work that eschews the direct presentation of the story-its characters and its actions-in favor of the play of interpretive consciousness on the action. As in Seurat, the solid outlines of objects give way to a kind of shimmering impression recorded by the eye and the mind. As in Picasso in his cubist phase, the observed reveals different sides and aspects as the observer moves, studying intently that which needs observation, revaluating impressions as new angles of observation open up. Think, for instance, of the unnamed narrator of The Sacred Fount or of Fanny Assingham in The Golden Bowl, two very different observers who must try to deduce and to interpret from evidence that never stays put, both because they are moving and because the observed itself alters under the observing eye. It's a kind of radical perspectivalism that James brought to the novel perhaps more consistently than any other novelist, which he then made the basis of his theory of fiction expressed in the prefaces of the New York Edition of his works, and which the generation of Woolf and Fry gratefully made their own.
By the time James was sitting in the basement of the Grafton Galleries taking tea with Roger Fry, he was the accomplished master of the three late, great novels of what long ago was dubbed his "major phase": The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), The Golden Bowl (1904), as well as the reflective prefaces of the New York Edition (1907-9). These three novels of the major phase are all highly perspectival. They depend on the play of seeing and the unseen, of knowledge and ignorance, as the very stuff of their dramas. What Milly Theale does not see in The Wings of the Dove kills her; and the knowledge of what she knows in her dying eventually sunders Kate Croy and Merton Densher. The Ambassadors is perhaps the most obvious example of a perceptual adventure and dilemma, a kind of detective story where the detective, Lambert Strether, eventually gets it all wrong because he's wilfully blinded himself-yet in getting it wrong discovers the perspectives in which it is all right. And The Golden Bowl offers a story of finding out and then repressing what you have found in order to use your knowledge in other ways, to alter the very scene of observation.
The perspectival dramas of the last three novels are acute, agonizing, played for the highest possible stakes. Nonetheless they reach us with a kind of high serenity conferred by James's late style, a finish that is perhaps more comparable to an Old Master than to a contemporary such as Cézanne. The more wrenching questions of perspective, of how one sees and how one knows, come just before the major phase, in a series of novels and tales from the mid-1890s into the beginnings of the new century. From approximately the time of The Figure in the Carpet (1896) through What Maisie Knew (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), In the Cage (1898), The Awkward Age (1899), to The Sacred Fount (1901)-and then, belatedly, The Beast in the Jungle (1903)-James's fiction appears to evidence a radical dis-orientation, a displacement of the observer from a central or frontal position to a marginal one. Following his failed experiment in the theater, he seemed to turn to what the theater could not so readily provide, something that more anticipates the cinema: a severely angled view, a moving post of observation and a shifting field of the observed.
Knowledge had of course always been important in James's fictions, which were indeed often centrally dramas of knowledge-perhaps most notably The Portrait of a Lady, where Isabel Archer's discovery of the latent meanings of her disastrous marriage constitutes the core of the drama. Bafflement leading to recognition was perhaps always the principal Jamesian scenario. What seems new in the fiction of the mid-to late 1890s is the emphasis on the bafflement itself, and the difficulty or even impossibility of assuring that the recognition is real, rather than the product of a partial, misinformed, or even unhinged imagination. James is forced to reflect on the use of perspective in ways that seem to take him beyond Balzac, to the most radical innovations of Flaubert, and toward the painting he never could really appreciate. James's biographer, Leon Edel, notes that after 1895 James seems already to have left the nineteenth century behind, and to be moving toward the fictional experimentation of Joyce, of Woolf, of Proust.
James the modernist is by now so accepted a figure that his earlier work-such novels as Roderick Hudson (1875), The American (1877), The Europeans (1878), Washington Square (1880), even the masterful The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Bostonians (1886)-often does seem to belong to a different century, not only literally but symbolically as well. What happened in between this work and the experimental fiction of the mid-1890s-work marked by what we might call a kind of epistemological anguish, the anxious difficulty of figuring out what one knows about other people and the world, and how to know it? Many things of course happened, including, notably, James's attempt to write for the stage, and the bitter disaster in which it ended, in 1895, also the death of his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson by suicide in 1894, and the loss of others, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and his beloved invalid sister, Alice; even the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde should be factored in as an element in James's psychological evolution. I don't think any biographer has or probably ever will "explain" how James transforms himself during these difficult, often depressed, but also enormously productive years.
As any reader of James, or of Woolf, or of Freud, knows well, chronology is not necessarily straightforward. Things happen, are apparently forgotten, or repressed, and then stage a return to consciousness, a belated influence. It's not my primary intention in what follows to argue that James's transformation in the 1890s is caused by his Paris experience twenty years earlier: I don't believe that this kind of cause and effect are fully determinable in the life and work of a writer. But it is striking that James in Paris in 1875 and 1876-aged thirty-two and thirty-three-encounters the very crucible of the modernism he will later come to represent, even embody. It's even more striking that when he first encounters such emblematic works of nascent modernism as Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet, Monet's impression of the sun rising over the Seine in Le Havre, or Whistler's nocturnes, he doesn't like them. He rejects them in favor of something much more conventional and, to our retrospective eyes, far less valuable. He is not yet prepared to see what this work is doing, and the lessons it may hold for his own. To some degree, he will never fully accept it. If he later speaks in high praise of Monet, late Flaubert always makes him uncomfortable. Rightly so, one might say, because he no doubt correctly detects that there is in a book like Bouvard et Pécuchet a more radical challenge to the whole enterprise of the novel as representation than James wants to take on. James's modernism will always be tempered by this commitment to a form of representation he tends to exemplify in the person of another French novelist who had died in 1850: Balzac.
Nonetheless, much that he experiences in Paris in 1875-76 will stage a kind of return of the repressed in his work from the mid-1890s on. It's as if it lay for some twenty years in what James called "the deep well of unconscious cerebration" before he was ready for it-before he saw that it could be of use to him, that it was trying to do something similar to what he now felt he needed to do. The wealth of material that James encountered in Paris during his year there may have been too much to absorb at the time. Paris, following the trauma of defeat by Prussia and then the uprising and suppression of the Paris Commune, in 1871, was in a moment of feverish creativity, and James encountered the prime examples of it, in such as the Second Impressionist Exhibit at Durand-Ruel's, and in mixing with writers he worshiped-Turgenev-and others he admired in some descending order: Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, Goncourt, Daudet. He encountered as well the possibility of a close, possibly erotic friendship with a young Russian artist, aesthete, and devotee of Wagner-whose influence on European music and letters had just been given the consecration of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. James missed much of what he experienced-but missed it, I think, only for the time being. It would be back, to shape his own writing in crucial ways.
As I suggested, however, it's not an argument about James's evolution and its causes that most interests me here. It is rather the telling of a story: the story of that year in Paris, from the point of view of the man who at that point was still "Henry James, Jr." Narratives tend to be de termined by their endings, what they are headed toward. It may be salutary to try to forget for a moment that Master, and to walk again the streets of Paris with the man who has just seen Roderick Hudson to bed and has now hatched the idea for The American. Or rather-since it is impossible truly to forget James as he would become-it may be well to try to recreate the experience of the young man in a kind of stereoscopic view, including the Master as a kind of hovering figure. In any case, what I have tried to do is first and foremost tell the story-the novel of the young Henry James in the somewhat treacherous, but enchanting, world of Paris in 1875-76.
Excerpted from Henry James Goes to Paris by Peter Brooks Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Chapter 1. To Paris 7 2. The Dream of an Intenser Experience 53
Chapter 3. What a Droll Thing to Represent 79
Chapter 4. Flaubert’s Nerds 101
Chapter 5. The Quickened Notation of Our Modernity 129
Chapter 6. The Death of Zola, Sex in the French Novel, and the Improper 156
Chapter 7. For the Sake of This End 177
Epilogue: Chariot of Fire 205
Posted March 23, 2009
Excellent Lit-Crit, entirely uninfluenced by the current modish French (phenomenological) distortions. Required reading for any James student, and covers far more territory than the title implies. There is, for instance, an extended discussion of "The Tragic Muse."Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.