Thursday, August 18, 2016

Of Balzac and James

I'd read little James until recently, and most of that in a hurry for a long-ago graduate course. (Indeed, "Daisy Miller" is about the only piece that I felt myself to know well for a long time.)

The impression I got, however, does not seem to have been different from most people's, George Moore nicely summing it up its outstanding feature in his Confessions of a Young Man--the overgenteel, cloistered, drawing room narrowness of it. A particular passage in that book sums it up so vividly that I cannot resist quoting it:
Mr James's people live in a calm, sad, and very polite twilight of volition . . . in front of the reader nothing happens . . . human portraiture models are necessary . . . [but] the drawing room presents few accents and angles, conformity to its prejudices having worn all away . . . Is there really much to say about people who live in stately houses and eat and drink their fill every day of the year? The lady, it is true, may have a lover, but the pen finds scanty pasturage in the fact; and in James's novels the lady only considers the question on the last page, and the gentleman looks at her questioningly.
Recently reading Washington Square has only reconfirmed my impression. Indeed, after reading James' own critical writing, it has seemed to me that fully as he understood those French writers he so admired, and attentive as he was to their methods, he rejected what was best about them, what made their work so compelling--not least the interest that Honore de Balzac (hailed by James as "one of the finest of artists" in the essay he devoted to him) took in the "machinery of civilization," and the cold and critical eye he was ready to cast on it.1 Balzac's portrait of the brutal, vulgar, degrading, humiliating, painful, wasteful and ultimately hollow character of life in a society dominated by money and its pursuit (such a far cry from those who preach market values as the embodiment of efficiency, dignity and humanity!) was exactly the kind of thing from which James shrank in his work, instead glossing over the less seemly details to leave us with just those stately houses and that calm, polite twilight.

1. The essay appeared in the December 1875 edition of Galaxy--today's The Atlantic, and well worth a read by anyone interested in Balzac's body of work.

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