Henry James and “le mot juste”

nortonportraitI feel I owe Henry James a bit of an apology. In my previous post on The Portrait of a Lady I complained that his sentences were irritating. Yet, as several people commented at the time, they really aren’t, or, not much, not in Portrait. (Of course, it’s also possible that, as Dorian predicted, I have become accustomed to their cadence, but Portrait is early enough in his oeuvre that I think it is partly that the worst was yet to come — a theory which my memory of reading The Golden Bowl confirms.) Now that I’m back to the novel again, what I find myself making note of are not places where I tripped over stuttering syntax but moments where I let out a small sigh of satisfaction: that, yes, that word (or phrase or, especially, metaphor) exactly. A few samples:

A young gentlewoman without visible relations had always struck her as a flower without foliage.

To live in such a place was, for Isabel, to hold to her ear all day a shell of the sea of the past.

Every now and then Isabel heard the Countess, at something said by her companion, plunge into the latter’s lucidity as a poodle splashes after a thrown stick.

She mightn’t be inhaled as a rose, but she might be grasped as a nettle.

The flower of her youth had not faded, it only hung more quietly on its stem.

It’s Flaubert, of course, who’s most associated (as far as I know, anyway) with the relentless search for “let mot juste,” and Flaubert is the last writer I can remember reading who provoked this kind of appreciation for his thrillingly precise yet somehow unexpected details. James was a fan of Flaubert, whom he called “a novelist’s novelist,” and both are known as key figures in the aestheticization of fiction, so this similarity isn’t surprising.

Thinking of James and Flaubert together, both writers I can admire but don’t really like, makes me wonder if these marvelous details are symptoms of the problem — my problem, that is. In his essay “How Flaubert Changed Literature Forever,” James Wood discusses Flaubert’s comments on “the monstrous difficulty of writing a sentence. “Style had always been a battle for novelists,” Wood says, “but Flaubert, in his letters at least, turned it into a perpetual defeat.” His writing becomes a site of struggle for a particular kind of perfection, a struggle which is part of how the novel becomes self-consciously artistic and thus great. And yet, Wood proposes, “under Flaubert … the novel’s great expansion was perhaps an expansion into limit”:

When the nineteenth-century novel became madly ambitious to be everything, it began to chastise itself for failing to do everything. Taking everything as its only measure, it became afflicted with a sense of its failure, and began to throw off those ambitions, like a plane dumping fuel, until only one was left: its very essence, style itself. Until Flaubert, the novel had been mithridated in its own unself-consciousness, as an alcoholic thoughtlessly medicates himself; but Flaubert took away its sweet, ignorant poisons.

As so often with Wood, and with any generalization about “the” nineteenth-century novel, I am not entirely comfortable with this account of literary history. Certainly not every novelist threw off every ambition but style — only the novelists in whom Wood takes a particular interest. And Wood’s own metaphors are so hopelessly biased against the novelists who aren’t Flaubert-like in their repudiation of the “ignorant poisons” of everything besides style! I do like Wood’s phrase “an expansion into limit”: it’s just that for me, what he interprets as a sign of progress feels to me, as the reader I am, like a loss, a decline. There’s something claustrophobic about this highly-crafted prose that never rushes, that’s never excitable, that sculpts and places and polishes its pieces so perfectly. I don’t concede that other 19th-century novel(ist)s are formless, but their forms are not (or, not just) verbal, not just stylistic but also spatial, not singular but plural.

It’s absurd, of course, to call James’s prose a “decline,” and in any case I don’t actually want to fall into Wood’s habit of identifying a favorite kind of novel as the best kind: as James himself said (in his Preface to The Portrait of a Lady) “the house of fiction has not one window, but a million.”  I just find myself wishing James would open his window up a bit wider and let some air in! But if you’re that self-conscious, I suppose you can’t take a risk that an errant breeze will shuffle your papers or, worse, carry in some sweet but destructive — that is, distracting — poison. Is oxygen really too high a price to pay for le mot juste?

7 thoughts on “Henry James and “le mot juste”

  1. Di December 26, 2015 / 7:06 pm

    The funny part is that in the “fight” between Flaubert and George Eliot, Henry James would have been on George Eliot’s side.


  2. lawless December 26, 2015 / 7:45 pm

    There’s something claustrophobic about this highly-crafted prose that never rushes, that’s never excitable, that sculpts and places and polishes its pieces so perfectly.

    That’s why the older I get, the less I am enamored of literary fiction, particularly fiction that is (self-)consciously literary.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 27, 2015 / 5:00 pm

      I think it really depends on the novel: most of the books that I have admired and liked the most in recent years would almost certainly count as “literary” fiction (Nicola Griffith’s Hild, for instance, or Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son) and I tire pretty quickly of a lot of “genre” writing that seems really thin and formulaic. (But there, too, it depends on the novel, as there are plenty of examples of genre fiction I have liked and/or admired recently too!)


  3. Ali December 27, 2015 / 10:57 am

    I was curious to see how you would feel about the novel the further you read. I am not sure if you have yet read Chapter XLIV–and I don’t want to give too much away if have not–but I was really struck in this chapter by Isabel’s thought process and how it is somewhat similar to Dorothea’s in Middlemarch. I’ll be interested to learn your thoughts about the similarities because I think you will be able to articulate anything better than I am because of your knowledge of Middlemarch and understanding of literary composition (in a way that I do not have such an understanding). It has taken me quite a while to get through Portrait. I am almost done and find myself wanting to move onto my next book. I feel like I have lingered too long in this world in a way that I don’t feel when I read other longer books.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 27, 2015 / 4:58 pm

      I’m not there yet (this time – I have read the novel before, but many years ago, so I know the gist of it but not the details). I am definitely very interested in the ways it resonates with Eliot’s novels, though so far I’m mostly aware of ways it is set up like Daniel Deronda .


  4. Amateur Reader (Tom) December 27, 2015 / 9:31 pm

    To defend Wood a bit, he is well aware that he has the whole standing in for a part in his metaphor. It is like saying “19th century painting’s turn towards abstraction” or “19th century music’s move towards dissonance.” It is as if “19th century literature” is an amoeba with various tentacles and organelles off doing their own thing, until the abstract or dissonant arm grows so large as to turn back and eat the original organism, banishing the Salon paintings to third-rate regional museums.

    The “sweet, ignorant poisons” bit must be jokey free indirectness. As Flaubert might think etc.

    This stuff is particularly French; James is importing it from France alongside Arnold, Swinburne, Wilde, and that crowd (Eliot deals more in German goods). English has no Racine, no Classicism. The riot over Hugo’s Hernani was sparked by Hugo putting the caesura in the first line of his play in the wrong place! The problem might be too much oxygen, to the point of dizziness.

    I am too ignorant to defend James, and Flaubert is of course indefensible, but this tradition swells to produce Proust’s ocean air and scent of hawthorn, and Nabokov’s healthful Alpine air full of butterflies. Plenty of healthful air.


  5. Stefanie December 28, 2015 / 4:05 pm

    Sighs of satisfaction? Uh-oh, it is a slippery slope, soon you will move from phrases to entire sentences to whole paragraphs! 😀


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