Rohan Maitzen

Henry James and “le mot juste”

I 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?