Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Henry James, Émile Zola, innocence and memories

After spending a couple of weeks reading three novels by Émile Zola, and two volumes of memoirs by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann as I research my next book, something went click in my head. Suddenly I remembered that I spent a good deal of time thinking about 19th century Paris eons ago. It was quite a different view of Paris from that which Zola and Haussmann have been showing me, however, since it was that of a famously innocent American, Henry James.

My undergraduate degree is in English literature, for which we had to do a senior seminar which involved reading great quanities of one author's work and then talking and writing about it. My seminar was on Henry James, which didn’t please me since I really wanted to read Melville. But there were too many requests for that seminar, and I lost when the prof drew names from a hat.

So I read 10 or so books by James which are still in my bookcases. By the time I’d churned out four or five papers ("Revolution in the Princess Casamassima" is the only one I can remember) I hadn’t become a James fan, but I had begun to appreciate—as Flaubert so famously said—that anything looked at closely can become interesting. And now, as I’ve been reading about Paris, memories of that experience give me another perspective on two things: what Paris was like then, and how Americans have always considered themselves innocents. That second, mistaken idea about American character lives on, unfortunately, with disastrous results when it comes to foreign policy.

As for James’s portrait of Paris, its society and institutions, he paints a place which is recognizable from Zola’s accounts, but which is very different. In The American, for example-- one of James’s early novels which I’ve begun re-reading and which I notice cost me 75 cents-- his hero Christopher Newman visits the Louvre, as did Zola’s working class wedding party in L’Assommoir. Newman, the rich parvenu, feels compelled to buy a copy of a famous painting being done by a pretty young artist, but Zola’s people find the museum just a good place to kill some time on a happy day. Their best moment comes, actually, afterwards when they must take shelter from a shower under a bridge over the Seine. There an old maid in the party “sighed: if there were leaves, it would have reminded her, she thought, of a place on the Marne where she had gone sometime around 1817 with a young man whom she still cried over.”

Are memories more authentic than a copyist’s painting? Or are memories what you need to survive when you haven’t got anything else?

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