Saturday, August 8, 2009

On The Art of The Novel: Lessons From Balzac AND Thackeray, by Henry James

James says that Balzac’s faults are faults of execution only; “they never come back to that fault in an artist, in the novelist, that amounts most particularly to a failure of dignity: the absence of saturation with his idea. When saturation fails no other presence really avails; as when, on the other hand, it operates, no failure of method fatally interferes. There is never in Balzac that damning interference which consists of the painter’s not seeing, not possessing his image. “Balzac aime sa Valerie,” says Taine; in his great essay—so much the finest thing ever written on our author [Balzac]—speaking of the way in which the awful little Madame Marneff of “Les Parents Pauvres” is drawn, and of the long rope, for her acting herself out, that her creator’s participation in her reality assures her. He has been contrasting her, as it happens, with Thackeray’s Becky Sharp or rather with Thackeray’s attitude toward Becky, and the marked jealosy of her freedom that Thackeray exhibits from the first.....

[The novelist’s love of his or her created characters], "the joy in their communicated and exhibited movement, in their standing on their feet and going of themselves and acting out their characters, was what rendered possible the 'saturation' I speak of.... It was by loving them—as the terms of his subject and the nugget of his mine—that he knew them; it was not by knowing them that he loved.

“He at all events robustly loved the sense of another explored, assumed, assimilated identity—enjoyed it as the hand enjoys the glove when the glove ideally fits. My image is loose; for what he [Balzac] liked was absolutely to get into the consitituted consciousness, into all the clothes, gloves, and whatever else, into the very skin and bones, of the habited, featured, colored, articulated form of life that he desired to present. How do we know given persons, for any purpose of demonstration, unless we know their situation for themselves, unless we see it from their point of vision, that is from their point of pressing consciousness or sensation?—without our allowing for which there is no appreciation. Balzac loved his Valérie then as Thackeray did not love his Becky, or his Blanche Amory in Pendennis. But his [Balzac’s] prompting was not to expose her; it could only be, on the contrary—intensely aware as he was of all the length she might go. . .to cover her up and protect her, in the interest of her special genius and freedom. All his impulse was... to give her all her value, just as Thackeray’s attitude was the opposite one, a desire positively to expose and desecrate poor Becky—to follow her up, catch her in the act and bring her to shame. . .

“It all comes back, in fine, to that respect for the liberty of the subject which I should be willing to name as the great sign of the [novelist] of the first order. Such a witness to the human comedy fairly holds his breath for fear of arresting or diverting that natural license; the witness who begins to breath so uneasily in the presence that his respiration not only warns off the little prowling or playing creature he is supposed to be studying, but drowns, for our ears, the ingenuous sounds of the animal as well as the general truthful hum of the human scene at large—this demonstrator has no sufficient warrant for his task. And if such an induction as this is largely the moral of our renewed glance at Balzac, there is a lesson of a more essential sort, I think, folded still deeper within—the lesson that there is no convincing art that is not ruinously expensive . . . Many of those who have followed him affect us as doing it on the cheap . . .”

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