By HENRY JAMES.
A FEW YEARS ago the author of these remarks received from an observant friend then in Paris (not a Frenchman), a letter containing a passage which he ventures to transcribe. His correspondent had been to see a celebrated actress — the most celebrated actress of our time — in a new and successful play.
She is a wonderful creature, but how a being so intelligent as she can so elaborate what has so little moral stuff in it to work upon, I do not comprehend. The play is hard and sinister and horrible, without being in the least degree tragic or pathetic; one felt, when it was over, like an accomplice in some cold-blooded piece of cruelty. I am moved to give up the French and call my own species to stand from under and let their fate overtake them. Such a disproportionate development of the external perceptions and such a perversion of the natural feelings must work its Nemesis in some way. ”
These simple lines, on account of their general, not of their special application, have come back to me in reading over the several volumes of the remarkable genius who has assumed in literature the name of Pierre Loti, as well as in refreshing my recollection of the works of several of his contemporaries. A work of art or of letters becomes doubly interesting when one begins to perceive its connections; and indeed it may be said that the study of connections is the recognised function of intelligent criticism to-day. It is a comparatively poor exercise of the attention (for the critic, always, I mean), to judge a book simply in itself, even if it happen to be a book as independent, as little the product of a school and a fashion as Le Mariage de Loti, or Mon Frère Yves, or Pêcheur d’Islande. Each of these works is interesting as illustrating the talent and character of the author, but they become still more interesting as we note their coincidences and relations with other works, for then they begin to illustrate other talents and other characters as well; the plot thickens and the whole spectacle grows. We seem to be studying not simply the genius of an individual but that of a nation, or of a dominant group, in a very living manifestation; the nation or the group becomes a great figure, operating on a great scale, and the drama of its literary production (to speak only of that) a kind of world-drama, lighted by the universal sun, with Europe and America for the public and the arena of races, the battle-field of their modern comparisons and competitions, for the stage. Is not the entertainment moreover a particularly good bill, as they say at the theatre, when it is a question of the performances of France? Will not the connoisseur feel much at his ease in such a case, about the high capacity of the actor, square himself in his stall with the comfortable general confidence that he is to listen to a professional and not an amateur? Whatever benefits or injuries that great country may have conferred upon mankind, she has certainly rendered them the service of being always, according to her own expression, bien en scène. She commits herself completely and treats us to extreme cases; her effects are not vague nor timid but large and striking. She has educated our observation by the finish of her manner, and whether or no she has the best part in the play we feel, I think, that she knows her part of the best.
A writer of the ability of Alphonse Daudet, of that of Guy de Maupassant or of that of the brothers De Goncourt, can never fail to be interesting by virtue of that ability, the successive manifestations of which keep our curiosity alive. But our curiosity is never so great as after we have noted — as I think we rather promptly do — that the strongest gift of each of them is the strongest gift of all: an extraordinary art of expressing the way, or the innumerable ways, in which life affects our senses. We recognise this accomplishment with immense pleasure as we read — a pleasure so great that it is not for some time that we make another observation that much sooner or later follow on its heels. That observation is somewhat to this effect: that, in comparison, the ways in which life acts upon the mind and the character are so little studied that they may almost be said not to be studied at all. We end by getting a certain peculiar impression of one-sidedness and sacrifice and by asking ourselves (such are the absorbing consequences of comparative criticism), whether the sacrifice be accidental or necessary. The value of the few words in the letter I just cited is simply that they are a fresh, direct, almost startled impression of the length to which the sacrifice may go, accompanied with the impression that it must sooner or later be paid for, like every other extravagance, and that if the payment be on the scale of the aberration it will make an eddy of which those who are wise in time will keep clear. On one side an extraordinary development of the external perceptions — those of the appearance, the sound, the taste, the feeling, the general physical sense of things: I think this, at any rate, will not be denied to be the master-sign of the novel in France, as the first among the younger talents show it to us to-day. They carry into the whole business of looking, seeing, hearing, smelling, into all kinds of tactile sensibility, and into noting, analyzing and expressing the results of these acts, a seriousness much greater than that of any other people. Their tactile sensibility is immense, and it may be said, in truth, to have produced a literature. They are so strong on this side that they seem to me to be easily masters and I cannot imagine that their supremacy should be candidly contested.
A sense of the look of things is not common, assuredly, for the only sense that most people have is of the particular matter with which, on any occasion, their business, their interest or subsistence is bound up; but it is less uncommon in some societies than in others, and it flourishes especially in France. Such is the witness borne by the very vocabulary of the people, which abounds in words and idioms expressing shades and variations of appearance. I once in Paris, at a café, heard a gentleman at a table next to my own say to a companion, speaking of a lady who had just entered the establishment: “A quoi ressemble-t-elle donc?” “Mon Dieu, à une poseuse de sangsues.” The reply struck me as a good example of prompt exactness of specification. If you ask a French hatter which of two hats is the more commendable he will tell you that one of them dégage mieux la physionomie. The judgment of his English congener may be as good (we ourselves perhaps are pledged to think it better), but it will be dumb and dim — he will have less to say about disengaging the physiognomy. Half the faculty I speak of, in the French, is the expressive part of it. The perception and the expression together have been worked to-day (for the idiosyncrasy is noticeably modern), with immense vigour, and from Balzac to Pierre Loti, the latest corner in the band of painters, the successful workers have been the novelists. There are different ways of working, and Flaubert, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Zola, Daudet, Maupassant, and the writer to whom I more particularly refer, have each had a way of his own. There are story-tellers to day in France who are not students or at any rate not painters, of the visible and palpable; but then they are not conspicuously anything else. I ca think of but one writer whose literary quality is of the highest, whose foremost sign does not happen to be visual curiosity. M. Paul Bourget looks much more within than without, and notes with extraordinary closeness certain of the effects of life on the soul, especially in the way of making it suffer. Many people in England hold that they are probably not, as a general thing, people to whom one would go for information on the subject — I mean the subject of the soul. M. Paul Bourget, however, is peculiar in this, that he is both master and pupil; he is alone, parmi les jeunes; and moreover there are other directions in which he is not isolated at all, those of tactile sensibility, or isolated only because he follows them so far.
The case was not always as I have here attempted to indicate it, for Madame George Sand had an admirable faculty of looking within and a comparatively small one of looking without. Attempting some months ago, at Venice, to read over Consuelo, I was struck, on the spot, with the very small degree to which the author troubled herself about close representation — the absence of any attempt at it or pretension to it; and I could easily understand the scorn with which that sort of irresponsibility (reaching at times on Madame Sand’s part a truly exasperating serenity), has filled, for some time past, the votaries of the pictorial method. M. Octave Feuillet is by way, as we say to day, of looking within, but what he finds there is little more (as it strikes me), than the external impressions of his heroes and heroines. These ladies and gentlemen are lined on the under side with the same stuff as on the upper — a curious social, silken material, of which we are taught not to forget that the texture is superfinely aristocratic and adapted for love. If the soul, for the moralizing observer, is a kind of romantic moonlighted landscape, with woods and mountains and distances, visited by strange winds and murmurs, for M. Octave Feuillet it is rather a square French salon in white and gold, with portraits of the king and queen and the Pope, a luminary in old Sèvres and plenty of bibelots and sofas. I hasten to add that it is an apartment in which one may spend an hour most agreeably. Even at present there are distinguished variations, if we look outside the group of novelists. If there were not a poet like Scully-Prudhomme or a moralist like M. Renan the thesis that the French imagination runs almost exclusively to material things would be made simpler than it ever is to prove anything.
ONE PERCEIVES ON the other hand that the things of the mind are not handled with anything like the same fulness of acquaintance, and this, I confess, is the only “Nemesis” in which for the present I have confidence. It appears to me indeed all sufficient — it appears ideal; and if the writers I have named deserve chastisement for their collective sin against proportion (since sin it must be held), I know not how a more terrible one could have been invented. The penalty they pay is the heaviest that can be levied, the most summary writ that can be served, upon a great talent — great talents having as a general thing formidable defences — consists simply in the circumstance that when they pass to the question of internal things they cease to seem masters. This would be a great humiliation if they recognised it. They do not, however, so far as may be observed; which is a proof that their defences are formidable. There is a distinct transition, at any rate, in the case I mention, and I think a distinct descent. As painters they are superior, as psychologists inferior. We leave authority on one side of the line and encounter on the other a curiously complacent and unconscious provincialism. Such is the impression we gather in every case, though there are some cases in which the incongruity is more successfully dissimulated than in others. What makes it grow, when once we perceive it, is the large and comprehensive pretensions of the writers — the sense they give us of camps and banners, war-cries and watch-fires. The Journal of the brothers De Goncourt, of which two volumes have lately been put forth, is a very interesting publication and suggests many things; but the first remark to be made about it is that its authors take themselves with an immitigable seriousness. At the same time the book is a perfect revelation of the love of the look of things and the way it may flourish (not joyously, indeed, in this case, but with an air of jealous, nervous, conscious tension), at the expense of a car for some of their other qualities. Perhaps the best illustration of all would be the difference between the way Gustave Flaubert carries us with him as a painter of aspects and sensations and the way he carries us with him as a painter of ideas and moral states. If you feel the talent that abides in his style very much (and some people feel it immensely and as a sort of indefeasible prestige), you are bribed in a measure to overlook the inequality; but there comes a moment when the bribe, large as it is, is ineffectual. He appears so mature and accomplished in the former character and so incurably youthful and uninformed in the latter. Bouvard et Pécuchet, even as an unfinished work, has merits of execution that could only spring from a great literary energy; but Bouvard et Pécuchet is surely, in the extreme juvenility of its main idea, one of the oddest productions for which a man who had lived long in the world was ever responsible. Flaubert’s surface is always magnificent, but his psychology, by contrast, is almost pour rire. In proportion to that magnificence his moral show seems even exceptionally poor. If for “perversion of the natural feelings” (the phrase of the letter I quoted), we read inaction, rather, and poverty of the imagination as directed to the conscience, he will appear to represent the characteristic disparity at its maximum. The brothers De Goncourt strike one as knowing as little about the conscience as he, but somehow it is not suggested to one in the same degree that they might have known more. His gift is not their gift, and it is his gift that makes us measure him by a high standard. Germinie Lacerteux, indeed, without being so fine as Madame Bovary, has great ability; but nothing else they have written has an equal ability with Germinie Lacerteux.
One of the consequences of the generalisation that I have ventured to make is that when a new French talent mounts above the horizon we watch with a kind of anxiety to see whether it will present itself in a subversive and unaccommodating manner. M. Pierre Loti is a new enough talent for us still to feel something of the glow of exultation at his having not contradicted us but done exactly the opposite. He has added more than we had dared to hope to the force of our generalisation and removed every scruple of a magnanimous kind that we might have felt in making it. By scruples of a magnanimous kind I mean those that might have been engendered by a sense of favours enjoyed. When one is engaged, for instance, in the delightful pastime of reading Alphonse Daudet, or this not more meagrely endowed Pierre Loti, it would take no great sophistry to convince one that it savours of indelicacy and ingratitude to talk of their deficiencies. But really they have too good a time of it; they enjoy the unprecedented good fortune of eating their cake and having it. Such is the reflection which Pierre Loti leads us presently to make. They have such honour for what they have that it makes up for omissions and poverties. To be abnormally, almost monstrously, thin on the spiritual side and at the same time to have a charm which makes even the most circumspect minds overlook this bareness, is to be so happy that those who work in harder conditions surely may allow themselves the solace of little criticisms. It may be said that since I indulge in little criticisms I resist our author’s charm after all, but the answer to that is that I have overlooked more than I should find it easy to express in making up my mind to write, however obscurely, about him. There is a whole element in him which, if one fixes one’s thoughts on it, is almost prohibitive as regards making him a subject even of restrictive comment. But, practically, one does not fix one’s thoughts upon it, for they are occupied too frequently, to the utmost, in a different way — in the surrender to irresistible illusion and the enjoyment of contagious life.
To be so good that you can be bad with impunity, to be a mere sponge for sensations and yet not to forfeit your human character, to secure sympathy and interest for it whenever you flash that facet into the sun, and on top of all to write, as Goldsmith talked, like an angel — that surely is to be fortunate as few are fortunate here below. This rarity of the mixture, which makes such a literary unity of such a personal duality, is altogether in Pierre Loti a source of fascination. He combines aptitudes which seldom sit down to the same table, and combines them with singular facility and naturalness, an air of not caring whether he combines them or not. I know not whether he be as ignorant of literature as he pretends (he protests perhaps a little too much that he never opens a book), but it is very clear that what is at the bottom of his effect is not the study of how to produce it. What he studies is very different matters, and I know no case in which literature left to come off as it can comes off so beautifully. To be such a rover of the deep, such a dabbler in adventure as would delight the soul of Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, and yet to have at one’s command a sensitive and expressive apparatus separated by the whole scale from that of Jim Hawkins and John Silver, is to have little need of “cultivating” originality, as M. Guy de Maupassant the other day recommended us to do. As an officer in the French navy, perpetually circumnavigating the globe, M. Loti has spent most of his life (though its duration, I believe, has not yet been considerable), in strange waters and far lands, and his taste for unconventional episodes, for the natural, personal life, has led him to neglect none of his opportunities. That taste and those opportunities are among soldiers and sailors common enough; but what is not so in the same connection is the spirit of the artist, which in M. Loti is as natural as all the rest. There is a reflection in regard to the distribution of earthly advantages which is probably familiar to most men of letters and which at any rate often occurs to the writer of these lines. The people who see the great things are terribly apt not to be the people who can write or even talk about them; and the people who can write about them, reproduce them in some way, are terribly apt not to be people who see them. The “chance” is with the blind or the dumb, and the immortal form, waiting for a revelation that does not come, is with the poor sedentary folk who bewail the waste of chances. Many an artist will have felt his heart sink on questioning some travelled person in vain. The travelled person has not noticed, or has nothing to say about, things which must have had an inestimable suggestiveness. So we frame a kind of ideal of success, in which the man of action and the man of observation melt together. The transcendent result is a personage who knows the sea as well as Captain Marryat and writes about it as well — I can only say as well as Pierre Loti.
She flew before the weather, the Marie [a fishing-boat in the Icelandic waters], flew faster and faster, and the weather flew as well, as before something mysterious and terrible. The gale, the sea, the Marie herself, were all taken with the same madness of flight and speed in the same direction. What scurried the fastest was the wind; then the great surges of the swell, slower and heavier, rushing after it; then the Marie, borne along in the universal motion. The waves pursued her with their blanched crests, rolling in a perpetual fall, and she, forever caught, forever left behind, got away from them, all the same, by the clever furrow she made in her wake, which sucked their rage away. And in this flying pace what they were conscious of above all was the sense of lightness; they felt themselves bound, without trouble or effort. When the Marie rose on the billows it was without a shock, as if the wind had lifted her; and then her scent was like a slide. . . . She seemed to be sliding backwards, the fleeing mountain falling away from under her to rush onward, while she dropped into one of the great hollows which were also rushing. She touched its terrible bottom without a hurt, in a splash of water which did not even wet her, but which fled like all the rest — fled and fainted ahead, like smoke, like nothing. In the depth of these hollows it was darker, and after each wave had passed they watched the next coming on behind — the next bigger and higher, green and transparent, which hurried up with furious contortions, scrolls almost closing over and seeming to say, ‘Wait till I catch you — till I swallow you up!’ But it didn’t catch you; it only lifted you as you lift a feather in shrugging your shoulders, and you felt it pass under you almost gently, with its gushing foam, the crash of a cascade.”
Mon Frère Yves and Pêcheur d’Islande are full of pages as vivid as that, which seem to us to place the author among the very first of sea-painters.
You made out thousands of voices [in the huge clamour of a storm in northern seas], those above either shrill or deep and seeming distant from being so big: that was the wind, the great soul of the uproar, the invisible power which carried on the whole thing. It was dreadful, but there were other sounds as well, closer, more material, more bent on destruction, given out by the torment of the water, which crackled as if on live coals. And it grew and still grew. In spite of their flying pace the sea began to cover them, to ‘eat them up,’ as they said; first the spray, whipping them from aft, then great bundles of water hurled with a force that might smash everything. The waves grew higher and still crazily higher, and yet they were ravelled as they came and you saw them hanging about in great green tatters, which were the falling water scattered by the wind. It fell in heavy masses on the deck, with the sound of a whack, and then the Marie shuddered all over, as if in pain. Now you could make out nothing more, on account of this drift of white slobber; when the gusts groaned afresh you saw it borne in thicker clouds, like the dust on the roads in summer. A heavy rain which had come on now passed aslant, almost horizontal, and all these things hissed together, lashing and wounding like stripes.”
The English reader may see in such passages as these what the English reader is rather apt to see in any demonstrative view of difficulty or danger, any tendency to insist that a storm is bad or a mountain steep — a nervous exaggeration, the emotion of one who is not as Englishmen are. But Pierre Loti has many other things to say of the ocean than that it is a terrible place and of strange countries than that it is a mercy one ever gets there, and the descriptions I have quoted are chosen at hazard. “It always came to an end suddenly [the hot tropical rain]; the black curtain drew away slowly, dragging its train over the turquoise-tinted sea, and the splendid light came forth more astonishing after the darkness, and the great equatorial sun drank up fast all the water we had taken; the sails, the wood of the ship, the awnings recovered their whiteness in the sunshine; the Sibyl put on altogether the bright colour of a dry thing in the midst of the great blue monotony that stretched around her.” Pierre Loti speaks better than of anything else of the ocean, the thing in the world that, after the human race, has most intensity and variety of life; but he renders with extraordinary felicity all the poetry of association, all the touching aspects and suggestions in persons, places and objects connected with it, whose essential character is that they are more or less its sport and its victims. There is always a charming pity and a kind of filial passion in his phrase when it rests upon the people and things of his wind-swept and wave-washed Brittany. The literature of our day contains nothing more beautiful than the Breton passages, as one may call them, of Mon Frère Yves and Pêcheur d’Islande. There is a sentence in the former of these tales, in reference to the indefinable sweetness of the short-lived Breton summer, which constitutes a sort of image of the attraction of his style. “A compound of a hundred things; the charm of the long mild days, rarer than elsewhere and sooner gone; the deep fresh grasses, with their extreme profusion of pink flowers; and then the sense of other years which sleeps there, spread through everything.” All this is in Pierre Loti, the mildness and sadness, the profusion of pink flowers and that implication of other conditions at any moment, which is the innermost note of the voice of the sea. When Gaud, in Pêcheur d’Islande, takes her walk to the dreary promontory where she hopes she may meet her lover, “there were no more trees at all now, nothing but the bare heath, with its green furze, and here and there the divine crucified cutting out the great arms of their crosses against the sky and making the whole region look like an immense place of justice.” Too long to quote in their fulness are the two admirable pages in the early part of the history of Gaud and Yann about the winter festival of the pardon of the fishermen, with Paimpol full of “the sound of bells and the chant of priests, the rude and monotonous songs of the taverns — old airs to cradle sailors, old complaintes come from the sea, come from I know not where, from the deep night of time;” full of “old granite houses, shutting in the swarm of the crowd; old roofs that told the story of their centuries of struggle against the west winds, the salt spray, the rains, everything that the sea brings to bear; the story too of the warm episodes they had sheltered, old adventures of daring and love.” Easier to reproduce, in its concision, is the description of the day, the last day, before Yann Gaos goes forth on the ill-starred expedition which he never returns:
There was no wind from any quarter. The sea had become very gentle; it was everywhere of the same pale blue and remained perfectly quiet. The sun shone with a great white brightness, and the rough Breton hand soaked itself in the light as in something fine and rare; it seemed to feel a cheer and a refreshment even to its far-away distances. The air was deliciously tepid and smelt of summer; you would have said that it had stilled itself for ever, that there never again would be dark days or tempests. The capes, the bays, without the changing shadows of the clouds, drew out in the sunshine their great motionless lines. They too appeared given up to endless rest and tranquility. . . . . On the edges of the ways you saw little hasty flowers, primroses and violets, pale and without scent.”
Madame Chrysanthème, the history of a summer spent in very curious conditions at Nagasaki, the latest of the author’s productions and the most amusing, has less spontaneity than its predecessors and seems more calculated, more made to order; but it abounds in unsurpassable little vignettes, of which the portrait of certain Japanese ladies of quality whom he met at the photographer’s is a specimen:
I couldn’t satiate my desire to look at these two creatures; they captivated me like incomprehensible things that one had never seen. Their fragile bodies, outlandishly graceful in posture, are drowned in stiff materials and redundant sashes, of which the ends droop like tired wings. They make me think, I don’t know why, of great rare insects; the extraordinary patterns on their garments have something of the dark bedizenment of night-butterflies. Above all these is the mystery of their quite small eyes, drawn back and up so far that the lids are tight and they can scarcely open; the mystery of their expression, which seems to denote inner thoughts of a cold, vague complacency of absurdity — a world of ideas absolutely closed to ourselves.”
It may be that many English reader will not recognise Pierre Loti as a man of action who happens to have a genius for literary expression, the account he himself gives of his exploits not being such as we associate with that character. The term action has a wide signification, but there are some kinds of life which it represents to us certainly much less than others. The exploits of the author of Madame Chrysanthème, of Aziyadém, of Rarahu [in Mariage], of Le Roman d’un Spahi and Pasquala Ivanovitch, are — I hardly know what to call them, for we scarcely mention achievements of this order in English — more relaxing on the whole than tonic. An author less tonic than Pierre Loti can indeed not well be imagined, and the English reader ought already to have been notified (the plainest good faith requires it and I have delayed much too long), that a good deal of what he has to tell us relates mainly to his successes among the ladies. We have a great and I think a just dislike to literary confidences on such points, and when a gentleman abounds in them the last thing we take him for is a real man of action. It must be confessed that Pierre Loti abounds, though his two best books are not autobiographical, and there is simply nothing to reply to any English reader who on ascertaining this circumstance may declare that he desires to hold no commerce with him; nothing, that is, but simply to remark that such a reader will lose a rare pleasure. This warning is a trifle to the really scandalised person. I maintain my epithet, however, and I should desire no better justification for it than such an admirable piece as the “Corvée Matinale,” in the volume entitled Propos d’Exil, which describes how the author put off at dawn, from a French ship of war, in a small boat with a handful of men, to row up a river on the coast of Anam and confer, with a view of bringing them promptly to terms, with the authorities of the queerest of little Asiatic towns. A writer is quite a man of action enough to my sense when he has episodes like that to relate; they give a sufficient perfection to the conjunction of the “chance” and the pictorial view. Danger has nothing to do with it; the manner in which M. Loti gives us the sense on this occasion of an almost grotesque absence of danger, of ugly mandarins superfluously frightened as well as of the colour and temperature of the whole scene — the steaming banks of the river, with flat Asiatic faces peeping out of the rushes, the squalid, fetid crowds, the shabby contorted pagodas, with precious little objects glimmering in the shade of their open fronts — the vividness of all these suggestions is the particular sign of this short masterpiece. The same remark applies to the “Pagodas Souterraines,” in the same volume. The story, told with admirable art, of an excursion, while the ship was lingering exasperatingly on the same hot, insufferable coast, to visit certain marvellous old tombs and temples, hewn out of a mountain of pink marble, filled with horrible monstrous effigies and guarded by bonzes almost as uncanny. The appreciation of the exotic, which M. Jules Lemaître marks as Loti’s distinguishing sign, finds perfect expression in such pages as these.
There are many others of the same sort in the Propos d’Exil, which is a collection of admirable things; but perhaps the volume is above all valuable for the sketch entitled Un Vieux — the picture of the old age, dreary and lamentable, of a worn-out mariner who has retired on his pension to a cottage in the suburbs of Brest. It has sentiment as well as an extraordinary objective reality; but it is not sentimental, for it is characterised by an ineffable pessimism and a close, fascinated notation of the inexorable stages by which lonely and vacant old age moulders away, with its passions dying — dying hard. Un Vieux is very ugly and Pêcheur d’Islande is very beautiful; but I should be tempted to say that Un Vieux is the next finest thing to Pêcheur d’Islande that Pierre Loti has done. Mon Frère Yves is full of beauty, but it carries almost to a maximum the author’s characteristic defect, the absence of composition, the décousu quality which makes each of his books appear at first a handful of flying leaves. Un Vieux has a form as a whole, though it occurs to me that perhaps it is surpassed in this respect by another gem of narration or description, the best pages of the Fleur d’Ennui. (One hesitates for a word when it is a question mainly of rendering, as Loti renders it, the impression, of giving the sensual illusion, of a strange place and strange manners.) I leave to the impartial read to judge whether Les Trois Dames de la Kasbah, the gem in question (it has been extracted from the Fleurs d’Ennui and published in a very pretty little volume by itself), is more or is less ugly than Un Vieux. That will depend a good deal on whether he be shocked by the cynicism of a representation of the adventures of six drunken sailors during a stuffy night at Algiers. Such, and nothing more (the adventures are of the least edifying and the dénoûment is not even mentionable to ears polite), is the subject of Les Trois Dames de la Kasbah, Conte Oriental; and yet the life, the spirit, the colour, the communicative tone, the truth and poetry of this little production are such that one cannot conscientiously relegate it (one wishes one could), to a place even of comparative obscurity.
If our author’s ruling passion is the appreciation of the exotic, he does not in his first works confine himself to looking for it in droll visits to nervous mandarins, in the twilight gloom of rheumatic old sailors or the vulgar pranks of reckless young ones. Le Roman d’un Spahi, Aziyadé and Rarahu each contain the history of a love-affair with a primitive woman, or with a combination of primitive women. THere is a kind of complacent animalism in them which makes it difficult to defend them, and I profess to be able to defend them only so long as they are not attacked. The great point is that they will not be attacked by anyone who is capable of feeling the extraordinary power of evocation of (for instance) Le Mariage de Loti (which is another name for Rarahu), at the same time that he recognises the abnormal character of such a performance, a character the more marked as the feeling of youth is strong in these early volumes and the young person has rarely M. Loti’s assurance as a Viveur. He betrays a precocity of depravity which is disagreeable. I use the term depravity because we must put the case against him (so many English readers would feel it that way) as strongly as it can be put. It does not put it strongly enough to say that the serene surrender to polygamous practices among coral-reefs and in tepid seas is a sign much rather of primitive innocence, for there is an element in the affair which vitiates that argument. This is simply that the serenity (it is that, I take it, that makes the innocence), cannot under the circumstances be adequate. The pen, the talent, the phrase, the style, the note-book take care of that and change the whole situation; they invalidate the plea of the primitive. They introduce the conscious element, and that is the weak side of Loti’s spontaneities and Arcadianism. What saves him is that his talent never falters, and this is but another illustration of his interesting double nature. His manners and those of his friends at Tahiti, at Stamboul, on the east coast of the Adriatic, or again, according to his latest with work, at Nagasaki, are not such as we associate in the least with high types; and yet when we close these various records of them the impression that abides with us is one of surpassing delicacy. The facts are singularly vulgar, in spite of the exotic glow that wraps them up; but the subjective side of the business, the author’s imagination, has an extraordinary light. Few things could suggest more the value that we instinctively attach to a high power of evocation — the degree to which we regard it as precious in itself.
WHAT MAKES THE facts vulgar, what justifies us in applying to Loti’s picture of himself such epithets as abnormal and monstrous, is his almost inveterate habit of representing the closest and most intimate personal relations as unaccompanied with any moral feeling, any impulse of reflection or reaction. There is a moral feeling in the singular friendship of which Mon Frère Yves is mainly a masterly commemoration, and also a little in the hindered passion which at last unites, for infinite disaster, alas! the hero and heroine of Pêcheur d’Islande. These are the exceptions; they are admirable, and they leave the field delightfully clear for praise. The closer, the more intimate is a personal relation the more we look in it for the human drama, the variations and complications, the note of responsibility, which the loves of the quadrupeds do not give us. Failing to satisfy us in this way such a relation is not interesting, as Mr. Matthew Arnold says of American civilization. M. Pierre Loti is guilty of the perpetual naïveté (and there is a real flatness of repetition in it) of assuming that when exhibited on his own part it is interesting. Rarahu is a wonderful extension of the reader’s experience — a study of the nonchalance of the strange, attractive Maori rase and the private life of Polynesia. The impression is irresistible and the transfusion of our consciousness, as one may say, effected without the waste of a drop. The case is the same with Ayizadé, and the transfusion this time is into a more capacious recipient. Ayizadé relates the adventures of a French naval officer who spends a winter at Salonica and Constantinople in the tolerably successful effort to pass (not only in the eyes of others, but in his very own) for a Turk, and a Turk of the people moreover, with the vulgar superstitions and prejudices. He secures in this experiment the valuable assistance of sundry unconventional persons (for his ideal is the Bohemian Turk, if the expression may be used), foremost of whom is the lady, the wife of a rich and respectable Mussulman, who give her name to the book. It is for M. Loti himself to have judged whether the result were worth the trouble; the great point is that his reader feels that he has them, in their reality, without the trouble, and is beholden to him accordingly for one of the greatest of literary pleasures. M. Jules Lemaître, whom it is difficult not to quote in speaking of any author of whom he has spoken, gives Ayizadé the high praise of being the finest case of enlarged sympathy that he knows, and the most successful effort at changing one’s skin. Commendation of this order it doubtless deserves equally with Le Mariage de Loti, in spite of the infirmity I have hinted at, the fact that the interest is supposed largely to be attached to a close personal relation which is not interesting and which is too much like the loves of the quadrupeds. The desire to change his skin is frequent with M. Loti, and it has this oddity that his preference is almost always for a dusky one. We do not see him attempt to assume the complexion of one of the fairer races — of the English for instance, the fairest perhaps of all. He indulges indeed in the convenient fiction that the personage of whom Loti was originally the nom de guerre is Mr. Harry Grant, a midshipman in her Majesty’s service; but this device is perfunctory and the individual is not studied. Nothing could illustrate more our author’s almost impertinent amateurishness and laxity of composition as well as the circumstance that we forgive it at every step, than the artless confusion which runs through all his volumes in regard to the identity of certain personages. It is all, as his own idiom has it, sewn with white thread. Loti is at once the pseudonym of M. Julien Viaud and the assumed name of the hero of a hundred more or less scandalous anecdotes. Suddenly he ceases to be Harry Grant and becomes an officer in the French navy. The brother Yves is one person in the charming book which bears his name and another (apparently) in Madame Chrysanthème. The name becomes generic and represents any convivial Breton sailor. A curious shadow called Plumkett — a naval comrade — wanders vaguely in and out of almost all his books, in relations incompatible with each other. The odd part of it is that this childish confusion does not only not take from our pleasure but does not even take from our sense of the author’s talent. It is another of the things which prove Loti’s charm is essentially a charm quand même — a charm notwithstanding.
In Madame Chrysanthème the experiment is Japanese, the effort on Loti’s part has been to saturate with the atmosphere of Nipon that oft-soaked sponge to which I have ventured to compare his imagination. His success has not been so great as in other cases, for the simple reason that he has not liked the Japanese as well as the Turks and the Tahitans. The act of sympathy has not come off, as it were, and the experiment is comparatively a failure. The wringing-out of the sponge leaves rather a turbid deposit. The author’s taste is for the primitive and beautiful, the large and free, and the Japanese strike him as ugly and complicated, tiny and conventional. His manner in regard to them is altogether mocking (rather a new line for Loti), and he quite declines to take them seriously. The reproach, in general, to which many people would hold him to be most open is that he takes seriously people and things which deserve it much less. I may be altogether mistaken, but we have a kind of sense that he does not do justice to the rare Japanese. It occurs to us for the first time that he is slightly closed, slightly narrow, he, whose very profession it is to be accessible to extreme strangeness, and we feel, as devoted readers, a certain alarm. We ask ourselves whether the sponge has been so often desire that it has lost its retentive property, and with an anxious desire for reassurance on this point we await his next production.
It is, however, singularly out of place to talk of what Pierre Loti may next produce when I have not interrupted my general remarks to mention in detail the high claims of Mon Frère Yves and Pêcheur d’Islande. It is of these things above all the friendly critic must speak if he wishes to speak to friendly ears. If our author had written his other books and not written these he would have been a very curious and striking little figure in literature; but the two volumes I have last named give him a different place altogether, and if I had not read and re-read them I should not have put forth this general plea. Mon Frère Yves is imperfect (it is notably, for what it is, too long), and Pêcheur d’Islande is to my sense perfect, yet they have almost an equal part in the impression of beauty which they help Pierre Loti to make. The history of Marguerite Mével and Yann Gaos strikes me as one of the very few completely and successfully beautiful works of imagination of this hour. The singular thing is that these two tales, with their far finer effect, differ only in degree from their predecessors and do not differ in kind. The distinctively human part of them, the moral vibration, is still the weakest element in them; it is still as in the others the senses that vibrate most (to every impression of air and climate and colour and weather and season); the feeling is always the feeling of the great earth — the navigator’s earth — as a perpetual physical solicitation. But the picture in each case has everything that gives a lift to that sort of susceptibility and nothing that draws it down, and the susceptibility finds a language which fits it like a glove. The impulse to be human and reflective — the author has felt it indeed strongly in each case; but it is still primitive humanity that fascinates him most, and if Yves and Yann and Silvestre and Gaud and the old grandmother Moan, are more complicated than Ayizadé and Samuel and Achmet and Fatou-gaye and Rarahu, they are infinitely less so than the young people of either sex who supply the interest of most other works of fiction. Pêcheur d’Islande is the history of a passion, but of a passion simplified, in its strength, to a sort of community with the winds and waves, the blind natural forces which hammer away at the hard Breton country where it is enacted. Mon Frère Yves relates the history of an incorrigible drunkard and coureur, a robust, delightful Breton sailor who in his better moments reads Le Marquis de Villemer and weeps over it. (There is a sort of mystification, I should remark, in this production, for the English reader at least, the book being in a large degree the representation of an intimate friendship between the sailor and his superior officer, the spectator of his career and chronicler of his innumerable relapses. Either the conditions which permit this particular variation of discipline are not adequately explained or the rigour of the hierarchy is less in the French service than in others.) What strikes me in Pêcheur d’Islande is the courage which has prompted him to appeal to us on behalf of a situation worn so smooth by generations of novelists that there would seem to be nothing left in it to hook our attention to, to say nothing of the scarcely less manifest fact that it is precisely this artless absence of suspicion that he was attempting a tour de force which has drawn down the abundance of success. Yann Gaos is a magnificent young fisherman — magnificent in stature and strength, and shy and suspicious in temper — whose trade is to spend his summer hauling up millions of cod in the cold and dangerous waters of the north. He meets among the coast-folk of his home a very clever and pretty girl who is even more struck with him than he is with her, but with whom he completely fails to come to an understanding. The understanding is delayed for two years (thanks, largely, to an absence of “manner” on either side), during which the girl’s heart almost breaks. At last, suddenly, they find themselves face to face, she confessing her misery and he his stupidity. They are married in a hurry, to have a short honey-moon before he starts for his annual cruise (the idea of which fills her with an irresistible foreboding), and he sails away to Iceland with his mates. She waits in vain for his return, and he never comes back. That is everything the tale can boast in the way of plot; it is the old-fashioned “love-story” reduced to a paucity of terms. I am sure M. Loti has no views or theories as to which constitutes and does not constitute a plot; he has taken no precautions, he has not sacrificed to any irritated divinity, and yet he has filled the familiar, the faded materials with a new and communicative life. He has appeal to us on “eternal grounds, and besides the unconscious tour de force of doing so in this particular case successfully we charge him with the even more difficult feat of having dispensed with the aid of scenery. That is, his scenery is exactly the absence of scenery; he has placed his two lovers in the mere immensity of sea and sky, so that they seem suspended in a kind of grey, windy void. We see Yann half the time in the perfect blank of fog and darkness. A writer with a story to tell that is not very fresh usually ekes it out by referring as much as possible to surrounding objects. But in this misty medium there are almost no surrounding objects to refer to, and their isolation gives Yann and Gaud a kind of heroic greatness. I hasten to add that of course the author would not have got on so well with them had he not been an incomparable painter of the sea. The book closes with a passage of strange and admirable eloquence, which it seems to me that no critic speaking of it has a right to omit to quote. I should say, as a preliminary, that in the course of the tale Yann Gaos, chaffed by his comrades on the question of his having a sweetheart, of his marrying, has declared that for him there is no woman, no wife, no bride, none but the ocean to which he is already wedded. Also that a vivid and touching incident (as the figure is also itself remarkably charming), is that of the young fisherman Sylvestre Moan, a cousin of Gaud and a great friend, though younger, of Yann, who called to serve in the navy, is mortally wounded at Tonquin and dies, suffocating, in the tropics, on the fetid transport that brings him home. The author relates how he is buried on the way, in a rank, bright cemetery, during a short disembarkment at Singapore.
Yann never came home. One August night, out there off the coast of Iceland, in the midst of a great fury of sound, were celebrated his nuptials with the sea — with the sea who of old has also been his nurse. She had made him a strong and broad-chested youth, and then had taken him in his magnificent manhood for herself alone. A deep mystery had enveloped their monstrous nuptials. Dusky veils all the while had been shaken above them, curtains inflated and twisted, stretched there to hide the feast; and the bride gave voice continually, made her loudest horrible noise to smother the cries. He, remembering Gaud, his wife of flesh, had defended himself, struggling like a giant against this spouse who was the grave, until the moment when he let himself go, his mouth already full of water, his arms open, stretched and stiff for ever. And they were all at his wedding — all those whom he had bidden of old, all except Sylvestre, who, poor fellow, had gone off to sleep in enchanted gardens far away on the other side of the Earth.”
IF IT IS then a matter of course in France that a fresh talent should present its possessor mainly as one more raffiné in the observation of external things, and also, I think I may add, as one more pessimist in regard to the nature of man and of woman, and if such a presumption appears to have been confirmed by an examination of Pierre Loti, in spite of the effort of poor Yves to cultivate his will and of the mutual tenderness of Yann and Gaud, our conclusion, all the same, will not have escaped the necessity of taking into account the fact that there still seems an inexhaustible life for writers who obey this particular inspiration. The Nemesis remains very much what I attempted to suggest its being at the beginning of these remarks, but somehow the writers over whom it hovers enjoy none the less remarkable health on the side on which they are strong. If they have almost nothing to show us in the way of the operation of character, the possibilities of conduct, the part played in the world by the idea (you would never guess, either from Pierre Loti or from M. Guy de Maupassant, that the idea has the least importance); man, for them, is the simple sport of fate, with suffering for his main sign — either suffering or one particular enjoyment, always the same — their affirmation of all this is still on the whole, the most complete affirmation that the novel at present offers us. They have on their side the accident, if accident it be, that they never cease to be artists. They will keep this advantage till the optimists of the hour, the writers for whom the moral stuff of life is also real and visible (lends itself to effects and triumphs, challenges the power to “render”), begin to seem to them formidable competitors. On that day it will be very interesting to see what line they take, whether they will throw up the battle, surrendering honourably, or attempt a change of base. Many intelligent persons hold that for the French a change of base is impossible and that they are either what they are or nothing. This view of course derives great force from that awkward condition which I have mentioned as attached to the work of those among them who are most conspicuous — the fact that their attempts to handle the life of the spirit are comparatively so ineffectual. On the other hand it is terribly compromising when those who do handle the life of the spirit with the manner of experience fail to make their affirmation complete, fail to make us take them seriously as artists and even go so far (some of them are capable of that) as to introduce the dreadful complication of the suggestion that there is perhaps some essential reason (I scarcely know how to say it) why observers who are of that way of feeling should be a little weak in the conjuring line. To be a little weak, in representation, is of course as bad as to be very weak, and I merely glance, shuddering, at such a possibility. What would be their Nemesis, what penalty would such a group have incurred, in their failure to rebut triumphantly so damaging an imputation? Who would have to stand from under then? It is not Pierre Loti at any rate who makes the urgency of these questions a matter only for the materialists (as it is convenient to call them) to consider. He only adds to our suspicion that, for good or for evil, they have still an irrepressible life, and he does so the more notably that, in his form, and seen as a whole, he is a renovator and, as I may say, a refresher. He plays from his own bat, imitating no one, not even nearly or remotely, to my sense, though I have heard the charge made, Châteaubriand. He arrives with his bundle of impressions, but they have been independently gathered, in the world, not in the school, and it is a coincidence that they are of the same order as the others, expressed in their admirable personal way and with an indifference to the art of transitions which is at once one of the most striking cases of literary irresponsibility that I know and one of the finest cases of impunity. He has settled the question of his own superficies (even in the pathos of the sacred reunion of his lovers in Pêcheurs d’Islande there is something predominantly material), but he has not settled the other, the general question of how long and how far accomplished and exclusive — practically exclusive — impressionism will yet go, with its vulture on its back and feeding on it. I hope I do not appear to speak too apocalyptically in saying that the problem is still there to minister to our interest and perhaps even a little to our anxiety.
Henry James was an American anglophile writer and critic, and an occasional contributor to The Fortnightly Review. This essay is from Vol 49 (NS): 647–64, May 1888.