The Master's Lesson: Balzac and Henry James
Author: Gervais, David
Source: The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume 33, Number 4, 2004 , pp. 315-330(16)
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Abstract:James's essays on Balzac are meditations not just on French realism but on his own gifts as a novelist, a way of asking himself how fiction could transcend realism whilst remaining true to its commitment to ‘representation’. He admired Balzac not just as a realist but for his capacity for imaginative absorption in the lives of his characters. In Balzac's more ‘transcendental’ works this resulted in cautionary insights into the dangers inherent in the imagination, as well as instances of its power. Whereas in James's own fiction the imagination is often portrayed as benign, a force for good, in Balzac's it invariably leads to monomania (e.g. La Recherche de l'Absolu). This distinctio can be traced in the way each writer approaches the art of fiction, for instance in the very different ways in which they depict the subject of the literary or artistic life (Les Illusions perdues, Le Chef d'œuvre inconnu, The Tragic Muse, The Figure in the Carpet, etc). Such works have many themes in common but, whereas in Balzac the artist is circumscribed by the complex French world he chronicles, the American novelist treats actuality more freely, as a springboard rather than a boundary. This contrast is explored through a comparison between Le Chef d'œuvre inconnu and The Lesson of the Master. Balzac was both an indispensable inspiration to James and a hurdle that he needed to over-leap.
Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: 2004-01-01
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