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From Realist to “Avant-garde”: Henry James in France


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  • 1 La Bête dans la jungle adapted from Henry James’s story, The Beast in the Jungle by Marguerite Dura (...)

“Je crois que l’apparence des choses est toujours trompeuse mais qu’à la longue cette tromperie de l’apparence devient l’équivalent de leur vérité, leur vérité même, et que sans doute il n’y a que ce faux-semblant qui au jour le jour puisse supporter d’être vécu.”1

1Catherine Bertram, in La Bête dans la jungle by Marguerite Duras, states from the beginning of the play the essential truth which John Marcher only understands after her death: that appearances are deceptive, but that this deception becomes the equivalent of the truth, the only bearable equivalent, and also a kind of truth itself (“leur vérité même”). This truth is not just a description of John Marcher’s tragic life, but a reflection of fictional writing itself.

2Catherine Bertram’s assertion about both the deceptive nature of appearances and the relationship between these appearances and truth might then be read as a possible definition of the Jamesian novel. Within the wider context of Marguerite Duras’s writing, however, it is clear that this evocation of the relationship between truth and appearance might just as well be read as a definition of the Nouveau Roman. Significantly, Catherine Bertram’s declaration, which in Duras’s adaptation intervenes early on in the play (beginning of tableau I) is not part of Henry James’s story, The Beast in the Jungle.

3A comparison between the poetics of Henry James’s writing and the Nouveau Roman can indeed be drawn. The writers associated with this movement themselves often make reference to Henry James. In her essay “Ce que voient les oiseaux”, Nathalie Sarraute compares James’s narrative technique to Proust’s and analyses James’s narrative, which penetrates beyond the surface reality “pour démonter les rouages délicats de nos mécanismes intérieurs” (134). But it might be argued that the Nouveau Roman writers themselves, by their insistence on the importance of the mechanisms of James’s narrative, have allowed James’s main contribution, a certain conception of the writing of the image, to be overshadowed. The critical fraternity/sorority has tended to follow their example. In his article dating from 1974, for example, H. A. Bouraoui compares the radical experiments in style and image that are characteristic of Henry James’s experimental work, The Sacred Fount (1901) to Nathalie Sarraute’s novel, Portrait d’un inconnu (1956):

“The Sacred Fount” was never really understood in its own time, nor has it achieved any wide popularity today. Yet if we assumed that it had been published in the 1950’s or ‘60’s, instead of 1901, it might take on a rather different coloration for us. It might look, in fact, remarkably like a French “new novel,” rather like, most notably, Nathalie Sarraute’s Portrait d’un Inconnu (97).

4H. A. Bouraoui’s analysis focuses on formal and thematic similarities between the two works: both are “detective stories” which focus on a mysterious portrait; both use the first¬person narrator and “both examine a world in which “things” or surface can overwhelm our inner lives” It is, however, a similar treatment of the image that represents the true link between the works of James and those of Nathalie Sarraute. And it is also perhaps in this that the Nouveau Roman authors find common ground.

  • 2  William Rose Benét, underlines the divergent narrative approaches of the writers associated with t (...)

5The coherence of the rather disparate group of writers2 associated with the Nouveau Roman movement could then be described as the recognition that narration is not truth, but a deceptive appearance of truth. Far from being a criticism of fiction, these writers recognise, like Catherine Bertram, that the fictional pact may be the equivalent of truth, a type of truth. In L’ère du soupçon (1956), Nathalie Sarraute is perhaps the first to expose the theoretical conceptions which are at the basis of the Nouveau Roman movement. She defines this group of writers in terms of their attempt to communicate to the reader the effect of vivid and spontaneous impressions born of certain movements of the writer’s consciousness: “ces impressions étaient produites par certains mouvements, certaines actions intérieures” (8). According to Nathalie Sarraute, no word is adequate to describe these movements, it is only possible to communicate them to the reader through images which enable the reader to experience similar sensations:

[I]l n’était possible de les communiquer au lecteur que par des images qui en donnent des équivalents et lui fassent éprouver des sensations analogues. Il fallait aussi décomposer ces mouvements et les faire se déployer dans la conscience du lecteur à la manière d’un film au ralenti (8-9).

  • 3  Sartre claims that surrealism only led to the confusion of conscious and unconscious, dream and re (...)
  • 4  In his criticism of automatic writing, Blanchot claims that the subject is utterly powerless: “En (...)

6Instead of representing a consciousness, the writer attempts, through a particular use of image, to produce a certain effect on the reader’s consciousness. This conception of literature represents of course an implicit criticism of surrealism and its models. The surrealist ideal of a type of art that would allow the subject true expression had not delivered its promises, as Sartre so clearly points out in Qu’est-ce que la literature ? (1948),3 as does Blanchot in L’Espace littéraire (1955).4 Sarraute thus places the image at the centre of this new theory of fiction, which brings to the text techniques associated with film and photography. The fictional ideal for the Nouveau Roman writers is then not to give voice to a subjectivity but to create a fiction which, because of its effect on the reader’s subjectivity becomes the “equivalent of truth” and a type of truth. The “effectiveness” of fiction becomes the new criterion and the fictional image has a particular role to play in this effectiveness. The interest expressed by writers in France in the fifties and sixties for Henry James’s work may then be seen, to some extent at least, to be the result of James’s conception and use of the image in his writing.

7In an article on Henry James’s theatre, compared to James’s novels, Jean Bessière analyses James’s conception of representation and underlines the importance for the novelist of the idea of immediacy:

La représentation, bien qu'elle soit artifice, et son agent, bien qu'il soit soumis à l'arbitraire des rôles, ne sont jamais des falsifications et offrent toujours, de façon manifeste, ce qui doit être tenu pour une réalité.

8Representation for James is not falsification, it is also a kind of truth. Jean Bessière also emphasises the importance of the image in James’s work, and compares the effect of his fictional work to the effect of painting:

9Dans cet artifice qui n'est pas falsification, dans cet emprunt qui n'est pas mensonge, le théâtre acquiert le pouvoir de monstration de la peinture parce qu'il possède l'immédiateté du décor, du geste, de la parole, de l'action. Objet, mouvement donnés à voir sans délai, parole donnée à entendre sans détour, il est "nature caught in the act" […] (59) (Bessière 316).

10The comparison with painting shows how important the question of “visibility” is for James. The constant in James’s work from his art and literary criticism to his theatre and narrative fiction is indeed the writing of “nature caught in the act”.

11James’s interest for the writing of the image can then perhaps best be understood through an examination of his art criticism, for it is here that he first attempts to recreate in writing a visual impression. An examination of this critical writing also reveals coherence in James’s conception of the image.

  • 5  James’s art criticism may be consulted in the following editions: Henry James: Essays on Art and D (...)

12Unlike certain of his contemporaries, Henry James refuses any “creative” approach to art criticism. The value of art criticism for Henry James resides precisely in its capacity to transmit exactly the existing image and to judge the aesthetical value of this image. In an article dating from 1877, Henry James5 proposes the following description of a painting by G. F. Watts:

“Love and Death” is an allegory, an uncomfortable thing in painting; but Mr. Watt's [sic] allegory is eminently pictorial. On a large canvas a white draped figure, with its back to the spectator, and with a sinister sweep of garment and gesture, prepares to pass across a threshold where, beside a rose bush that has shed its flowers, a boy figure of love staggers forth, and, with head and body reverted in entreaty, tries in vain to bar its entrance (“The Grosvenor Gallery and the Royal Academy” 142).

  • 6  “James can still feel a great value in the scrupulous depiction of the real — the "look of things" (...)

13James’s commentary opens with material details destined to situate the critics perspective in relation to the painting: “a large canvas”, “its back to the spectator” — these indications which reveal the critic’s of observation produce an effect of reality in the presentation of the painting. His art criticism functions in the same way as his literary criticism as Tony Tanner has shown (9).6 The tone of the passage is almost that of theatrical notation. The elements James proposes in his article serve to make the essential aspects of the painting visible for the reader in much the same way as a stage direction helps the actor in his interpretation of a role in the theatre. James depicts a moment frozen and expanded in narration: the white draped figure symbolizing Death “prepares to pass” the threshold. The scene James describes is an anticipation of action, a moment of suspense. It is through the careful description of the image that the reader may experience the effect of the painting.

14During his second trip to Europe in 1872-74, Henry James wrote the story “A Madonna of the Future”, the story of an artist who tries to, but never succeeds in, painting the perfect Madonna. The story may be read as a metaphor for James’s own conception of the image and, in a broader sense his narrative technique, which develops around the idea of an anticipation of action (the beast in the jungle) and the dangers inherent to this approach. The artist’s dream of the perfect image, one in which “[t]he subject admits of every perfection—form, colour, expression, composition” is defeated by time. As the artist in the story realises "Since I have been sitting here taking stock of my intellects, I have come to believe that I have the material for a hundred masterpieces. But my hand is paralysed now, and they will never be painted. I never began!” The Jamesian narrative ideal represents a balance between perfection and compromise, between image and temporality.

15The suspension of action in favour of image is however characteristic of James’s writing, as a comparison between his story, “The Beast in the Jungle” and Marguerite Duras’s adaptation of it for the stage, clearly shows. Early in James’s account the narrator, John Marcher explicitly refers to the image, which defines his life:

It signified little whether the crouching Beast were destined to slay him or to be slain. The definite point was the inevitable spring of the creature; and the definite lesson from that was that a man of feeling didn't cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger-hunt. Such was the image under which he had ended by figuring his life.

16In Henry James’s story, May Bertram never explicitly states the central truth exposed by her counterpart in Duras’s play, Catherine Bertram (“que l’apparence des choses est toujours trompeuse mais qu’à la longue cette tromperie de l’apparence devient l’équivalent de leur vérité, leur vérité même”). On the contrary, James places the enigma of the “beast in the jungle” at the centre of his story. The generic transposition which Duras accomplishes, from narrative to drama, naturally leads to a greater focus on the action. This essential difference between the two genres is however exaggerated by the changes brought about by Marguerite Duras. Understanding in James’s story takes place through John Marcher’s eyes only at the end of the tale:

He had justified his fear and achieved his fate; he had failed, with the last exactitude, of all he was to fail of; and a moan now rose to his lips as he remembered she had prayed he mightn't know. This horror of waking--this was knowledge, knowledge under the breath of which the very tears in his eyes seemed to freeze (The Beast in the Jungle).

17James’s entire narrative builds towards this moment of realisation, the moment when the terrible truth which had lain in wait for Marcher, “like a crouching Beast in the Jungle”, becomes visible. It is the resolution of this enigma, which represents the fictional climax.

18In Duras’s play, however, there is a displacement of emphasis away from Marcher’s realisation: Catherine’s death becomes the climax of the play, as the stage direction indicates: “Ou bien Catherine Bertram meurt séance tenante devant nous ou bien elle sort et elle referme la porte.

19Marcher’s understanding of the central existential truth is confined to the epilogue, which is quite separate from the rest of the play. Again Duras’s extremely precise stage directions underline this: “Il faudrait que le passage du vécu à l’épilogue soit très marqué, soit très différent, que ça ne soit plus tout à fait le même homme qui parle” (58).

20Duras thus implies first that the change that comes over John Marcher is caused by the death of his wife, rather than being the result of the realisation of an existential truth. Furthermore she radically separates this realisation from the action. In her play, although it is the actor who plays John Marcher who continues the story, he speaks of his own character in the third person: “La différence qui résulta de ce nouvel état de choses, la fin de l‘attente, provoqua chez John Marcher un étonnement très grand […]”. In effect, in the epilogue the play becomes narrative and the character distances himself from what is narrated. In James’s story the opposite movement may be observed. It is indeed at the moment of Marcher’s illumination that the gap between narrator and action is narrowest:

But the bitterness suddenly sickened him, and it was as if, horribly, he saw, in the truth, in the cruelty of his image, what had been appointed and done. He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened—it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb (italics added).

21The repeated use of verbs of sight: “he saw, in the truth, in the cruelty of his image, what had been appointed and done”; “He saw the Jungle of his life”; “saw the lurking Beast”; “while he looked, perceived it” and the focus on Marcher’s eyes (“His eyes darkened—it was close”) present the moment of understanding as a moment of vision. The repetition of verbs of perception underlines the expansion of this moment: the instant of realisation expands in the narrative. Adverbs such as “suddenly”, “horribly” also emphasise temporal synchronisation between action and narration.

22In the interests of theatrical effectiveness, Duras thus reverses Henry James’s technique. Her use of the third person narrative at the end of the play ironically echoes the role of the omniscient narrator in the traditional novel. But where Henry James “closes in” on John Marcher at the end of the story, Marguerite Duras uses techniques to create a distance between the dramatic framework and the character who becomes narrator. Marguerite Duras thus reinstates action as the climax of her version of “The Beast in the Jungle”. She makes full use of the particular possibilities of theatre and also harnesses the visual capabilities of this genre to produce the effect of the image which is so characteristic of James’s work. This explains why décor is given such particular significance. A detail from James’ story, for example, “a fine portrait over the chimney-place” acquires iconic value in Duras’s play: in her very precise stage directions, she indicates that the conversation between Catherine Bertram and John Marcher takes place in front of a painting:

Ils parlent d’un tableau qu’on ne va pas voir — le tableau du quatrième marquis de Weatherend, peint par Van Dyck — ce tableau resterait caché, il serait dans les méandres — il serait comme emblématique de l’histoire. Sorte de double de John Marcher. Donc invisible (La bête dans la jungle 15).

23If Henry James’s writing fascinated the “Nouveau Roman” writers, it is then not simply the result of James’s distinctive narrative technique but also because of his treatment of the image and the effectiveness of this use of the image for the reader. In James’s writing, the image —whether this image be the spectre of Aspern’s papers, the figure in the carpet or the beast in the jungle— constantly raises the question of existence and the artist’s place in the world. The aim is not to express the author’s subjectivity but to act on the reader’s subjectivity. In this context, the image acts as a continuous sub-text which forces the reader to read beyond the obvious. For the writers associated with the “Nouveau Roman” movement Henry James’s writing of the image represents a way forward for fictional writing. Their treatment of James’s texts accentuates and exploits a tendency that is already present in his work. James’s posterity in genres such as theatre and film, which rely heavily on visual effect, can then be seen as an entirely logical reception of a type of narration founded on the image.

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Bessière, Jean. “Henry James: théâtre-roman”, Revue de Littérature Comparée, 57: 3, juillet-septembre 1983, 315-28.

Blanchot, Maurice. L’Espace littéraire, Paris: Gallimard, “Folio/Essais”, 1955.

Bouraoui, H. A. “Henry James’s The Sacred Fount: Nouveau Roman avant la Lettre ?” International Fiction Review, vol. 1, n° 2, juillet 1974, 96-105.

Duras, Marguerite. Théâtre III, Paris, Gallimard, 1984.

James, Henry. “The Grosvenor Gallery and the Royal Academy”. First published anonymously in The Nation, 31st May 1877, p. 320-321. Reprinted in The Painter's Eye, op. cit. under the title “The Picture Season in London”, 130-51.

——. Henry James: Essays on Art and Drama. Peter Rawlings, ed. Aldershot: Scolar, 1996.

——. Parisian Sketches: Letters to the New York Tribune, 1875-1876. Leon Edel and Ilse Dusoir Lind eds. London: Rupert-Davis, 1958.

——. The Beast in the Jungle / La bête dans la jungle. 1903. Paris: Flammarion, 2004. Présentation Julie Wolkenstein, traduction Jean Pavans.

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1 La Bête dans la jungle adapted from Henry James’s story, The Beast in the Jungle by Marguerite Duras and James Lord and first performed at the Théâtre de l’Athénée in October 1962. In Marguerite Duras, Théâtre III, Paris, Gallimard, 1984, tableau I, (18-19).

2  William Rose Benét, underlines the divergent narrative approaches of the writers associated with this movement: “Both Sarraute and Simon scrutinize the consciousness of their characters, but, while the former depicts an elaborately lucid state of mind, the latter creates a deliberately distorted, depersonalized point of view. Robbe-Grillet excels at descriptions of objects seen through the sometimes disordered impressions of an anonymous narrator; Butor animates identifiable characters with dense ambiguities of thought set in constant counterpoint between past and present. Mauriac’s telescoping and overlapping sequences and Duras’s neutral impressionistic style offer further contrasts in techniques.” The Reader’s Encyclopedia. (Fourth Edition, London: A&C Black, 1998. Harper Collins, 1948. 739).

3  Sartre claims that surrealism only led to the confusion of conscious and unconscious, dream and reality in order to dissolve subjectivity and escape self-awareness (cf. 183 ff.).

4  In his criticism of automatic writing, Blanchot claims that the subject is utterly powerless: “En lui, je ne puis rien et “je” ne parle jamais” (236).

5  James’s art criticism may be consulted in the following editions: Henry James: Essays on Art and Drama (ed. Peter Rawlings); Parisian Sketches: Letters to the New York Tribune, 1875-1876 (ed. Leon Edel and Ilse Dusoir Lind) and The Painter's Eye (ed. John L. Sweeney).

6  “James can still feel a great value in the scrupulous depiction of the real — the "look of things" — colours, expressions, surfaces. Re-presentation is not — not yet anyway — problematic for him.” (“James peut encore affecter une grande valeur au fait de dépeindre scrupuleusement le réel — “l'apparence des choses" — les couleurs, les expressions, les surfaces. La re-présentation ne lui semble pas — pas encore en tout cas — problématique”) (Tanner 9).

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Micéala SYMINGTON, « From Realist to “Avant-garde”: Henry James in France », E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 9, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 09 août 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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