THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
WHAT should you say Mr. Henry James had done in his latest novel? If you should say: “Mr. James has reduced the English language to a fine spray, in which, as we gaze at it, the delicate colors and patterns gradually appear to our delighted eyes, as he intended they should ” — how right you would be! Yet you would miss the point, the particular secret experiment which it has pleased Mr. James’s virtuosity to perform this time. Nothing in literature has been more familiar to us — has it ? — than to meet an ancient story told afresh; Marlowe wrote no final Faust, Hans Sachs no final Tristan ; only consider the dynasty of interpreters of Orpheus !
Mr. James has chosen, not Orpheus or Faust, but another tale of equal fame and plasticity. Like them evolved in preDarwinian days, this old fable deals like them in the supernatural, and winds up with a moral. In fitting it to the humor of our post-Darwinian age, Mr. James has, of course, been obliged to dispense with the supernatural and get rid of the moral; and in rising buoyantly to this emergency he has added a new version to those already given to us by Molière, Dumas, Byron, Mérimée, and others of less renown. He has (to begin with) shifted the original centre of gravity and changed it to a centre of levity. He does not disclose his plan to us; that were too grossly direct; and although his title grows straight from the old Spanish legend, it sprouts precisely from the reverse side of it. In shifting the centre of gravity — But let us state Mr. James’s story in its simplest terms, let us get at the central pith.
By various shocked and virtuous persons, male and female, a young libertine is followed to his halls of luxury and besought to mend his ways. Chief among his exhorters is an old gentleman, a family friend. The youth, than whom none could be more polished, more abundantly tactful, persists in his path of pleasure. He is agreeable to all his exhorters, he invites the old gentleman to supper, and the old gentleman comes. . . .
It is here that Mr. James’s shifting of the centre of gravity produces a version so novel, yet, in a post-Darwinian age, so inevitable. His predecessors have made the youth their hero: it is the case of the old gentleman that occupies Mr. James. He is the hero of the Ambassadors.
It has pleased Mr. James (with subcutaneous mirth) to echo here and there some of the voices of da Ponte’s and Mozart’s version; and from these reminiscences there exhales an irony comparable only to some of the libretti which Meilhac and Halévy wrote for Offenbach. You will remember in the Ambassadors the trio of virtuous exhorters, Sarah, Mamie, and Jim, the family connections and the neglected sweetheart, who come from Massachusetts to beg the Parisianized Chad to return to Puritanism and manufacturing : who are they but Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio? You will remember Don Giovanni’s faithful servant Leporello: who is little Bilham but Leporello, forever lying for his master, arranging entertainments, shielding elopements ? We can almost hear little Bilham between the lines singing: —
“ Madamina, il catalogo è questo,
Delle belle che amò il padron mio.”
And though Zerlina and Mazetto have no place in Mr. James’s scheme, Madame de Vionnet stands accurately for one of those many
catalogued by Leporello; she even pathetically foresees that Don Juan Chad will tire of her; it is the passage in the Ambassadors where Mr. James most nearly discloses his work to us.
Yes; thus specifically, indeed, does Mr. James symbolize the main characters of Mozart’s piece; and the old gentleman, the chief exhorter, is the best of it all. The story, with Mr. James’s treatment, becomes his adventure, not Don Juan’s, and through him we reach the new interpretation of the legend. In the legend’s original form he is known as the Commendatore, he is killed early by Don Juan, and reappears at the final supper to exhort the libertine once more; and being defied, he takes him to fiery punishment forever.
Now, ghosts and fiery punishments will not do in a modern novel about Americans in Paris: you must symbolize your ghost somehow — and Mr. James does it. Throughout the Ambassadors, Strether walks and talks as if he had never lived. The art of fiction has drawn no character more explicitly extinct, more consummately inanimate, more vividly dead, than poor old Strether. This hapless postDarwinian ghost, who can’t be supernatural and can’t remove libertines to fiery punishment, — how is he to stop a rich, imperturbable young American, who prefers Paris and countesses to Massachusetts and manufacturing ?
Why, he simply does n’t! and there is where Mr. James from his centre of levity makes new the fable of Don Juan. Strether comes, sees, and is conquered. He finds Chad much improved in looks and manners, he meets the exquisite countess, he basks in the civilization of Paris, his bleak Massachusetts bones are comforted, he eats the supper, he drinks the wine, and he finds it all so much more charming than manufactures, that he not only adjures Don Juan Chad to keep on, but he can scarcely bear to go away himself!
I do not invite you to think that Mr. James has pointed a moral; but he has certainly adorned a tale.