Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets
Briunt Norton

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The American by Henry James: The New World vs. The Old World

An American businessman has made his fortune. He goes to Europe to get some culture and find a wife. In Paris he falls in love with a beautiful woman who is from a noble family that can trace its ancestry back to the tenth century. The novel tells how he wins her hand and why their union becomes impossible. She is from a very old noble family. She and her family reek of faded glory, lost power and poverty. Of course that is the relative poverty of a family with a country estate and a palace in Paris. The French Revolution and Napoleon removed such families from power but they do their best to keep a finger in by joining in Papal politics and wars.
Newman is so very American. He had almost no formal education. He is brevetted to brigadier during the Civil War. Then he traveled around the Western US working in many businesses. He finally made a large fortune in some kind manufacturing. Once he is financially comfortable he retires from business and goes to Europe to gain culture. Though he does not know precisely what that means: probably something connected with painting and the opera.
Newman also intends to find a wife while on the continent. The wife of one of his American friends went to school in France and has an old school chum she thinks will be a perfect match for Newman. And this begins Newman’s introduction to the de Bellegarde family. The family is not growing in money or power any longer. And they would not be too harmed by an infusion of cash and new blood from the American. But they are proud. It comes across that the prospective bride’s older brother, Urbain, and mother feel insulted that someone who once was involved in the manufacture of pots and pans would enter their drawing room and treat them as his equals. The younger brother, Valentin, mainly finds it amusing. Newman and Valentin end up becoming friends and companions.
Claire de Centre is not examined too closely. We learn her history: that she is a widow who had an unhappy marriage to an old man she could not bring herself to love. But she mainly remains a lovely and charming ideal. She is beautiful, educated, a dutiful child, graceful and a little bewitching. And there is never an aspersion cast upon her moral goodness.
There are two very similar subplots that tell the stories of women subjected to the carnal reality of Paris. These two women are poor but beautiful and amiable. One of them, Noemie Nioche, schemes to use her charms to become a woman kept by rich men. The other is an Italian who has had most of her money spent by an abusive husband and has fled to Paris to escape him. Valentin has become friendly with her, And he describes to Newman how he is going to enjoy watching her spend the last of her money and then descend into selling herself to survive.
Is this meant to equate in some manner the marriage of a French noblewoman to a rich foreigner to prostitution? That is how a member of that dying French nobility would likely have seen it. There is some indication that this is the case from the way Claire’s mother and older brother treat Newman. They are superficially polite but he is always reminded that he is an outsider. Then after some time as Claire’s fiancé and the Bellegarde family giving a large reception full of the old nobility Newman is told that the wedding will not take place.
Newman is outraged by being denied the bride that he had grown more fond of over time. He comes into the possession of information that is embarrassing to Claire’s mother and brother and plans to use it to blackmail them into letting the marriage proceed. But after a while he decides to release it and go on with his life.
I found the question of why Newman would give up so easily is the greatest mystery of the novel. The narration gives a partial explanation: “nursing a vengeance was, it must be confessed, a rather fatiguing process, it took a lot out of one.” But I found this less than completely satisfying. Newman can behave no differently. He and America represent a new start for the world and new ways of doing things. He cannot behave like a European nurturing grievances year after year and century after century because that would leave him no energy or time tobuild a new world. Also there is something much more compelling in a less than completely accessible Claire. She can serve as a symbol of the beauties of art, religion and culture in general. The European incarnation of these ideals can be seen and appreciated by the American but not fully possessed. If the American does what is necessary to fully possess Claire he ceases being an American and turns into just another petty middle class European.
I would not recommend this book for others to read. But my opinion on this must be severely discounted since I think my temperament makes it inevitable that little of what James writes will appeal to me. I find no fault in it as a work of art. The characters are well drawn and unfold logically. Nothing is wrong with the plot. But someone trying to decide if it is worth their time should consult someone more sympathetic to Henry James.

No comments:

Post a Comment