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Vol. LXIII, No. 10
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
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He Always Had Paris: Labyrinth Books Presents a Conversation About Henry James

Ellen Gilbert

Saying that he was tired of “new wave criticism,” author Peter Brooks described his quest for “a new way to do it.” The solution proved to be the book Henry James Goes to Paris, an examination of James’s year in Paris (1875 to 1876), and its consequences.

To mark the paperback release of the volume, Labyrinth Books recently hosted a conversation between Princeton University Assistant Professor of English Sophie Gee and Mr. Brooks, who is currently Princeton’s Mellon Visiting Professor. Ms. Gee referred to Mr. Brooks’s book as a novel on several occasions; he said he didn’t mind, but did note that the book, which he likened to a 19th century bildungsroman, “is true and thoroughly documented.” Amid much laughter he cautioned those who work on James not to “trust any of his biographers,” though he did not indicate whether that included him.

In her overview of the book, Ms. Gee described how the puritanical James, arriving from the relatively staid atmosphere of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was made uneasy by the literary and artistic scene he encountered on his arrival in Paris. The city was digging out from the devastation of the Franco-Prussian War, and republican France was being born. Thrown into what Mr. Brooks described as “an enormous period of ferment” in writing and painting, James, whose hero was Balzac, was genuinely discomfited by modernist writers like Flaubert and his circle. James didn’t just return to London after his year in Paris; he “fled,” according to Mr. Brooks.

His “evolution,” as Ms. Gee noted, had begun, however. Despite his apparent flight, James, who was interested in experimentation, had taken in the avant garde ideas, which reemerged in the 1890s during what Mr. Brooks described as his “most experimental phase.” Rejecting the authorial presence he used in the past, James showed more interest in the use of perspective, and in describing “how things were registered by some consciousness,” according to Mr. Brooks, who used The Golden Bowl as particular example of the author’s embrace of an “almost a Cubist way of perceiving things.”

In spite of these great strides, however, James “never quite broke out of his American puritanism,” according to Mr. Brooks, who offered several anecdotes that reflected James’s continued vacillation between embracing the edgier side of life, while clinging to traditional values. In one, he served as a liaison for a collector of erotica; in another, he recoiled as the art critic Roger Fry uncrated new paintings by artists like Gauguin, sent to London for a 1912 exhibition. Ms. Gee similarly noted that what she found perhaps most compelling was the “kind of contest” between James’s attachment to English novelists like Eliot, and French writers’ “surprising impact” on him.

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